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Islam Around the World, Session 4: Islam in Southeast Asia

Speakers: Marie Huhtala, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Department of State, and Zachary Abuza, senior fellow, United States Institute of Peace; associate professor, Simmons College
Presider: Calvin Sims, editorial producer and anchor, New York Times Television
February 8, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

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Washington, DC


[Note: the transcript begins in progress.]

CALVIN SIMS: …Council on Foreign Relations and to this session on political Islam in Southeast Asia. [Inaudible] I’m Calvin Sims. I’m with The New York Times, and I’ll be moderating this program this evening.

As I understand it, this is the fourth in a series that the Council is sponsoring on “Islam Around the World.” And at the outset, I’d like to ask everyone in the audience to please silence your cell phones and to remind you that unlike other Council events, this session is on the record. So the comments made here can be used outside of this room and attributed to those who actually make them.

We are privileged today to have two experts on the subject of political Islam: Ambassador Marie Huhtala, who is the deputy assistant secretary for East Asia studies and Pacific affairs at the State Department, and a former ambassador to Malaysia; and also Zachary Abuza, who is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. We’ll start this session with a brief discussion between the three of us for about 25 minutes, and then we will open it up to the audience for questions.

So I’d like to start off with the first question. When we talk about Islam in Southeast Asia, I thought, Zachary, you could give us a sense of how the practice of Islam is different in Southeast Asia as compared to what most people think of Islam in the Middle East.

ZACHARY ABUZA: Islam in Southeast Asia has always been characterized as pluralistic, tolerant. It was brought to the region by Yemeni traders. It was not— you know, did not come there by horseback. Most of the Muslims there are Sufis, and they’ve been very tolerant towards the ethnic minorities. Islam was superimposed on a very rich indigenous culture throughout the region. Where we’re having the problems right now is just the growth— and it’s small, but the trajectory is clear— of Salafi/Wahhabi values into the region.

SIMS: I guess most people think of Islam in Southeast Asia— what put it on the map, was probably the Bali bombings in 2002. And ambassador, we had the sense that this region that had been fairly moderate in its practice was suddenly turning radical, that there had been an infiltration of more radical forces from the Middle East there. Has that continued? Has that played itself out? What has happened to this radicalism that we heard so much about?

MARIE HUHTALA: Well, I think, first of all, that was in a way sort of a misunderstanding of the reality on the ground. It remains true that the vast majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia are tolerant, non-radicalized. They believe in democracy, they live in multiethnic societies, and they’re comfortable in doing that. You have a tiny radical element, primarily in Indonesia but also in southern Philippines and in Malaysia and possibly in southern Thailand, now. But this is a very, very small subset of the universe of Muslims in Southeast Asia.

Of course, it’s very dramatic when you have a horrific terrorist attack, like what happened in Bali and then the subsequent attacks in Jakarta at the Marriott and the Australian embassy. But believe me, they do not speak for the vast majority of Muslims in the region.

SIMS: It seems, though, that their voices sort of resonate pretty far and wide. Why is that the case? Is it just because they get a lot of attention, or are they gaining in membership? Are Muslims in Indonesia starting to listen to them, and in Thailand and in the Philippines?

HUHTALA: I really don’t have that sense. I think it is true that since the Iranian revolution of 1979 you have a growing sense of Islamic identity among the peoples who are Islamic in Southeast Asia. You see more people covering— more women covering their heads. You see more outward signs of religious observance. But again, this is not at all the same thing as turning to terrorism. Jemaah Islamiyah [JI], which we believe is behind these terrorist activities, has links to al Qaeda, and they represent a particularly violent strain of Islam.

SIMS: Why exactly has there been a sort of resurgence in the practice of Islam, if we can call it that, in Southeast Asia? Has there been that? And why?

ABUZA: There has, I mean, by, as Ambassador Huhtala said, a growing sense of piety amongst Muslims and greater— if you look at some of the public opinion polling that’s taken place in the past three, four years, greater identification with the Muslim world. We’ve always tended to view Southeast Asia as the Islamic periphery, and the radicals in the region are seeking to identify themselves much more within the Muslim mainstream. Whether it’s covering for people going on hajj, the teaching of Arabic, all these things are up, and the identification is clear.

SIMS: Is some of this increased identification with Islam— is some of this due in part to the lack of security in the region, the lack of sort of democracy actually consolidating, and people looking for something to actually hold on to that seems to be fixed?

ABUZA: Well, when I was looking at the spread of radical Islam, the thing that tripped me up was, there was no one single reason. And in fact, if you looked at different countries, you could say it emerged for different reasons. In Malaysia, you could make the case that it emerged because there was a lack of democracy, and so people were forced into underground cells to study, to proselytize. In Indonesia, what’s made so much of the Islamic revival possible has been democracy, and it has been the spread of a free press.

HUHTALA: Yeah.

ABUZA: The number-one-selling news weekly in Indonesia is a Wahhabi magazine, Sabili. This has come out of nowhere. In Thailand, you could make the case that you do have a democracy there, but heavy-handed government response is the reason for the unrest. So, I don’t think there’s any reason— security is one; democracy is another— lack of it.

SIMS: So, given the number of Muslims that there are in this region— the highest number in the world, actually, being in Indonesia— what sort of policy has the U.S. government taken toward Islam? And that’s always an interesting question for me, that a government would actually make a policy toward a religion. Is that the first time this has happened, and what is the government’s policy?

HUHTALA: We actually don’t have a policy towards Islam per se, I think, anywhere in the world, although we are very much increasing our efforts to reach out to Islamic publics around the world.

In Southeast Asia, we have developed policies with regard to the individual countries that take into account the fact that you have a very large Islamic presence there, and that these are people who are basically multiethnic, tolerant, multicultural, and have the same aspirations as everyone else does. And particularly in Indonesia, which is the country with the largest single Muslim population in the world— do I have that right?--is the largest Muslim-majority state— yeah, you always have to think about India when you make these statements. [Laughter] But in the case of Indonesia, the key problems have to do with economic development, as well as democratization, and the need for better education, for instance. So those are areas that we have focused on over the years, and particularly in the last five years, with the president’s initiative for education assistance in Indonesia.

SIMS: And how successful would you say these policies have been and in particular, I mean, engaging the sort of more moderate aspects? You’ve got two of the largest Islamic organizations in the world in Indonesia, and what has been the sort of policy toward these organizations? Are you reaching out to them?

HUHTALA: We do. We do engage them quite frequently, very often in the form of our ambassador to Indonesia, you know, doing events with them and speaking with them.

I think it’s only honest to say that in the past few years, the Islamic publics in Southeast Asia have been critical of our policies elsewhere, particularly with regard to Israel/Palestine, and in the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And because of that— you know, I remember when I was in Malaysia, I had to spend a lot of time explaining and justifying what we were doing in other parts of the region. So there is that strong element to the relationship. But if you can get these people to talk about what we’re doing in their part of the world, there’s not a lot of contention there. You know, I think they do really appreciate the efforts that we’re making to bring assistance flows in, to bring in speakers, to help them study in the United States, and all the— there are many different ways that we’ve tried to engage with them.

SIMS: But these efforts, as you’re saying, are often undermined by events in the Middle East or our policy in the Middle East, or not?

HUHTALA: I wouldn’t say undermined. I would say that we have a rich dialogue with these people. And very often, they want to talk about things that have nothing to do with their region, and that’s fine. You know, I always welcomed it as an opportunity to explain why we were doing what we were doing. It’s a little hard when you’re doing it from thousands of miles away to be sure you know— you know why we’re doing what we’re doing.

But it’s just— I think— these are sophisticated people. We can’t go in there and just talk about their problems in Indonesia, for instance, when they’re very focused on what’s happening in Iraq. We owe them a complete explanation of what our goals and objectives are there. And our embassies do try to provide that.

SIMS: How do you see this situation with sort of balancing— trying to have a decent rapport with this moderate, secular, for [the] most part, Muslim population, and your policies— the U.S. policies in the Middle East?

ABUZA: This is a very sensitive issue. And if I can indulge you in a story, I remember going and speaking to the adviser— foreign policy adviser to the Malaysian prime minister a few years ago. And you know, he just wanted everything to focus on Israel and Palestine and state-sponsored terrorism. And I said to him, you know, “I am unabashedly pro-Israeli, and to that end, I do not believe that Israel can exist without an independent, viable Palestinian state living side by side.” And he kind of threw up his hands and said, “How come I never hear that from U.S. government officials?” And then, of course, the penny dropped. And it’s like, if this isn’t getting through to the elites in society, it’s certainly not getting through to the masses.

And I’m very concerned about things like the Al Jazeera effect. They do show it in the region. In Malaysia, it’s dubbed. But just the visuals that you get on this— in Indonesia, during the Gulf War, the second Gulf War, Al Jazeera wanted to make inroads. Now you could say it was simply a marketing ploy. This is the largest Muslim country in the world. There are ad revenues to be made. But very few Indonesians have satellite dishes, and so they simply bought time on Indonesian networks. So it was going through. And so we tend to be undermined that way.

The stuff about the Middle East is very sensitive. And you know, I’ve talked to members of the [traditionalist conservative Sunni group] Nahdlatul Ulama, and they’re often the people that we need and who provide the ideological counter to the [Osama] bin Ladens of the world and to JI. And yet they’re often surprising American officials by leading demonstrations in front of the embassy when we go in and— in Iraq and places like that. And it’s difficult. We— it’s not an easy balance.

HUHTALA: I would say that the understanding of America among Islamic publics in Southeast Asia is still very incomplete. They take a lot of what they get from other media, like Al Jazeera, with— absolutely uncritically. They tend to. If the official you mentioned was not aware that we had made a public statement in favor of the two-state solution in the Middle East, he wasn’t listening.

ABUZA: Yeah.

HUHTALA: I said it all the time, you know, that— Washington says it all the time. So there’s— part of that is that kind of—

ABUZA: That’s perception.

HUHTALA: Tunnel vision.

ABUZA: Yeah.

HUHTALA: Yeah. It’s frustrating sometimes.

SIMS: How effective are these programs that bring, for example, the heads of madrassas [Islamic schools] over to the United States and show them how Islam is practiced here—

HUHTALA: [Inaudible] Indonesia?

SIMS: Right.

HUHTALA: Yeah. This is a new program that we are doing, where we— it’s part of the educational initiative, and we are bringing the leaders of these— this network of schools in Indonesia, pesantrens, which people translated as the equivalent of madrassa, but it does not have that association of, you know, radical thinking. They’re just simply state-supported schools. And I think universally, when they do come over here and get to meet a lot of unofficial Americans and see what we’re about, I think it changes attitudes. That’s why we do it.

Also, we were— I don’t want to use the word “fortunate,” but we were able to demonstrate to the people of Indonesia and the region, and— there’s a whole facet of America that they had no conception of, when we moved in so quickly with the tsunami aid last month. They were, I think, quite amazed how quickly we mobilized and the huge outpouring of assistance. Private contributions to the tsunami relief in the United States effectively doubled the U.S. government [pledge of aid], which— the allocation was about $350 million. So far, more than 700 million [dollars] has been raised from people’s own pockets and from corporations. That was very impressive.

They saw this massive U.S. military might coming in to distribute aid. I think some of them were probably a little frightened by that. And now they have the spectacle of us leaving. You know, the relief phase is winding down, and all our forces are leaving. We’re not conquering Aceh. We’re not trying to control the Straits of Molocca. We’re not trying to Christianize their people. And I think this is a good demonstration [inaudible].

SIMS: There’s been also some talk about the increasing number of military in Indonesia who have converted and become real sort of serious about their practice of Islam, more so than in the past. How does that play out in a place like Aceh, where the military has been accused of human rights abuses? And yet the whole struggle has a sort of Islamic basis to it. It’s a little bit confusing in terms of what’s really going on there.

HUHTALA: Zach has studied this more than I have, but I would say it’s not really an Islamic-based struggle. It’s more a struggle for independence—

ABUZA: With the Acehnese.

HUHTALA: With historical overtones. Yeah.

ABUZA: I think that’s clear. What you’re referring to is often in Indonesia known as the “green generals,” the Islamists, and this really got started towards the tail end of the [former Indonesian President General] Suharto years [1967-98]. And there— Christians had disproportionate share of the power in the Indonesian military at the top echelons for many years. They were slowly purged as Suharto began to lose legitimacy amongst the people, and he started to court the Muslim clergy. And this was one of the preconditions that you start to get in the green generals.

They— in many ways, we’ve heard less about the green generals in the past couple years. But what has been alarming is that in the past few weeks, with the tsunami, the Indonesian military has brought up some very unsavory elements to Aceh to engage in relief work, and there are groups that have very clear, direct ties to Jemaah Islamiyah. I don’t know what the Indonesian military is thinking in this. I do worry not so much that it’s green generals, but are they simply trying to use the radicals to fight the Acehnese as proxy, as they have used radicals elsewhere?

HUHTALA: Although that has not happened.

ABUZA: It has not happened, so—

HUHTALA: And they are there ostensibly to provide relief aid, and that’s what they’ve been doing. But I agree it’s a subject of concern.

ABUZA: It is.

SIMS: The topic of this session is really political Islam, and when we talk about that subject, there had been a lot of concern, especially in the past elections, that the Islamic parties actually might get a big foothold. That clearly hasn’t happened.

HUHTALA: That’s right.

SIMS: Can you talk a little bit about what the outcome of that election means for the notion of the mix of politics and Islam in the region?

HUHTALA: We’ve actually had examples now in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past year, and in both cases the parties that were specifically identified with extremist religious views did not do well at the polls. I think this says a great deal about the desire of Southeast Asians in general for keeping democracy alive and having a stable, moderate approach to their politics.

Over and above that, let me just say that we were extremely pleased with the progress made in Indonesia the last year, where you had the parliamentary elections in which TNI [Indonesian military] no longer had a dedicated [inaudible] and then two rounds of direct presidential elections for the first time in Indonesia’s history, and it went extremely well. You know, you had free and fair elections. You know, of course everything is relative, but in the Indonesian context, it was extremely successful elections. And you have now a president with real legitimacy.

ABUZA: I have a somewhat slightly— in view of this— in many ways, the media did say that it was a loss for the Islamists. And if you looked at Malaysia, for example, before the election the Islamic party, PAS [Parti Islam Se Malaysia], controlled two of the 13 states. By the time the elections were over, they controlled one of the 13. But it was done only with exceptional gerrymandering, and I mean to the point that it would make a Texas Republican blush. And this— you know, when parties have to start to go down that road to ensure their electoral victories, it’s not very good. If you actually look at the absolute vote, PAS actually did better than they did in 1999, which tells me that a lot of the people who defected to them in 1999 have been held by them; they have not gone back to UMNO [United Malays National Organization].

In Indonesia, if you look at the Islamist parties, they did exceedingly well in the parliamentary elections. Most people estimated that they would poll where they did in the 1999 elections, at about 15 percent. They polled at 21 [percent]. That’s a pretty good increase. There was one party, the Justice— Prosperous Justice Party, that went from 1 percent to over 6 percent of the vote. That’s a 650 percent increase. They’re poised to grow by another 2 percent according to their leader, who was in town last week.

Now some people say, “Well, they did this by downplaying Islam, and they focused on anti-corruption issues and good governance issues.” But still, I think we have to hold these parties accountable and keep them to their pledge about not implementing sharia law [the body of Islamic law], and I think what they do— in the certain regions for the first time, some of these parties are going to be governing municipalities. I think we’ve got to watch very carefully what they do. The first test, of course, is going to be the issue of women, because when the Islamists are in power, the first things they do are start to legislate against women.

HUHTALA: But that’s not a trend we’ve seen in Southeast Asia yet. Touch wood and—

SIMS: That was going to be my question. Is there the real potential for sharia law to be implemented regionally?

HUHTALA: Well, you know, in Malaysia they already have sharia law for family law, for adoptions and marriages and divorces and all of that. They do not have it for their penal code, Hudud. They don’t cut off hands, although PAS has advocated that in their areas.

ABUZA: They have tried—

HUHTALA: They have tried.

ABUZA: And the federal government has—

HUHTALA: They tried knowing full well that the federal government would never allow it because it’s against the constitution, so it’s a free ride for them. They can say that they’re very pure, you know, Islamically, but they know that it will never be enacted. I don’t think there’s much appetite in Malaysia for really going down the road of Hudud. But in general, I think the position of women in these societies is much more elevated than we might think. And at first— I have to tell you, when I first got to Malaysia, I was a little taken aback by how many women were covered— covered their heads. And if they didn’t cover their head, they wore very voluminous, floor-length outfits. And I thought, “Gee, that doesn’t look very progressive.”

But then I saw that these women were cabinet ministers, they were heads of companies, they were parliamentarians. They were operating on an equal [level] with men in what was strictly a male domain, and they were extremely secure. And I finally came to realize that the Islamic dress is a protection. It’s a way for women to enter the workforce without anyone thinking that they have other reasons, they’re there just to snag men or something like that, or that they want to be sexual objects. And I got this idea first from an Indonesian woman who was in a very tight little headscarf. And if you look at it that way, then I think you can see that the position of women in this society, it’s not infallible, but it’s much better than it is, certainly, in the Middle East.

ABUZA: In Indonesia, there was a coalition of Islamist parties a few years ago that tried to push through something called the Jakarta Charter, that would enforce Islamic law for all Muslims, and it failed. They got under 20 percent of the vote. But what you’ve seen subsequently is a lot of the political Islamist parties are trying to insert Islamic portions of laws. And so there would be an Islamic section within the education bill or within the medical bill. There is a provision that all Muslims are entitled to have Muslim doctors. And so, instead of getting the salami, they’re going to get it a slice at a time. And I think this is what we have to watch over the long term.

HUHTALA: Although you can argue that these are primarily Muslim societies that may not necessarily be a threat to stability or good relations.

ABUZA: Right.

HUHTALA: I mean, if they want to organize their societies that way, it’s hard for us to say that that’s not appropriate.

SIMS: Let’s open it up now to some questions from the audience. And I just ask if you could try to ask an actual question or to make your statement in the form of your question. And please identify yourself. Sir?

QUESTIONER: I’m Bob Hathaway, the Woodrow Wilson Center. I’d like to invite both of our panelists to direct your attention to southern Thailand, which we haven’t mentioned very much. What’s going on there? Is the violence there a reflection of radical Islam? Is it a reflection simply of poor governance from Bangkok? General grievances felt by the Muslims in that part of Thailand? Is it a reflection of provocations from across the border? Can you tell us what’s going on?

HUHTALA: I believe it’s a combination of factors. You have a separatist movement that has never really gone away in the hundred years that those provinces have been annexed by Thailand. You have extraordinarily poor governance on the part of some of the local officials here in southern Thailand, who are almost exclusively Buddhist and from other regions of Thailand. And you had an incident on January 4th of last year, which was bad. I think 20 schools were torched at once. And the reaction of the Bangkok government to that was quite a process. And so, unfortunately, the events snowballed during the year. We do not yet see any evidence of outside agitators, al Qaeda, or anything like that involved there. But I have to say that we’re watching closely, because when you have a long-simmering, violent problem like that in a primarily Muslim area, it’s like an engraved invitation for the bad guys to come in. And we do worry about that.

I am not at all persuaded that this is being aided and abetted by Malaysia. It is true that the people in those four southern provinces of Thailand have a lot of family and other ties with folks in [the] Kelantan state and other parts of northern Malaysia, and they pass back and forth quite freely. But that is not to say that they’re getting support. I just remain to be convinced on that. I do not see any evidence of that.

ABUZA: I’ve been looking at this very closely, or as best I can, and it’s very alarming what’s happening there. There have been almost 600 deaths in 2004, and the cycle of violence has gone up tremendously. If you look at simply the explosives and the tactics that are being used, they’ve gone from pipe bombs to simultaneous bombings using cell phone detonators and accelerants. They’re getting more sophisticated.

Right now, one thing that really alarms me is how little people understand about who is behind this. The insurgency that existed in southern Thailand in the 1970s, ‘80s, more or less died out in the 1990s, for a number of reasons. And that’s how this has taken us by surprise. When you start to look at the people who have been arrested in the past few months, there are a couple trends that we can see. There are some veterans from Afghanistan in one group. The second is that there are a network of different Islamic schools where a lot of the ring leaders seem to have been coming from, and these schools have been the recipients of significant amounts of Saudi funding.

I am concerned about southern Thailand. The tenor is changing. They no longer talk about simply Pattani [province] liberation; they’re now couching the terminology in terms of a global jihad. I don’t see any evidence yet of JI activity, but there are some interesting connections between what JI had been doing in not just Thailand, but also Cambodia, and those who have been arrested. This situation is tailor-made for them, as the ambassador said. And if you really think about the strategy that JI has laid out to rebuild themselves, it’s two things; you know, going back to the religion, going back to the mosques and madrassas, and focusing on spiritual purity. And the second thing is fomenting sectarian violence as they did in the Moloccas, as they did in Poso, Indonesia. This creates this Manichean world view for the members. It is what will give them the recruits they need in the future. So I’m afraid it’s a matter of time, if it’s mishandled.

SIMS: In the back.

QUESTIONER: Hi. David Bosco with Foreign Policy magazine. I wanted to go to the point about sharia law. I’ve just been reporting from Afghanistan recently, and one of the things I came away with was the feeling that there really are a lot of different ways of implementing sharia law and a lot of different views of sharia law. And I wonder if we don’t sometimes do ourselves a disservice by trying to just keep sharia at arm’s length rather than trying to cultivate the more moderate progressive elements within sharia law, because there’s a lot there that is progressive. As with all religious/legal codes, it’s about interpretation. And so I just wonder what the panelists’ view of the vision of sharia law and whether there are competing visions in the region.

HUHTALA: I think you’re quite right; sharia is not well understood in the West. We tend to think of it as, you know, chopping off hands for theft and leave it at that. I’ve done a little bit of reading in the Quran and interpretations, and it’s clear that the original idea was to protect family members, to protect women and children, and to have a more humane society. So, for instance, the fact that a Muslim man may take up to four wives at one time, that was— emerged in a period when the Arabs were at war and there were too many widows around and the widows needed protection of being with a man. And so, you know, it was a completely different emphasis than the way we tend to look at it now, which is kind of warped.

And as I said, in Malaysia, for instance, sharia is applied to Muslims, not to Chinese or Indian, with regard to family law. So, you know, Muslim men are allowed to have several wives, and divorces have to be, you know, promulgated in accordance with sharia law.

ABUZA: I start to worry about going down that road and what it’s doing to secular societies. I think I’m very clear about this, that I start to worry about the rights of women under these provisions, and the ability of people, if it doesn’t work, to reverse course. I think it’s going to be very difficult in some of these cases. But the jury is still out and, you know, I’m watching very closely and waiting.

HUHTALA: I think if you’re in a situation where women are empowered, where they can vote, and, you know, where they can question some of the interpretations of sharia law, it may not be as dangerous.

UNKNOWN: When I was based in Indonesia, some of the more fundamentalist Islamicists would say that they look upon this situation as similar to one in a state where you have more sort of conservative fundamentalist Christians trying to legislate their beliefs, and they say that they see them as equal— an equal situation.

SIMS: In the back.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Natalie Liu with Voice of America. Going back in history a little bit, how did Islam evolve into what appears like a major religion in that part of the world now? And secondly, have the elections in Iraq had any impact on Islamic movements in that part of the world? Thank you.

HUHTALA: You want to take the history part, Zach?

ABUZA: Not really. [Laughter] You know, Islam spread by traders, and it took hold in the region. I couldn’t tell you why it developed so well, you know, but it was very fertile grounds. Some people have argued in the case of the Philippines that if you didn’t have Spanish conquest, all of the Philippine archipelago would be Islamic. There are Muslims throughout in every country in Southeast Asia. And in most of those countries, it’s one of— even in countries like the Philippines or Thailand or Cambodia, it is the fastest-growing religion in those countries, even though it represents a very small minority of the population. There’s been active attempts to proselytize. They have support. What my friend Angel Rabasa of the RAND Corporation characterizes as real politique, Saudi [inaudible] have had a very strong impact in the region.

HUHTALA: With regard to the Iraqi elections, I haven’t seen anything. I don’t know if you have a— it’s very soon to see what the effect has been there.

QUESTIONER: David Apgar, Corporate Executive Board. Really, a question for both panelists. What are the political obstacles as you see it here to a more fluid U.S. policy toward the region? I mean, this corner of Islam is pretty important. It’s by far the fastest-growing economically, and yet we seem flatfooted. We scarcely seemed to criticize the imprisonment of [former deputy Prime Minister Anwar] Ibrahim in Malaysia. It was a wonderful opportunity to get everybody in the region to sit up and ask whether the U.S. really might not be anti-Islamic. And in Indonesia, where there’s been sort of a struggle for supremacy between the Islamists in Aceh, who are fighting a struggle for autonomy, and the Islamists in Surabaya, who just are anti-democratic, I mean, a perfect opportunity to make some public statements in support of the Acehnese, but never did. So what are the political obstacles to a more fluid and less flatfooted U.S. policy?

HUHTALA: I guess I don’t agree that we’ve been flatfooted. [Laughter] Surprise. I personally think it would be a mistake for us to be commenting on every issue that happens in that region with a focus on religion, because we are a secular government, secular country still, and we engage with these governments in a series of bilateral relationships. And they don’t want to talk about the folks in Surabaya or the folks in Aceh. They want to talk about engagement with the country as a whole. And we do that. You know, we— as I say, we have assistance programs that stress things like democracy-building, capacity-building, poverty alleviation, emergency relief, all of those things. I personally don’t think it would be very productive for us to be constantly running a critique on what’s happening within the Islamic world. You don’t see that in other regions. I don’t think we should be doing it there.

QUESTIONER: I found your comments about— Zach, I found your comments about the election in Malaysia extremely interesting. I guess I disagree about the degree of gerrymandering, because I think they’ve been doing that for a good while. But the interesting thing about Indonesia, it seems to me, that it affects the growth of civil society, which showed itself in the tsunami thing. But my question is, what has JI been doing in this period of the three elections? Given the fact that PAS in Malaysia retained about the same percentage of votes, what’s going on there? And I presume the Philippines is still a kind of a staging area for JI. So what’s going on?

ABUZA: Can I paraphrase [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld? What we don’t know is what— [Laughter]

HUHTALA: It’s an unknown. [Laughter]

ABUZA: Unknown unknowns. It’s a clandestine organization, and I don’t think we know that much. I think for a while that the learning curve was very steep. You had a couple people who were arrested that cooperated greatly and gave us a much better understanding of how JI is operating, but even still, on the run in dragnets, they’re like clockwork. Once a year, almost to a year, they can pull off an attack. They’re still operating in Indonesia. We know that there has been some sort of debate within this organization over a more internationalist jihad or focused more on the sectarian conflict. And [International Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia Project Director] Sidney Jones and I have this discussion all the time. My point to her is that they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, if you looked at the head of the internationalist wing, Hambali [also known as Nurjaman Riduan Ismuddin], he was throwing everything he had in 1998, ‘99, 2000, in sectarian conflicts.

A real problem right now is the potential for southern Thailand to take on greater importance for them, but of course, Mindanao is the real problem. I don’t think JI will ever have the foothold in Mindanao that they had before September 11th. They’ll never have a Camp Hudaibiyah [a former JI training camp in Mindanao] with a hundred people at a time training. Some estimates are around 30 people at a time. I’ve seen better estimates of about 10, 12 people coming in at a time. It gives the [Muslim rebel group] MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] a degree of plausible deniability and yet at the same time keeping the Americans involved.

I’m very concerned that the MILF as an organization do not appreciate the seriousness to which the Americans attach to this issue. But I do hope America has a role in the peace process and we can work on something, because if there’s not a durable political solution soon, we’re going to have real problems because the rank and file and the younger generation of the MILF are getting very frustrated.

QUESTIONER: I was going to ask the ambassador, is the U.S. satisfied with the level of cooperation it has received from Indonesia and other governments in cracking down on JI, or not?

HUHTALA: In general, we have good cooperation with these governments, but there are always areas where you could do more. One big structural impediment in Indonesia is that they have not outlawed the Jemaah Islamiyah per se. And this is a huge problem. It means “Islamic community,” in their language. They just have problems that it’s hard for me to understand, quite frankly. And as long as it is not an illegal organization, than you cannot prosecute people for being a member of it. I think if we had to choose one thing where we could really see improvements on that CT [counterterrorism] score, that would be it right there.

QUESTIONER: With Indonesia’s newly elected reformist general, do you see some headway being made there?

HUHTALA: I think potentially that we will have some headway. I think he gets the problems very well. The problem for President [Susilo Bambang]Yudhoyono is he has a huge agenda, you know, of catching terrorists, counter-corruption, reforming the judicial sector, training the police, making the TNI a modern military force that is not prone to human rights abuses. He had all of those things on December 25th, and then he got the biggest earthquake in 40 years the next day and a huge tsunami, you know? So it’s difficult. It’s difficult. But his heart is in the right place, I’m convinced of it. He wants to make progress in all of these areas.

QUESTIONER: Are we likely to see the re-establishment of mil-to-mil relations with Indonesia this year?

HUHTALA: I don’t know. That’s a tough one. There are restrictions in the law that were put there for a very good reason; you know, concern about the human rights abuses of the past. And those things have to be addressed. By the same token, I think there is a real feeling in our government and in our Congress that we need to engage with this reformist government and with the army. The plain fact is we haven’t been able to train TNI forces with IMET [international military education and training] for about 15 years now. So you have a whole generation of people coming up through the ranks who have never been to the States on a training opportunity. Compare them and their relatively bad performance in the field with the Thais, who have been sending their officers to train in the United States for 50 years, and it’s night and day. We saw that demonstrated in the effective way they worked with us on the tsunami. So, clearly we have to get to that point at some point, where we’re able to train them and to work towards a full mil/mil relationship. But this year? I don’t know. It’s a tough one.

ABUZA: Just by comparison, if you look at what the Americans have been able to do in the past few years with support for the Indonesian police, it’s just been dramatic, the improvements with not a lot of money, in a short period of time.

HUHTALA: That’s right. That’s right.

QUESTIONER: I’m Colin Kahl. I’m an international affairs fellow at the DoD [Department of Defense]. I was hoping for a little more elaboration about the dynamics in Mindanao. I mean, obviously, the most active military component of the U.S. war on terrorism in Southeast Asia is in the southern Philippines. And it was my impression that the Moro rebellion basically died down in the late ‘70s and ‘80s and was for the most part dormant. Perhaps that was just that most of the focus during the 1980s was on the communist insurgency, not the Muslim insurgency. But I guess my question is, to— I guess, you’re shaking your head, that it wasn’t dormant— but to what degree and when did the intersection or nexus occur between the Moros and radical Islamic groups from abroad with ties to al Qaeda? And how much of a dent have we made in that since 9/11? You suggested that some of the camps are less, but to what degree to you see the weeding out of the problem in Mindanao?

ABUZA: In 1978 there was an ethno-nationalist organization called the Moro National Liberation Front [MNLF]. And a group of Islamists within that broke away, and they formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. They moved their headquarters from Tripoli to Lahore, Pakistan, and that started to put them into contact with this— starting to get this flow of international jihadis we have. They were a very small— they were always treated as a splinter organization, and the Indo— excuse me, the Philippine government never took them that seriously. They always saw them as a small splinter group. They stayed focused on the larger MNLF until 1996, and they signed an autonomy agreement with the MNLF. And at that time, you know, the MNLF doubled in size. They went from about 5,000 to 9,000 people because a lot of MNLF people just said we’re not signing that agreement with the government.

This is about the time when you start to get some al Qaeda influence. It really starts earlier, in 1991, when Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law shows up in the southern Philippines, he establishes a number of charities as front corporations there— he’s funneling money. The founder of the Abu Sayyaf [Islamic militant group] trained in the Khost camp in Afghanistan. He went back. Al Qaeda was there. And at the same time, the traditional state sponsors of the Moros and the Sayyaf were the Libyans, and for a while the Malaysians. The Malaysians cut most of their support, and starting in 1996, the Libyans stopped arming the MILF. They couldn’t be seen pushing the MNLF to the peace table while arming the other, you know, camp. Money flowed, but weapons didn’t. And you can even look at the weapons systems; they went from Soviet-style AKs and other Libyan-produced weapons, to M-16s, stuff falling off the back of trucks. So that was there. They got hooked at the time when the Libyans cut back support.

QUESTIONER: Michelle Gavin, Senator [Russ] Feingold’s [D-Wis.] office. And just as a quick aside, I agree with you; the issues about the military relationship are very difficult. But Indonesia does right now have access to E-IMET [expanded-IMET], which is the IMET curriculum that deals with civil-military relations, human rights training, resource management, et cetera, for what it’s worth.

But what I really wanted to know was, to what extent does sort of the popular appeal of the Islamist movement in Southeast Asia have— to what extent is that related to a sort of populist anti-corruption movement? There’s discourse about sort of purification and decadence in, you know, the current regime. Is that related to sort of an overall popular dissatisfaction with the degree of corruption that either exists or is perceived in government and business? And do you think that there are ways that the U.S. government and sort of other entities can help empower their civil society and groups that are working to tackle corruption issues in a less sort of perverse and extremist way?

ABUZA: The thing you have to know about political Islam is it’s about governance, and at the end of the day it’s about bread-and-butter issues, anti-corruption. The Islamist parties are perceived as being cleaner in Malaysia, Indonesia [inaudible] bought it. Leaders of this— the Prosperous Justice Party in Indonesia, they resign from their party posts when they take a state position. They turn back money. They return it if it comes from questionable sources. You know, this is unheard of in Indonesia, and you know, it— in terms of popularity, I mean, these people are just— the support they’re getting for this stance is very clear. And I wish we could find ways to support other organizations in civil society because it doesn’t just have to be the critical issue of the Islamist parties. We can help. We can work on reforming the Indonesian legal system, the judicial system. These are all ways to help take some of the corruption out and give civil society more of a space again.

HUHTALA: I think corruption is a big issue in both of those societies. And both [Malaysian] Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and President Yudhoyono have tried to address it. They both have announced big initiatives to fight it, because it does take away the legitimacy of the governing authorities, and I think they understand that very clearly. But part of the reason these Islamic parties are viewed as less corrupt is because they’re not in power. [Laughter] I mean, there’s a certain inevitability to that. Were they to come into power, you’d have corruption issues there.

QUESTIONER: Don Oberdorfer. I got the impression from what you’ve said that these are discrete groups in different countries. But is there— either the Islamic party’s legitimate political movements or the radicals, are there connections particularly between them? Is this more than an individual country movement? Does it have a regional aspect? And then on the other side, those who are fighting them, or fighting the radical side, either because of the organizations that exist— ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] or whatever— is there any regional aspect to the opposition to them?

ABUZA: If you really look at the Islamists, the hard-core Islamists, there is an international network; there is the [Islamic missionary group] Tablighi [Jamaat], there is the [Muslim] Brotherhood, there is Hizb ut-Tahrir [Islamic Party of Liberation] in Southeast Asia. These are international organizations. Jemaah Islamiyah has espoused the vision of a pan-Islamic caliphate, a pan-Southeast Asian caliphate. So, yes, at the Islamic party or Islamist party level, there are ties and there are connections between PAS and members of the Mujahedeen Council of Indonesia. They show up at each other’s meetings. This is very apparent.

One of the things that I found very interesting is the way that members of PAS right now, which in Malaysia you’re starting to see these rifts between a more younger, more techno-savvy urban group, and then older [inaudible]. And the younger guys are looking to Indonesia, to PKS, as their model. And so they are looking at one another. [Inaudible]

UNKNOWN: Well, ASEAN has been the place to start. I think the Ambassador might be better placed. The governments are cooperating more than they used to.

HUHTALA: They are. And, you know, I mentioned Prime Minister Abdullah. Right now Malaysia is chair of the OIC [Organization of Islamic Conferences] and of the Non-Aligned Movement. And he has used the occasion of being in the chair to enunciate this new idea of Islam Hadari, which translated is “civilizational Islam.” Clearly, it’s a more moderate view of Islam in the context of a civil society. And he’s created this Council of Eminent Persons within OIC to talk about this concept and to spread it through the region. Now, that’s quite powerful, you know. I don’t know if he’ll get anywhere, but it’s very encouraging that, you know, he’s trying to do that.

ABUZA: There are also networks of liberal Muslims throughout the region. So you can have people from the Nahdlatul Ulama or from ICIP [International Center for Islam and Pluralism] or from the Liberal Islam Network in Indonesia meeting up with the Sisters of Islam, a very progressive organization in Malaysia. So civil society is alive and well in Southeast Asia.

HUHTALA: And we also have several inter-religious dialogue-type conferences in Malaysia over the past few years where, you know, the U.S. government organizes it and we bring in speakers. For instance, American Muslims come to address, and also bring in speakers from other religions including, you know, Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests and all that. And, you know, we have to bar the doors; I mean, we can’t accommodate all the people who are interested in this. I find that very encouraging, you know, that you can have this kind of a conversation— comparative religion and the fact that, you know, we’re all sort of in this together.

QUESTIONER: Dennis McNamara, Georgetown University. If we look ahead over the next five to 10 years, it seems one critical issue we’re going to face is, who is our ally or who are our allies in Southeast Asia? And if you look among the three countries you’re mainly talking about— Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand— it seems the Thai relationship has been particularly strong and productive for the United States over the past few years, and it looks like we’re moving towards a free-trade agreement, indeed, with Thailand. I wonder if you could speak, first of all, to the Thais’ cooperation in terms of intelligence on some of these issues in trying to penetrate the more radical groups in Southeast Asia? And secondly, the— what seems to be rather curious, and that is Prime Minister Thaksin’s [Shinawatra] approach to the problem in southern Thailand, which wouldn’t seem to fit with the wider aims of sort of a regional reconciliation?

HUHTALA: Well, those are good questions. I obviously can’t talk about the specifics of our intelligence ties with Thailand, but I think you can infer that our cooperation is very good when you realize that we were able to find Hambali there largely— almost entirely— due to Thai efforts. And you know, again, they’ve been a very steadfast ally in the war against terror as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam and Korea, and every conflict we’ve been in for the past 60 years.

Thaksin, he sees himself as a CEO [chief executive officer]-president. He’s from Chiang Mai in the north. He’s half-Chinese. He’s got a very idiosyncratic way of leadership. Thailand has never seen anything like him before. And as he was just, you know, resoundingly re-elected on Sunday, you can see that they like what they see, the vast majority of them do. They like the way he speaks directly to the people. They like the economic benefits that he’s sending their way. He’s fortunate that they’re at a period of recovery from the financial crisis, so he’s able to do it, but he had some brilliant ideas like, you know, every time you go to the doctor you’re guaranteed a chance to see a doctor for 30 baht. That’s 70 cents or something like that. You know, every citizen of Thailand can do that. You have to wait in long lines, but that’s all right. They never had that kind of a social safety net before. They never had a debt moratorium for the agricultural sector; he came up with that idea. And he came up with, you know, one village, one product, sort of give everybody a chance, you know, to get in the act and develop the country.

These things have been phenomenally popular, and his formula worked really, really well except in southern Thailand, where he clearly doesn’t understand what he’s up against. I think that’s the real problem. One of the steps that he did was change the administration down there. When he came into office, the southern provinces were run by a pretty effective military organization down there. He took the army out and put the police in. I don’t know why; maybe because he came up through the police himself. He thought they would be more effective, but they are also a lot more corrupt, and that may have been one of the triggers that led to the violence that he clearly is trying to figure out how to deal with it. He’s a smart man. I think he will find his way to the answer down there. But it is very distressing for all of us who consider ourselves friends of Thailand to see this playing out so painfully.

SIMS: And on that note, we have to end on Council rules, which— exactly at 7:30. But I want to thank Ambassador Huhtala and Zachary Abuza. [Applause] Thank you very much. Thank you for coming today. [Applause]

HUHTALA: Thanks.

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