Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia
Terrorists, Islam, and the West
The greatest and most dangerous misconception in the West today is to presume that Islamic terrorists represent mainstream Islam or the norms of the Muslim world. An equally dangerous misconception in the Islamic world today is to view the West’s battle against Islamic terrorists as being directed against Islam itself. If great wars had been precipitated by misunderstandings of much lesser magnitude, imagine the dangers posed by such monumental misconceptions. It certainly does not help that President Bush saw fit to characterize his battle against
Muslim terrorists as a “crusade,” or that Christian leaders like Pat Robertson in denigrating the great Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) expose their own prejudices and dark side. It is inexcusable for Christian leaders like President Bush not to dissociate themselves from such ugly remarks and personalities; it is equally reprehensible for mainstream Muslims not to condemn Osama bin Ladin and his gang. It is just as baffling for the average Westerner that Osama and his ilk remain popular in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and much of the Muslim world, as it is for the simple Muslim villager to understand why the Pat Robertsons command such wide audiences in the West. Granted, the evil deeds perpetrated by Osama and his likes are no way comparable to the gaffe of a Pat Robertson, nonetheless the underlying mindset and assumptions differ only in degree, not kind.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir once remarked that the surest way to turn China into your enemy is to treat it as a potential one. America nearly succeeded in doing so; it took the wisdom of President Nixon to reverse course with his historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Today, both nations and the world benefited greatly from that singular initiative.
In its bluster and less-than-sophisticated approach in fighting Islamic terrorists, America risks treating the Muslim world as a potential enemy. From there it would be but a steep slippery step to making it the real enemy, and by default, America the enemy of the Muslim world.
America’s smashing of the Stone Age Talibans in Afghanistan was welcomed by the Afghanis, as well as the world, including the Muslim world. America’s adventures in Iraq on the other hand are getting less-than-rave reviews, and not just in the Muslim world. The maiming of children and women, regardless of who perpetrated them, must weigh heavily on America. It is the occupying power, and thus morally and legally responsible for maintaining law and order considering that the Iraqi government is but a sham. The images of Abu Gharib prison and the Haditha massacre cannot enhance America’s standing, moral or otherwise.
Back in America, the recent imbroglio over the management of its ports by Dubai World Port, an Arab company, only reinforces this anti-Arab and anti-Muslim image. It is as if Americans cannot distinguish those Arab executives with their MBAs in the high-rise offices of Dubai from their Kalishnikov-armed kin in the caves of Afghanistan. It is specious to argue that America does not want its important assets like ports to be under foreign management; they already are.
Malaysia, having been the victim of and had successfully battled terrorism, can offer a lesson or two to the World. To the West, Malaysia could impart this important insight: In fighting terrorists, first create no new ones. To the Islamic world, Malaysia could offer this chilling reminder: do not tolerate extremists within your midst; they could easily turn against you later. Those Islamic terrorists are first and foremost terrorists; as such they are the enemy of all peace-loving people, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Malaysia successfully defeated its communist insurgency using the first insight. The difficulty in fighting terrorists is in differentiating foe from friend; yet it is critical to do so. For every innocent victim you mistake to be the enemy, you have effectively turned his or her family, friends, clan, and village into your enemy. That was why Robert McNamara’s “body count” in Vietnam as a measure of progress for the war was so destructive and counterproductive. Far from reflecting the number of enemies you destroyed, it pointed to the many potential new ones you had effectively created. America should have learned this lesson in Vietnam; it did not and is today repeating the same tragic mistake in Iraq.
The second insight is equally important. The Al Qaeda and Taliban owe their existence largely to America. America enthusiastically supported them when they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. America then conveniently turned a blind eye away from the gruesome practices of the Talibans and Al Qaeda as their victims were Soviet soldiers and leftist Afghanis. President Reagan saw fit to honor those “freedom fighters” at the White House and self-righteously assuring them that God was on their side.
When the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, those Talibans turned against America. It was not so much a show of ingratitude rather the Talibans finally revealing their true nature.
That strange bedfellows would turn against one another once their immediate mission is accomplished is nothing novel or surprising. It is part of human nature. The Soviets and the West were allies against Nazi Germany in World War II. With Hitler’s defeat, the Soviets and the West quickly became deadly adversaries in the ensuing Cold War.
Lee Kuan Yew and his People Action Party readily embraced the Communist Party (at least its members) in their struggle against the British colonials. When that was over, the communists nearly devoured Lee Kuan Yew. Lee prevailed, but barely, a tribute to his political skills and ruthlessness. He did not hesitate to do unto the communists what they would have gladly done to him had they succeeded. To the howling protests of libertarians, Lee jailed those communists, with or without trial.
At a different time and place, in the 1970s Iranian democrats, feminists, and libertarians readily embraced the Islamic radicals in their struggle against the Shah. He could not withstand this combined assault and fell. Now those democrats and feminists, at least those who had escaped being beheaded for their “modernist” ideas, long for the good old days under the Shah.
I wonder whether those Muslims who adulate Osama bin Ladin would prefer that their wives, daughters, and mothers be treated like the women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. To those Western-trained professionals in Malaysia who are equally enamored with Osama, I gently remind them of the fate of similar Western-trained individuals and professionals in Taliban Afghanistan and today’s Iran.
The West must remember that the seeming adulation that Osama and his ilk enjoy in the Muslim world is not a reflection of the norms of Islam. After all, otherwise law-abiding Americans have a grudging admiration when recalling the exploits of Al Capone and Butch Cassidy.
If Malaysia could impart these two important insights—in fighting terrorists first do not create new ones, and the surest way to treat the Muslim world as your enemy is to treat it as a potential one—it would have done itself, the West, Islam, and indeed the world, a great service.
America’s battle against the Islamic terrorists and extremists is also the battle of Islam, as the vast majority of Muslims know the faith. Meaning, Malaysia and other Muslim nations must join America in ridding this scourge on our faith. This bridging role between Islam and the West is a tall order for Malaysia and Malaysians, but within our capability.
Granted, Malaysia currently does not have a leader capable of undertaking such a challenge. I do not see it in Abdullah Badawi or any of his ministers. Abdullah can hardly lead Malaysia, much less the Muslim world.
Mahathir is one Malaysian leader held in high esteem in the Muslim as well as the developing world. He commands instant respect and credibility; they respect him for his remarkable leadership of Malaysia. They admire him for daring to “stand up” to the West and to bluntly point out to its leaders what he believes to be their hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Therein however, lies the problem. No one likes to be reminded of their mistakes and shortcomings, not Western leaders or Asian ones. Mahathir pays a steep price for his forthrightness; he is not popular in the West and his counsel not heeded there. Not that he cares. Which is too bad for as alluded earlier, he has some valuable insights to offer the world, in particular the West, in its war on terrorism.
In theory the Indonesian leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would be the best person to bridge Islam and the West, being the leader of the most populous Muslim nation. He is however, preoccupied (and rightly so) with running his own country.
There are very few Muslim leaders who are held in high regards in the West today. Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf is the current favorite with Washington, DC, but that is purely for utilitarian purposes. Once he is no longer useful in the fight against the Taliban, he will be dispensed. Besides, he cannot be seen to be too friendly with the West; he already escaped a few assassination attempts at home. For Muslim leaders to be seen as friendly with the West would be the kiss of death. Consequently those who support the West are forced to be defensive about their posture. At the other end of the spectrum, irresponsible Muslim leaders have discovered a quick and dirty trick to be popular with their folks through taunting the West. Iran’s wily Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fits this bill.
There are a few enlightened Muslim leaders who understand and are comfortable with the West. Jordan’s King Abdullah is one. Being a hereditary leader however, one wonders how deep and committed is the support he enjoys with his people. Another is the leader of the Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan. He is more a spiritual rather than political leader. Nonetheless he has done much to improve the lot of Muslims in the Third World through his philanthropic works in health and education. As the Ismailis are not regarded as in the mainstream of Islam, his influence in the greater Muslim world is diminished.
One Muslim (and Malaysian) leader who still commands considerable following in Malaysia and the Islamic world as well as being highly regarded in the West is Anwar Ibrahim, even though he is now out of power. After his release from prison, august Western universities like Oxford and Johns Hopkins were eager to grab him. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgetown University, and from that lofty perch he continues to espouse messages that are welcomed by both Western and Islamic audiences.4 If he could be persuaded not to drag himself into the Malaysian political maelstrom and instead focus on leading the greater Muslim world through established organizations or new nongovernmental entities, he could be a major force for positive change. He wields considerable influence as he can articulate the ideals of Islam in a language understandable in the West. His current standing in the West reminds me of another Anwar of a bygone era, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Thanks to his brave initiative, nearly 50 million Muslims (the Egyptians) are now spared unnecessary destructive wars with the Israelis.
Anwar Ibrahim is the one person who could best fulfill Malaysia’s destiny of being an effective bridge between the West and Islam. Ironically he could do this best by not being distracted by a formal political leadership position like being Prime Minister.
One avenue would be to work through the OIC. As Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi is also the Chair of OIC. Anwar could use Abdullah’s good office to secure a senior position at the organization. One caution however. The OIC is made up of wily Muslim nations from Iran to Libya. Getting them to agree to anything is an impossible mission. It is an organization long on slogans and short on executions. Anwar would be better off creating a new vehicle. That would be a grand undertaking, with high rewards to go with the high risk of failure.
Less grand but more consequential would be for Anwar to use his influence in the West (especially America) to bring American-style broad-based liberal education to Malaysia to serve the needs of Muslims in Malaysia, the region, and the larger Islamic world. He had experience setting up the International Islamic University (IIU).
This campus should be based on Islamic principles in the same manner that Georgetown is a Jesuit institution. Meaning, all—Muslims and non-Muslims—should feel at home on the campus. Unlike IIU, the university must be free to explore the vast spectrum of Islamic thoughts and practices, from the liberal Ismaili sect to the fundamentalist Wahhabism. Currently there is not a single university or institution in the Muslim world where the different sects and schools of thought in Islam are studied and taught under one roof.
Anwar should use his influence in the West to secure the necessary funding through private foundations and donations. Such institutions would also be the ideal place to project the ideals of the West such as free enterprise, democracy and representative government, and basic human rights. These incidentally are also the ideals of Islam. The major personal challenge for him would be to prevent himself from being seduced by his many adoring followers in Malaysia to seek elective office back home and be distracted by that pursuit.
Anwar can do much by not being associated with the current rot in the Malaysian political system. He should lead outside the political system; ironically his success there would then enhance his chance of ultimately leading Malaysia.
Next: Chapter 21: Gemilang, Cemerlang, Terbilang … atau Temberang?