The Islamic agendaPresident George W Bush's speech of October 7 regarding al-Qaeda is not likely to be remembered for its phrasemaking, even though he depicted the "war on terror" as "the central undertaking of this century".
But no one can deny the fact that the US presidency still remains an international bully pulpit: a place to bring various issues to the attention of the international community. Now a global debate is surging on how to deal with al-Qaeda or its various "franchises" from Indonesia to Iraq. The topic of debate includes the very objective of establishing the Islamic caliphate. Such a caliphate is supposed to be established first in a region, then, according to its proponents, would ensue the macro struggle to create a global caliphate. That subject was also an important aspect of Bush's speech.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer made his bid to initiate public debate on transnational terrorism in his region by stating that he would pressure Indonesia to formally ban Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). He may not succeed in that endeavor because, according to one report, Jakarta has pointed out on numerous occasions "that banning Jemaah Islamiyah would in itself be semantically offensive". Since Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, "outlawing a group whose name translate[s] as 'Islamic community' would upset even moderates ..."
As concerned as the Indonesian officials are about the problem of terrorism, they are in no mood to respond to foreign pressure and be "seen as Western lackeys in a country where the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are unpopular".
It is little understood in the West that the JI creates mixed emotions within Indonesia. There is quite a bit of support for the JI's anti-American rhetoric, but not for its sympathies or alleged connections with al-Qaeda.
Its supporters include the leader of the popular Justice and Prosperity party (PKS), Hidayat Nurwahid, whose popularity also stems from the fact that he has a clean image. He now chairs the influential people's consultative assembly, the legislative body responsible for constitutional change in Indonesia. In fact, Nurwahid is questioning whether Islamic extremists should be the focus of investigations related to the most recent terrorist attacks in Bali. He said, "I have valid information that these [terrorist] acts may be related to inter-state [country] competition in the tourism industry." Vice President of Indonesia Jusuf Kalla took somewhat of a mixed stance on the issue of suicide bombings. He called on the religious leaders to condemn suicide bombings, but then proceeded to state, "Suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq are perhaps understandable because there is an 'opponent' there. But here in Indonesia, it makes no sense. Why do they kill their own people, who have done nothing wrong?"
In Central Asia, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) is increasingly coming under focus as a party that is determined to establish a caliphate. Even though the HT's goals are very similar to that of al-Qaeda, it has no known linkage with that organization. Second, and this is the most important difference, the HT wants to achieve its objective through peaceful means. According to one recent report, "The group insists that an Islamic world will be delivered, country by country, through proselytizing and capitalizing on popular discontent with the corrupt and sometimes brutal leaders in Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus and the Middle East."
In other words, the HT believes in the power of persuasion, not the use of Kalashnikov or suicide bombers, to achieve the establishment of a caliphate. That very fact has been creating a major dilemma in Washington as well as in London - where the HT maintains offices - about whether to depict it as a terrorist entity.
The Central Asian specialists in Washington remain divided in their recommendations for the Bush administration toward the HT. The conservatives and neo-conservatives (the two groups are not synonymous) want the US government not to trust the HT's public rhetoric and imminently declare it a terrorist organization. The liberal or neo-liberal groups of experts, on the other hand, are advising a policy of watch and wait.
What is emerging in different regions is a heightened awareness of an "Islamic agenda" and America's reluctance to come to grips with it. Organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) - which was declared as a terrorist organization by the US in 2000 and in 2001 and Bush officially declared it to be linked with al-Qaeda - may be stealing the limelight through orchestrating terrorist attacks either in Iraq or in Indonesia, Morocco or Uzbekistan. The real challenge (not a threat, and there is a world of difference between these two phrases) to the United States in the long run is likely to come, not from al-Qaeda, but from the HT.
The HT is working very assiduously and systematically in a number of Muslim countries - and especially in Central Asia - to enhance Muslim knowledge and awareness of their religion. Since there is no recognized separation between religion and politics in the Islamic frame of reference, the HT is using all opportunities to insist that the chief cause of Muslim backwardness and downtroddenness stems from the fact that they have neglected the true path of Islam. Only by returning to that true path - ie, by totally committing to Islam and to the ways of the Aslaf (the pious ancestors), it argues, will Muslims regain their past glory.
In essence, the debate in Indonesia and Central Asia - as is also true of the rest of the Muslim countries - is how to regain past glory. Why are Muslims not at the cutting edge of power and upward mobility? In the absence of any other alternate template for regaining the past glory related to the golden age of Islam, returning to the ways of Islam is becoming a generally accepted theme.
There are important tactical differences, however. Al-Qaeda has one recipe to establish the Islamic caliphate, and the HT is offering another. That also might be one of the goals of the PKS of Indonesia, which "also does missionary work, with the aim of gradually persuading people that an Islamic state is the best option". It should be noted, however, the the PKS "has consistently avoided making any pronouncements about the possible imposition of Islamic Sharia law". Such a nuanced stand has confused its critics, who have often accused the party of "being a wolf in sheep's clothing, but others argue there is nothing to worry about because the Indonesian people will never accept the creation of an Islamic state". By the same token, the HT is also confusing its critics.
The challenge for the US is what to make of the call to return to the ways of Islam. Bush may be able to condemn al-Qaeda and its terrorist tactics (as he should), but he is likely to run into problems talking about neutralizing the growing influence of the HT, the PKS, or other similar organizations that are epitomizing the collective Muslim anguish about how to regain the path to glory.
In this sense, the central undertaking of the post-September 11 era may turn out to be not how to conquer al-Qaeda, but how to neutralize the growing effectiveness of Islamist organizations that are resolute in continuing their call of return to Islam as a way of regaining Muslim glory.
Ehsan Ahrari is an independent strategic analyst based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.