Cartoons and caliphsKUALA LUMPUR Something is seriously wrong when a Malaysian politician asks if a conflict between Malay Muslims living in southern Thailand and the Thai government is a product of American policy. "Surely," said Mohamad Nasir, from Alor Setar in the state of Kedah, "the American war against Islam has encouraged the Thai government to put down the Malays in southern Thailand."
It's hardly a credible view of a protracted local struggle for ethnic and cultural autonomy in a small corner of Southeast Asia, but Mohamad Nasir, a member of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, wasn't joking.
The perception has taken root in Asia that communal problems, even on a local scale, are part of a global Western conspiracy against Islam led by the United States. As a small group of protesters stoned the U.S. embassy in Jakarta in mid-February, organizers gave speeches blaming the West for wanting to destroy Islam by manipulating the issue of terrorism "and all those things are engineered by the United States."
Wherever Muslims are in conflict, in places like the southern Philippines and southern Thailand, the view in the wider Muslim community is that Washington and its allies are supporting their suppression. Sadly, this perception, however misleading, complicates efforts to resolve some of the protracted conflicts that plague the region.
Never has the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim felt so deep, in a part of the world where there is no long history of religious conflict. And there's no sign of any attempt to close the gap.
President George W. Bush recently reinforced the now widely held view that Southeast Asia's Muslims are prone to dangerous radicalism with his announcement that Al Qaeda had planned to use Southeast Asian militants to crash an airliner into a Los Angeles office tower back in 2002.
Shortly afterward, Kit Bond, a U.S. senator from Missouri, announced plans to write a book on the rise of radical Islamic movements in Southeast Asia and what he calls the need for more U.S. involvement in the region. Bond said that groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf are trying to undermine stability in the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere. "They share the goals of establishing a radical Islamic caliphate through regions of the world spreading ultimately to the United States."
Everywhere it seems, Muslim sentiment and activism is a threat, in a part of the world once seen as a beacon of tolerance and moderation. When several Australian drug traffickers were given harsh sentences by an Indonesian court on the Hindu island of Bali, an Australian academic opined that the judges were trapped by a "Muslim moral renewal." (In non-Muslim Singapore, of course, they hang drug traffickers.)
Not surprisingly, the Muslim reaction has been to feel just as threatened. In southern Thailand, Haji Nidir Waba, a leading Islamic teacher and member of the National Islamic Council, wants the government to set up a special Muslim affairs department to preserve the rights and freedoms of Thailand's Muslims. "As a teacher of Islam I preach the message of peace to my students," he said defensively.
But increasingly, Muslims are finding it hard to persuade their non- Muslim neighbors that peace lies at the core of Islamic dogma. This is especially troubling in Southeast Asia, where Muslims live in mixed communities side by side with non-Muslims.
It doesn't help that growing alarm in non-Muslim communities coincides with a trend toward greater Muslim religious adherence and conservatism in Asia. Nor does it help that a very small band of dangerous militants bent on committing violent acts continues to pose a terrorist threat.
But perhaps the most despicable aspect of this dangerous duel between religions is the way individuals on either side of the divide exploit public anxiety to make political capital. The Malaysian politician blaming America for the trouble in southern Thailand may have his facts wrong, but he will certainly feel justified in believing he was right when he reads about why Americans should fear the coming caliphate.