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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
August 11, 2003

War on Terrorism in Southeast Asia

Takashi SHIRAISHI (Professor, Kyoto University)

Emergence of Islam-ism in Asia

Since the 9/11 incident in the U.S., Southeast Asian countries—particularly the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia—have become a "battlefield" for the U.S. to fight terrorism. Working with U.S. military forces those Asian governments are targeting the groups of Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah as the "enemies" in terrorism, where those groups seem to believe in the ideology of Islam fundamentalism or "Islam-ism," using terrorist tactics to seek the establishment of a Muslim nation to be governed by Islamic laws.

It should be pointed out, however, that the stance of the US and its war against those terrorist groups differs from country to country, depending on their domestic political dynamism. Although Islam-ism has emerged in a global trend of Islamic revival, the degree of its influence depends on each country's condition, particularly the degree of success in nation-building, where nation-building means that the state becomes able to secure common justice and offer minimum required civil service so that people may accept their state as "our citizens' nation."

In those countries that have failed in nation-building, people tend to seek an alternative to citizenship as an organizing principle for the state, economy and society. Islam-ism can offer such a principle. In those countries many state projects have gone bankrupt, and as a result people may easily turn their hostility to others, especially Americans, in order to seek national identity.

Differences among Southeast Asian Countries

In Malaysia, nation-building has been progressing relatively smoothly. Malaysia is a country of mixed races, consisting of Malay (55.5%), Chinese (34.1%) and Indian (9.0%), and its utmost political agenda has been to maintain "ethnic peace" among different racial groups and to avoid recurrence of the clash between Malay and Chinese groups in 1945-46 and the "racial riot" in 1969. The Malaysian government under the leadership of the ruling party, UMNO, has succeeded to a certain degree in achieving this objective, as the economy has been developing with its benefit shared by many citizens, and not a single racial riot for the last three decades.

Under this condition there is little room for Islam-ism, especially radical fundamentalist groups, to penetrate in the country. Many Malaysians accept their nation as legitimate and can express their will according to the rules of free elections in politics. Since the 9/11 incident the Malaysian government has been trying to suppress Islam-ism, but that has not lead to any anti-government movement. Rather, the anti-American stance of the Malaysian government has strengthened popular support for the government.

The situation in the Philippines and Indonesia is different from that in Malaysia, however. In those two countries, nation-building has not been progressing as smoothly as in Malaysia. At the same time, problems in the Philippines and problems in Indonesia differ. The Philippines' failure in nation-building has been symbolized by the collapse of the politico-economic system in the Southern part of the country, the trial and error in political and social reorganization in the Moro region and the emergence of Islamic anti-government groups within the country. However, the central government in Manila has regarded these phenomena as merely local problems and has been successful in working with the U.S. in dealing with these problems since the 9/11 incident.

On the other hand, since the end of the Suharto regime the failure of nation-building in Indonesia has lead to various "direct actions" on the national level, including anti-American terrorism. Under this condition Islam-ism is offering a serious alternative principle to the civil nation and increasing its influence over the large Muslim population. In other words, the proliferation of Islam-ism and anti-Americanism are both rooted in the crisis of the nation's legitimacy.

Lessons for Japan

As we have seen above, in Southeast Asia the stance towards the U.S. and its war against terrorism differs from country to country. This is partly because Southeast Asian countries have been facing somewhat different opportunities and problems from each other with regard to their relations with the U.S. in the post-war period. In particular, that is the case with their relations with the U.S. since the 9/11 incident. Their stance in this regard is closely intertwined with their political dynamism. Therefore, it is important for Japan to understand the complex realities of Southeast Asian countries in developing closer relations with these countries from strategic, political and economic standpoints in the post-9/11 era.

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