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APAPAsia Pacific Agenda Project

Seventh Forum: Siem Reap, Cambodia
February 26-28, 2002

Summary Report

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Session I: Asia Pacific and Global Order after September 11—Islamic Factors and Indonesian Perspective

1. Presentations

Farish Noor

Dr. Farish Noor's presentation focused on the new religio-political geography after 9-11 in the ASEAN nations and Malaysia in particular. Reports in the Western press about Southeast Asia claim the region to be a potential breeding ground for "Axis of Evil" type governments and groups. In his analysis of developments in Malaysia after this event, Dr. Noor analyzed the globalization versus localization of the events, in which a local event—the terrorist attacks in the US—took on global proportions and had significant impact on localities in other parts of the world, such as Malaysia. In Malaysia prior to 9-11, the Islamic PAS party was threatening to take over control from the UMNO-led Mahathir administration, but after 9-11, PAS supported the Taliban's call for Jihad. PAS was then no longer able to muster political support and Mahathir's administration successfully took back control by placating the fears of the general public by insisting their "modern" brand of Islam would not allow itself to be hijacked by "extremist" elements. UMNO and Mahathir thus successfully reinvented themselves domestically and internationally, presenting the government as the new, progressive face of Islam. These events illustrated how local politics can be controlled by and react to outside factors. Dr. Noor emphasized that 9-11 came at a time when the Muslim world is in a crisis, putting pressure on Muslim governments to respond at a time when local factors can inhibit government choices.

Dr. Noor's observations were twofold. First, 9-11 and the aftermath events were mediated through media narratives rather than concrete political analysis, resulting in reports being cultural rhetoric and making concrete political analysis impossible. In addition, the 9-11 chain of events suggest a crisis in Islam, with the proliferation of ready-made militant discourses that can be utilized by anyone to suit their own needs and reinvent themselves as warriors of God. What Muslim countries are now faced with is how to control these discourses without seeming repressive.

According to Dr. Noor's analysis, 9-11 underscored how globalized our world is, as an event far away can affect other vulnerable localities, bringing into focus the difficulty of regulating the effects of globalization. In addition, the temporal boundaries of history have collapsed with the resurgence of terms from centuries ago, such as crusade and jihad. However, Dr. Noor hoped that globalization has the positive affect of allowing the creation of networks to discuss the soul of Islam and more moderate forms of Islam.

Rizal Sukma

Dr. Rizal Sukma spoke on domestic reactions and implications in Indonesia after the 9-11 attacks. He discussed the Indonesian government position and the debate within the Islamic community in Indonesia. President Megawati initially condemned the 9-11 attack, but problems with this stance became apparent as the debate began, public anger surfaced, and pressure mounted from Islamic circles as Megawati's visit to the US loomed. The Megawati government was aware of the delicate balance of their position in the international community with domestic reactions. When Megawati announced support of the US war on terrorism, the US pledged financial aid in return for the support. However, this was met with skepticism in Indonesia by radical Islamic circles and the public was angered, resulting in mass demonstrations against the US in several cities. As the protests intensified, Megawati bowed to pressure and revised her position to issue criticisms of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan. However, the following day Megawati instructed the police to disperse anti-American demonstrators with excessive force, thus sending the message clearly that the government would not tolerate threats to domestic order and Indonesia's international reputation. However, to some the changing statements of the Megawati government appeared hypocritical, condemning the US military actions on the one hand and stepping up the war in Aceh on the other.

Within the Indonesian Islamic community itself, the voices of the radicals were widely quoted by the press while the voices of moderates—despite the fact that several statements were released by mainstream Islamic organizations—were not publicized in the media. Thus, the image created by media coverage failed to capture the broad debate and diversity within Indonesia's Muslim community. Moderate leaders met in January 2002 to pursue a common agenda in addressing serious challenges facing the Muslim community and to stress the importance of an Asian Muslim perspective rather than an Arab-led discussion. Dr. Sukma hoped that Asian Muslims could help to educate their Arab counterparts.

Regarding the response to terrorism, Dr. Sukma argued that the US war on Afghanistan resulted in the first serious challenge to Megawati's government. This exposed the vulnerability of Megawati to national issues and the importance of the Islamic factor in domestic politics. He also felt that the Megawati government proved to be weak during the post September 11 events, as the administration was unable to enforce the law and made policy decisions dependent on support of Islamic groups. Memories of the negative outcomes of the use of force by Suharto against Islamic groups in the past may have restrained Megawati's actions, as she may fear being seen as resurrecting tyrannical Suharto ways. Dr. Sukma argued that during the events following 9-11 proved the Megawati administration's failure to differentiate lawlessness and democracy. Yet, the Islamic community showed a more encouraging trend as the moderate voices have returned to the fore, indicating that Indonesia will remain a representative of moderate Islamic nation.

2. Summary of Discussion

It was asserted that there are two positive elements of 9-11 for Islam, particularly in Indonesia. First, the debate on Islam has begun, which is critical because it assures that radicals don't take over the discourse. Second, mainstream Muslim groups realize that they must take back he Muslim religion.

The nature of the "soul of Islam" was discussed as well as where the leadership is in the Muslim community to examine this soul. It was felt that the search for the soul of Islam is tied to the concept of political Islam that is being grappled with presently in several countries. The search for the soul of Islam is a search of how to redefine Islam and alter the expression of Islam through open discussions. Defining the soul of Islam requires defining how religious rules translate to rules in daily life. Regarding leadership, there is no clergy in Islam, so leadership must come from society and not from any centralized authority. Some felt that the absence of a single leader is also a strength, because leadership can take the form of ideas or institutions.

Regarding the domestic Muslim situation in Philippines, it was argued that the grievances of Muslims in Philippines have been addressed and that the situation is under control. Whether there is an awareness or caution about the increased US military presence in Philippines was debated, and some felt that the US troop presence in Philippines will be seen by Islamic parties in the region as the US extending its control over the region.

In the Malaysian case, the meaning of "Islamisation of the state" was considered; does Islamisation mean decorum, social rules, or economic policies? A panelist replied that Islamisation in Malaysia has simply resulted in low-level policy changes and cosmetic reforms, such as gender segregated public spaces.

The nature of differences among various radical groups in Indonesian was addressed. It was emphasized that radical Muslim groups are not necessarily terrorists because their concerns are different. Some radical groups aim to put Islamic law into legislation, others are concerned with moral issues, and others are simply involved in the political power struggle agenda. The question of whether President Megawati could have performed better in the situation was risen. Some felt Megawati could have performed better by consulting moderate Muslim leaders, but that her fear of going through informal channels prevented her from pursuing such consultations.

One participant asked the presenters to look beyond domestic situations and consider the regional picture and ASEAN as a whole. It was pointed out that ASEAN includes both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, and questioned whether ASEAN will be strengthened or weakened after 9-11. A panelist conjectured that ASEAN is affected because 9-11 has changed local politics. However, this panelist felt that the time for ASEAN to redefine itself is not through the 9-11 issue. It was also noted that 9-11 has created more challenges for ASEAN and shows the fragile arrangement of the organization.

Regarding terrorism, two types of regional terrorism—one directed towards the US and the other being internal struggle—were differentiated. It was argued that Osama bin Laden is taken as a metaphor, and that local groups latch onto this global, anti-US cause to bring global conflict down to a local level. For example, in Malaysia PAS saw itself being suppressed by the Mahathir government as a metaphor for Osama suffering under the US. Thus, internal groups hijack a global cause. It was argued that it might be increasingly difficult to differentiate between terrorism and legitimate self-determination movements in the region.

Although many had made assumption that the world has changed after 9-11, it was argued that changes may be superficial and continuities structural. After 9-11, some saw the world as comparable to the bipolar world of the Cold War period, yet now the world is split between those with the US and those against the US as the US is waging a moral war by the good versus the so-called Axis of Evil.

However, others pointed out that the current situation couldn't be compared to the Cold War because there is no major power that threatens US global dominance and because the actors are not limited to states.

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