- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

BANGKOK, Thailand. — Just when you'd relegated firebrand ideology in Southeast Asia to the secure corridors of history's libraries, a belief system of domino-toppling potential is sweeping the waterways, jungles and cities of Southeast Asia. More than two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, a familiar question has once again become lamentably pertinent: Are we losing Southeast Asia?
Although the media has focused on the Middle East as the source of virulent anti-Americanism coupled, according to the militants, to the Muslim faith, it is becoming increasingly clear that this sentiment is gaining pace in Southeast Asia. In fact, this region has been identified as the likely area for al Qaeda's relocation and the second front of the war on terror.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, while in Singapore for an Asian security conference, warned recently of a "gathering storm" of terrorism. Some high-profile arrests that governments in the area have made in the wake of September 11 testify to the proliferation of terrorist cells in the area. Malaysia has arrested 62 people it says were plotting terrorist attacks. In December, authorities in Singapore arrested 13 militants believed to have links to al Qaeda. One of their cells had already obtained four tons of ammonium nitrate to use as an explosive. Intelligence officials in Malaysia believe that the men had links to a terrorist known as Hambali, who is believed to have arranged refuge for Zacarias Moussaoui when he visited Malaysia.
In January, authorities in the Philippines seized on intelligence from Singapore to arrest an Indonesian munitions expert believed to have been trained by al Qaeda just hours before he was scheduled to fly to Thailand. As a result of the arrest, the police in the Philippines uncovered explosives, detonators and other bomb-making equipment which, according to the Philippines police chief, Leandro Mendoza, "were [powerful] enough to level a block of houses." In March, Agus Dwi Karna, an Indonesian suspected of being a member of a group linked to al Qaeda, was arrested at Manila's international airport for possessing components for explosive devices. He was deported along with two Britons, a Japanese and a second Indonesian.
Widespread adherence to Muslim militancy in Southeast Asia is rudely surprising because it is a very new phenomenon. After all, this militancy, coupled with anti-U.S. fervor, has only recently spread even in the Middle East. A few short decades ago, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and many other states were cosmopolitan, open societies. Even the Muslim fundamentalists that prevailed in the states of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were far from virulently anti-American.
And for all the talk of Islamic extremism being medieval, Muslims were models of tolerance compared to their Crusading Christian contemporaries at that historic juncture. Islam, which emerged after Judaism and Christianity, quite specifically instructs Muslims to respect the beliefs of Christians and Jews, since they are people of the book and therefore guided by a definitive moral code. Jesus is one of Islam's holiest prophets, as is Moses.
In the past few decades, Islamic fundamentalism and anti-American sentiment has obviously intensified in the Middle East. But how did Muslim militancy hopscotch continents to claim the minds of so many in Southeast Asia? Judging from the statements of the region's leaders, the psychological component of Muslims' discontent seems to be surprisingly similar in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In rare but still lethal cases, that discontent mutates to militancy.
Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian issue resonates unmistakably with Muslims in Southeast Asia, despite the geographical distance from the conflict. In a speech last Thursday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who condemns suicide bombings and terrorism in general, called on Malaysians to shun Muslim militancy. But he also voiced strong concern for the Palestinian people: "Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, believes that terror can be stopped by more terror against those whom he claims are sponsors of terrorists. Every time Israel and its people are attacked by the Palestinian suicide bombers, Sharon orders more Palestinians to be killed. The ultimate was the attack against Jenin, where concrete houses were destroyed while the occupants were still in them."
Also, poverty in the region, and its ability to stoke terrorist tendencies, has policymakers so worried that it was a focus of a recent meeting, not of finance ministers, but of defense ministers. At a security conference earlier this month in Singapore, Southeast Asian defense ministers called for unity to stamp out poverty and discontent. "While we embark on the global war on terror, I believe we should also embark on a global war on injustice, poverty and underdevelopment," said Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak.
But just what should America pledge to do? Should Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have a new "war on poverty" division? Can the White House single-handedly deliver peace to Israel and Palestine, and lift Southeast Asia or, better yet, the world, out of poverty? The answer to these questions is obvious enough. But there are a couple of tactical and ethical positions the White House should stand for, unwaveringly, because they are the source of the country's superpower durability.
America must adhere to its principles, rather than alliances, which, after all, are more ephemeral. It must banish any kind of moral relativism from its lexicon the standards that apply to some must apply to all. The White House must reach out to the developing world in general, and prove it is willing to give emerging economies a greater stake in the riches of globalization. And, quite importantly, it must continue to press even its allies on gradual democratic progress and the respect of inviolable human-rights standards (everybody knows, in their gut, what these are).
The White House surely recognizes that the war on terror has a distinctly psychological component. It must therefore work especially hard to engage the region diplomatically and through new avenues of trade and development. No one wants to hear the sounds of falling dominos in Southeast Asia, especially since this time the impact will be felt here.

Ximena Ortiz is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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