Voices of Islam

March 28, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Simon Elegant
Time Magazine

Five leading Muslim thinkers speak out about war in Iraqfrom its murky morality to the threat that it will radicalize Asia’s Muslims

What does conflict with Iraq mean to Muslims? In Kuala Lumpur last week, TIME’s Southeast Asia correspondent Simon Elegant gathered five of Asia’s most prominent Muslim thinkers and opinionmakers to debate the vexing issues an Iraq war raisesincluding the danger that it might radicalize moderate Muslims and trigger a violent anti-U.S. backlash. The panel comprised lawyer and writer Karim Raslan; parliamentarian Mustafa Ali of Malaysia’s Islamic Party (PAS); scholar and human-rights activist Chandra Muzaffar; lawyer and activist Latheefa Koya, and journalist M.J. Akbar, editor of Asian Age in New Delhi. Highlights of the discussion:

TIME: How does this war differ from the first Gulf War?

AKBAR: The issue now is as much George W. Bush as it is Saddam Hussein. In 1991, America started alone and created a unique international coalition. This time, America started with the world on its sidethe support it received after 9/11 was instant and unequivocal. Bush has, bit by bit, destroyed that goodwill. There’s a global peace movement even before actual fighting has started. This is a minor miracle. The world is standing up for a loserSaddam. Everyone knows he cannot last against America, and everyone agrees he runs an extremely unsavory dictatorship. It is remarkable that people across the worldChristians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslimsare standing up against the imposition of a unilateral world order. This is extremely heartening because it cuts across the simplistic division of the world into Islam vs. Christianity. But I must stress that to be anti-Bush is not to be pro-Saddam.

KARIM: We are seeing a more heated argument against American power. The major powers of the Western alliance have taken a conscious decision to prevent a conflict that could create serious instability. This is a relief because it means that the cause of peace is not just a “Muslim” cause.

MUSTAFA: Iraq is a Muslim country so naturally the “Muslim” angle arises, but the perspective is larger than that. War against Iraq is a war against humanity. America’s principal interests are oil and Israel.

CHANDRA: The reason why an “Islamic” angle gets attached is because of a perceived pattern of the Bush offensive. Afghanistan came before Iraq. Will it be Iran after this? You get the sense that Muslims are being targeted.

LATHEEFA: There’s paranoia against Muslims. My two female cousins, who are sisters, staged a peace protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Singapore. Though they were just collecting signatures, they were detained and interrogated. And then, their computers were taken away, and one husband was asked why he had so much Islamic reading material at home. These people are Muslim, the women wear the Muslim head scarf, but they are innocent. Can they be charged for inciting peace?

TIME: How worried should we be that a war will further radicalize Muslims?

CHANDRA: Things could get dangerous. Jemaah Islamiah will want to target Singapore, as it’s the operational center of America’s military command in this region. In Indonesia and the southern Philippines, an attack on Iraq will worsen the political violence already occurring.
KARIM: Indonesia can burst apart so very easily. The government is not strong.

AKBAR: Pakistan, too.

LATHEEFA: Conservatism is not necessarily extremism. Conservative Muslim partieslike PAS in Malaysiacan come to power through the democratic process. That does not make them “radical” in the sense that the word is being used now, as hostile to Western interests. Plus, there is racial profiling. The groups that have gone to Iraq from the West as human shieldsif they were Muslims they would have been labeled radicals. Suicide bombers create violence, sure. But you cannot condemn them totally. They have a cause. They do not have an army. How should the Palestinian people respond to continued Israeli terror tactics?

CHANDRA: People become desperate. When they are desperate they will use the ultimate weapontheir own lives. Despair gives birth to violence. Don’t just give a bad name to Islam. Try to understand the process through which it is passing.

TIME: What is it that turns a middle-class kid from Kuala Lumpur into a jihadi? He’s not despairing. He has a comfortable life. Now he’s suspected of trying to bomb a mall in Indonesia? A Catholic from Italy would never go on a mission for the I.R.A.

CHANDRA: The feeling of despair is much greater and more widespread for Muslims; it cuts across class lines.

MUSTAFA: Muslims believe in life hereafter, in heaven and hell as described in the Koran. So if a Muslim sacrifices his life he believes he will be rewarded. They are preparing for the next life. They want to die as martyrs.

AKBAR: The poor socioeconomic conditions of so many Muslims make heavenly afterlife a very attractive proposition. For Muslims, jihad is not just cleansing the inner spirit; it is also a call for a holy war which has been heard since the beginning of Islam. There’s a saying by the Prophet: “Paradise comes under the shade of swords.” This is not an invitation to kill. It is an invitation to die. Only martyrs are guaranteed paradise. Jihad is a signature tune of Islamic history. And the call for a true jihad has always evoked a response all over the world. But please note: every war fought by Muslims is not a jihad, although of course every jihad can only be fought by Muslims. A war for territory or empire is not a jihad. It must be a battle against injustice. The West has had no problems with jihad when it coincided with its interests. When Osama bin Laden was fighting his jihad against the Russians, he was a hero. When his jihad turned against America, he became a villain. That is the argument you hear on the Muslim street.

LATHEEFA: Youths today have multiple sources of information. The Internet has a great number of versions of the truth that are accessed by the young. These kids do not trust anyone, and what they believe is what makes the martyr.

TIME: All this puts moderate Muslims in a difficult position.

AKBAR: Take the case of a country like Turkey. It has an Islamist party in power which has come through a proper exercise of democracy. Its parliament has voted against supporting America’s war despite huge bribes being offered. If the credibility of this government, which is moderate and modern in its approach, is destroyed by American pressure, who will occupy the space vacated? Not Ataturkists, but those more radical. Do you want a Hamas to rule Turkey?

As it is, there is hardly any democracy in the Muslim world, which is one of the terrible problems afflicting it. And most dictatorships have the protection of the West because of the cozy relationship between power and oil. Muslims treat these dictators or local ?ites as quislings, who sell the national interest to line their pockets. I see the Muslim world caught in what I call the push-and-pull trap. The push comes from interests hostile to Muslims, and the pull comes from increasingly Islamist parties that lure Muslims with the dream of revival through a return to pure Islam. The levels vary, but this has happened even in a liberal state like Turkey. The future is not going to be smooth. I feel that the Muslim world is a decade away from its own French Revolution, except that this upsurge is going to be led by various shades of Islamists, thanks to the policies of leaders like Bush. France and Germany understand this, which is why they have taken the stand they have taken. What Bush does not understand is that you cannot exercise power without understanding the limits of power.

CHANDRA: After the coming invasion of Iraq there is going to be tremendous outrage in the Muslim world. Every sort of argument will be used to increase the outrage against America. The moderates are going to be pushed away.

KARIM: This saddens people like me, who support what America has always stood for, and which we believe it continues to stand for in its core values. America has stood for freedom, creativity, human endeavor. Under Bush, America has lost its prestige and credibility.

LATHEEFA: This U.S. administration does not understand how much it is hurting its own friends, and those who want to be America’s friends. In Malaysia, for example, we have created a successful economy, and we want to develop furtherwithout becoming either a stooge or an enemy of the U.S.