Terrorism has not just gripped the globe – discussion on this seemingly all-encompassing phenomenon tends to dominate not just the print media and television – but the world of books. If you pick up a western or Indian newspaper these days, it’s quite possible that three out of five reports are related to terrorism. There’s a huge amount of information pouring into households on the menace, but how much of it is authentic and based on fact? Most writing on the phenomenon is dominated by retired spooks, who would have otherwise led reasonable boring, superannuated lives. Whether it is a police investigation or an editorial page article, there’s a need to demand more “facts” in the writing on terrorism. Turning to the book under discussion, a collection of papers for a seminar organized by the Observer Research Foundation, one can see the collection has some authentic insights into the operation of some new terrorist outfits in Southeast Asia.
At a conceptual level, Surat Horachaikul highlights the dangers of explaining away complex issues by simply labelling them as terrorist-related.“Far worse than anything else, September 11 has begun simplistically converting many countries’ historically complicated problems, which are ethnic, political, or socio-economic in nature and often resulting in groups demanding separatism into acts of terrorism, especially if the groups involved in the conflicts or those pursuing acts of separatism are people who believe in Islam,” Surat writes.
Whether it is the separatist, nationalist strands in the southern Philippines or in Thailand, all these groups now tend to be coloured by the broad brush of terrorism. In my view, by simplifying everything into terrorism, we have complicated the search for solutions. In actual fact, the law-and-order approach to complex issues simply doesn’t work. Political accommodation – or facilitating the entry of these groups into democratic politics – remains the only sure method of ensuring peace and stability in any part of the world.
Bilveer Singh in his paper on the Jemaah Islamiyah correctly points to the links with Afghanistan – the fact that many JI activists were veterans of the Afghan war – who then turned their attention to “nationalist” causes after the end of the CIA-sponsored, Pakistan-run “jehad” against the Soviet Union in 1989.One can, however, join issue with Singh’s contention that Southeast Asia is “particularly prone” to Islamic-oriented terrorism for a number of reasons, including his statement of fact that there is a sizable presence of Muslims in the region. That is like saying that there will be a group like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) just because there are large minorities of Tamils in different parts of the world.
There is an inherent danger in approaching the issue of terrorism from the point of view of community or religion – in the present case by Muslims or Islam. In fact, the Al-Qaeda and other associated groups want this kind of response so that their claims to representing an internationalist, political Islam are strengthened. According to Jose T. Almonte, terrorism cannot be erased, but could be made irrelevant. “The global community’s campaign against terrorism is liable to be a war without end. Instead of being swift and surgical, it is liable to be protracted, brutal and complex,” he writes.
In Almonte’s view, Islamism is a rebellion of the excluded – a rebellion that feeds on the unfulfilled longings and desires of impoverished peoples living on the margins of an unattainable consumerist world. “These frustrations can be eased by creating a more just world,” he adds. V. Suryanarayan rightly points out that the Bali bombings of October 12, 2002, changed the perception of the Southeast Asian region for the rest of the world. Westerners were the obvious targets. Presenting the big picture, Suryanarayan argues that interstate boundaries in Southeast Asia were “imperialist creations” and tended to follow a colonially inspired pattern of demarcation for reasons of administrative convenience.
“Instead of uniting people who belong to the same ethnic group, speak the same language and follow the same religion, these boundaries have tended to divide them,” he says.
At the end of his essay, Suryanarayan quotes Bambang Harymurti, editor of the respected Tempo magazine approvingly, “If Indonesia is to grow into a more mature and modern nation, it must successfully come to grips with the four key issues – the politics of Islam, the political role of the military, ethnic Chinese domination of the economy and tensions between the centre and the periphery …”.
According to Harymurti, if Indonesia succeeds in meeting these challenges, then it would become the world’s third largest democracy and the largest democracy in the “Muslim” world. If it fails, then there is a real danger of the country splintering into small units. There’s little doubt that Indonesia, the largest and most important nation in Southeast Asia, holds the key to peace and progress in that part of the world. With an estimated population of 245 million, Indonesia is central to Southeast Asian politics. While security agencies must do everything in their power to nab individuals and neuter terrorist groups, the fact is that larger political and societal trends will dictate the direction that Indonesia will take.
Indonesia, much like India, is a multi-religious nation, which has strong traditions of tolerance and integration. Still coming out of the shackles of the Suharto era, Indonesia remains a beacon of hope for secular values; care must be taken to nurture and propagate these values.To make terrorism “irrelevant”, as Almonte suggests, the world will have to do much more to win the battle of ideas in an increasingly paranoid world, where being Muslim makes you a terrorist suspect. In the current “war on terrorism”, Iraq provides a daily, ghastly example of how the largest superpower in the world is producing suicide bombers on a magnitude never before witnessed in the modern world.
Modern publicity techniques have ensured that Iraq is off the front pages, but along with the Palestinian question, remains the most potent weapon of Islamist terrorists who point to the lack of justice for the Palestinians and the brazen, one-sided support extended by the United States to Israel. I believe that justice for the Palestinians will remove the most potent Islamist cause that political Islam possesses. The creation of a “real” Palestinian State will do more for peace in the world than all the spending and mayhem in the name of the war on terror.
Amit Baruah is a Diplomatic Correspondent and Senior Assistant Editor, The Hindu.