The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) Phenomenon in Singapore

By Desker, Barry | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) Phenomenon in Singapore


Desker, Barry, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction

The exposure of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network in Singapore and the region, coming in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the 12 October 2002 Bali bombing, may have led some to think that Islamic radicalism in Southeast Asia is a sudden and recent phenomenon. In reality, it has been in the making for more than 20 years; its roots originate in events in the Middle East, the effects of which have reverberated worldwide. This in turn was facilitated by the impact of globalization and technological advancement. However, the catalytic role played by Al-Qaeda, especially since the early 1990s, is perhaps the single most significant factor in the globalized terrorist threat confronting the world today.

The potency of Al-Qaeda rests in its ability to channel the Islamic forces it inspires. More than any other leader before him, Osama bin Laden has been able to unify radical Islam and to focus its rage. However, Osama's success must be seen in the context of two parallel historical developments--namely, the polarization of Islamic extremist forces coinciding with a broader current of increasing religious orthodoxy and the politicization of the ummah (Islamic community) throughout the world. These phenomena have been going on for more than the last 20 years.

The current wave of Islamic revivalism and the increase in Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East can be traced back to the 1970s. (1) The repeated failure of Western modernization to deliver the promised social and economic improvement in Muslim-dominant countries and the continuance of regimes perceived as corrupt and oppressive, alienated the Muslim populace, especially the young. The rejection of Western notions of nationalism or socialism led to a return to traditional, conservative, Islam and a revival of political activism based on the ideas of Islamist thinkers like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. (2) While al-Banna advocated a gradual evolution towards more pristine forms of Islam, to be brought about by education and grassroots involvement, Qutb insisted upon an immediate struggle against the ruling regimes, which he condemned as "un-Islamic." (3) Qutb's ideas polarized Muslim communities and paved the way for the radicalization of Islamist movements worldwide. Islamic activists dissatisfied with the slow progress of political reforms called for the adoption of jihad, or holy war, as the only viable method for revolutionary social and political change.

Middle East Conflict

The perennial tensions in the Middle East centred round the Israeli-Palestinian issue, since the establishment of Israel in 1948, have also contributed to the global Islamic revivalism and the surge in Islamist activism. These tensions have given birth to numerous militant and terrorist groups, such as the Hezbollah, HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose common enemy is Israel. Second, the U.S. policy to support Israel has played a major role in polarizing the Muslim world away from the U.S.-Israeli axis. Anti-American sentiment has been festering over the years initially among the Arab community, but these have spread across the Islamic world. In Southeast Asia, for example, politically active Muslims have kept abreast of the conflict in the Middle East through reports in the mass media and the Internet. Several of the Singapore JI detainees have said that they felt a keen affinity with their fellow-Muslims in Palestine, having followed Middle Eastern developments by television and the World Wide Web.

Consequently, the widespread awareness of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East has generated greater polarization among Southeast Asian Muslims. Some have chosen more radical paths by directly joining in the activities of the militant and terrorist groups. In Singapore, for example, a few Singaporeans consciously associated with Hezbollah elements in the early 1990s and even took the bai'ah (oath of allegiance) to the organization, but stopped just shy of involvement in military operations. …

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