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Islam is the second largest religion in the world (Headden, 2008). In fact, according to a comprehensive demographic study made by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2009), there are 1.57 billion followers of Islam in over 200 countries all over the world today, with over 60% living in Asia and another 20% living in the Middle East and North Africa, representing 23% of the global population.
In recent years, however, following the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by the Al-Qaeda terrorist group on September 11, 2001, Islam has been linked to acts of terrorism. Indeed, according to Khan (2006),
“[isolated] Terrorist acts [on Western targets in the past two to three decades], despite being of big impact, did not get its deserving label of Islamic terrorism until the attack of 9/11 in New York. Further uncovering of terrorist cells all across the Western world has further heightened concerns and media-hype of Islamic terrorism over the last few years.”
The Organization of The Islamic Conference (OIC) signed a declaration disproving this association between Islam and terrorism in 2002, saying that they “reject any attempt to link Islam and Muslims to terrorism as terrorism has no association with any religion, civilization or nationality” (6th statement) and furthermore, that they “reiterate that preventive action taken to combat terrorism should not result in ethnic or religious profiling or the targeting of a particular community” (7th statement). In spite of this, though, the United States continued with its ‘War on Terror’, targeting Islamic militant groups, while suicide bombings all over the world continued to be painted as the works of such groups.
Today, the impacts of 9/11 and Islamic terrorism are felt all over the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region where the majority of Muslims reside. These impacts in terms of economy, politics and culture, will be discussed in this paper, following a brief description of the origins of Islam as a religion, the beginnings of Islamic terrorism, as well a look at the recent Islamic terrorist attacks in the Asia-Pacific Region and the various groups behind them.
The Origins of Islam
Islam has its origins in the 7th century, particularly in the year 610, when the angel Gabriel visited the merchant Muhammad and began revealing divine messages to him. These messages, which Muhammad would memorize by ear and preach for the rest of his life, even in the face of persecution, would later be written down in the Quran, which would become the foundation of a new religion, a religion, which, according to Langman & Morris (2002),
found a ready audience among the growing classes of merchants, whose status disposed an “elective affinity” for a salvation religion that would establish an “imagined community” of people united by faith that provided members with valorized, sacralized identities and a God ordained ethical regulation of everyday conduct conducive to commerce (p.12).
Even after Muhammad’s death, Islam continued to spread, first in the Middle East through the early Caliphates, then in Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, particularly in Spain and southern France, and Asia Minor, before reaching its Golden Age during the Abbasid Dynasty from the ninth to thirteenth centuries (Silverstein, 2010). Having already reached its peak, it began to decline around the time of the Renaissance with the rebirth of Western ideas, and after various decades and events including the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, the rise of Christendom and the Spanish Inquisition, the first World War and the resulting defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the end of the 19th century, “the once powerful, majestic Islamic world [was transformed] into fragmented, colonial, neo-colonial, or peripheral states with autocratic governments having little popular support” (Langman & Morris, 2002).
The Roots of Islamic Terrorism
How did Islamic terrorism begin? Khan (2006) mentions that it only began in the past two to three decades. This is not to say, though, that Islam does not have a history of violence.
On the contrary, Islam is linked from the beginning with the practice of divinely sanctioned warfare and lethal injunctions against apostates and unbelievers. Islam experienced no period of wandering and exclusion; from its inception, Islam formed a unitary state bent on military conquest (Blond & Pabst, 2005).
Still, “the kind of terror and violence perpetrated by Prophet Muhammad have little or no parallel amongst the terrorism and violence of today’s Islamic terrorists” (Khan, 2006). Indeed, Islam may have a history of violence – Muhammad himself was a warrior and military leader who exterminated the Jews from Medina on one occasion and destroyed the pagan temples in Mecca in another, while the whole Islamic history is punctuated with conquests, massacres and the plundering of churches – but the ideology behind these acts is different. In fact, many Muslims themselves deplore and condemn the 9/11 terrorist attacks and similar others, saying that it is at odds with Islamic tradition and with the teachings of Quran itself (Qaradawi, 2001).
Islamic terrorism is also not to be confused with the concept of jihad or ‘holy war’ which many say are the roots of radical Islamic beliefs. Rather, Bonner (2006) explains that jihad is a set of legal doctrines designed not to bring about violence but actually, peace and conversion. Bonner goes on to say that jihad is similar to the Western doctrine of warfare and the wars waged by the Christians, in fact using the same concept of ‘bellum iustum’ or the theory of just war.
Indeed, terrorism is not at all a part of Islam, so what, then, accounts for Islamic terrorism? Experts closely associate these with two ideas – fundamentalism and Islamism.
In his book, Mohaddessin (2003) states that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are two sides to a single coin. Fundamentalism is essentially defined as a return to fundamental beliefs or conversely, a rejection of modern beliefs, which Langman & Morris (2002) attributes to three main reasons – the loss of religious morals seen as the cause of the decline of social values; the refusal of religious movements to accept secular boundaries; and the desire to restore religion into its central and governing position in society.
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According to Mohaddessin (2003), Islamic fundamentalism dates back to the early days of Islam but “in its current context, theory and power emerged after Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979” (p.xxi). It is also after Khomeini’s rise to power that acts of Islamic terrorism became apparent in the Middle East as well as in various parts of the West, becoming “the main threat to global and regional peace” (Mohaddessin, 2003, p.xli).
An article in the New York Times (2006) further states that “Muslim fundamentalism is fast becoming the chief threat to global peace and security as well as a cause of national and local disturbance through terrorism. It is akin to the menace posed by Nazism and fascism in the 1930's and then by communism in the 50's”.
There are those who disagree with this, of course, saying that Islamic fundamentalism should not be associated with terrorism and that the terms ‘Islamic revivalism’ and ‘Islamic activism’ should instead be used (Esposito, 1992). At the same time, there are also those who say that there is nothing wrong with adhering to the fundamental beliefs of Islam, again insisting that these beliefs do not refer to terrorism or encourage it in any way. Langman & Morris (2002) also say that “Although fundamentalism has been widely embraced in the Muslim world, and it often promotes hatred of infidels, the vast majority of fundamentalists do not become terrorists, and not all terrorists in Islamic societies are ‘holy warriors’”(p.27).
Indeed, it is not the beliefs themselves but the interpretation of them and the intent with which they are used and propagated that gives rise to Islamic terrorism. Qutbism, for example, which is an ideology attributed to the writings of literary critic Sayyid Qutb, adheres to a strict and literal interpretation of the Quran, the Hadith and Muhammad’s commands and further advocates offensive jihad in order to return the world to Islam and Islam to its ‘pure’ state (Eikmeier, 2007).
Another idea closely associated with Islamic terrorism is Islamism. Islamism is the view of Islam not just as a set of religious beliefs but also a political doctrine. Indeed, the addition of the prefix ‘-ism’ to the word ‘Islam’ suggest an addition of a political aspect to the religion, in the same manner indicated by the terms ‘communism’, ‘fascism’ and ‘socialism’ which all hint at violence and revolution (Cox and Marks, 2003). In essence, Islamists “seek the Islamic revival as a means to the end of transforming the state” (Schwedler, 2001).
Islamism is further defined as a contrasting idea to liberal democracy in the West, “a brand of totalitarianism rooted in sacred text” (Cox and Marks, 2003, p.x) while Langman & Morris (2002) describe it as “modelled on the attempt to recapture Muhammad's early role of rebel in Mecca in criticizing moral corruption and need for lifestyle and political economic reforms grounded in religious mores” (p.26).
The International Crisis Group (2005), however, say that Islam is already political by nature, being a religion of law rather than a religion of peace (p.1) and define Islamism “as the active assertion and promotion of beliefs, prescriptions, laws, or policies that are held to be Islamic in character” (p.1). In this manner of thinking, the Group gives Islamism the same definition as that of Islamic activism, though it also says not all types of Islamic activism should be treated as hostile.
Major Islamic Terrorist Groups in the Asia-Pacific
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The Abu Sayyaf Group which literary means ‘Bearer of the Sword’ is described as the most violent Islamic separatist group in the Philippines by the United States National Counterterrorism Center (2007). It was originally a part of a larger group, the Moro National Liberation Front but broke away in 1991 under the leadership of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. Janjalani was a scholar who, after having participated in the Afghan-Soviet war , studied in Saudi Arabia and Libya (Clark, 2002). During that same war, he is said to have met Osama bin Laden and befriended Abdur Rab Rasul Sayaaf and Ramzi Yousef, who taught the group how to make bombs (Thayer, 2003).
The group which is estimated to consist of 200 to 500 members (US Department of State, 2008) wants to establish Mindanao, a region largely comprising southern Philippines, as a separate Islamic state (“Who are the Abu Sayyaf?” 2000). However, Thayer (2003) claims that the ASG only gives occasional lip service to its pretension of establishing an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and the US Department of State (2002) further states that “The unity of the ASG has degenerated into a number of semi-autonomous factions whose stock in trade consists of bombings, assassinations, extortion and kidnapping for ransom” (p.20). Clark (2002) agrees, saying that the ASG is a group with poor discipline primarily motivated by money instead of ideology.
Janjalani was killed in 1998 and was succeeded by his younger brother who also died during a military offensive by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The current leader of the group is Radullah Sahiron (US Department of State, 2008).
Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B). Established in 1992 and rising to power in 1996 under the leadership of Shawkat Osman alias Sheikh Farid, Imtiaz Quddus and Mufti Abdul Hannan, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami or Movement of Islamic Holy War in Bangladesh aims to eradicate the Christian, Hindu and Western influences in the country and establish Islamic rule, drawing inspiration from the Taliban in Afghanistan, with their motto being “Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan (We will all become Taliban and we will turn Bangladesh into Afghanistan)” (South Asia Terrorism Portal, 2001).
The group, based in the hilly areas around Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar where a total of twelve training camps have been found, has roughly 15,000 members, including 2,000 hardcore jihadi fighters, many of them recruited from Bengal madrassas or seminaries and then sent to other countries such as Afghanistan to be indoctrinated in radical Islam and others recruited from southern Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia and Indonesia. (Ramachandran, 2004).
The South Asia Terrorism Portal (2001) also reports active links between the HuJI and other terrorist groups like Osama Bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF), the Al Qaeda Network, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in India, the Asif Reza Commando Force (ARCF), the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) and the Lakshar-e-Taiba (LeT), as well as political parties such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Parties (BNP) and the Jamaat-el-Islami, though the latter denies it, and even the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) network of Pakistan, who is said to be one of its financers along with Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan who channel their funds through Islamic non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh like Adarsa Kutir, Al Faruk Islamic Foundation and Hataddin.Ramachandran (2004) reports that the HuJI is perceived as a potential threat to national security, though fast becoming an imminent one as it continues to grow, ‘spreading its tentacles’.
Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM). The JEM which literally translates to Army of Mohammed is considered the principal terrorist group in Jammu and Kashmir in India with aims to end Indian rule in the region and be a part of Pakistan (Aden, Cronin, Frost & Jones, 2004).
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (2001), the group was founded in 2000 by Maulana Masood Azhar in Karachi with assistance from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) unit of Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sunni Islamic sectors based in Pakistan. Because of this, it is closely linked to the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.
The group is also reported by the US Department of State (2002) to have several hundred members who are mostly from Kashmir and Pakistan, many of which are former members of the Harkut-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) of which Azhar was also a former member.
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). It is unsure when or how the JI began, though according to a backgrounder report of the Council on Foreign Relations (2009), the group is an offshoot of the radical Islamic movement Darul Islam, of which its leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, is a former member. Bashir is said to be of Yemeni descent and stayed in Malaysia for a long time, returning only to Indonesia after Indonesian president Suharto stepped down in 1998. Other leading figures of the JI include Azhari Husin, an explosives expert, and Noordin Top.
The group’s aim is “to create an archipelagic Islamic state (Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara) composed of Malaysia, Indonesia and Mindanao (and incorporating Singapore and Brunei)” (Thayer, 2003).
Aden, Cronin, Frost & Jones (2004) also state that the JI has direct ties to the Al Qaeda network, reporting that one of the members of the group alleged to be behind the Bali bombing once fought alongside Osama bin Laden. It is unclear, though, whether JI is still operating under the Al Qaeda or merely receives funding from the organization.
Kampulan Mujihaddin/Militan Malaysia (KMM). Founded by Zainon Ismail, a mujaheddin who fought in the Afghan-Soviet war, the KMM seeks the establishment of an Islamic state in Southeast Asia – one composed primarily of Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern part of the Philippines – countries which it deems are “corrupt tools of Western imperialism bent on containing and destroying Islam” (Center for Defense Information, 2005).
The Center for Defense Information (2005) also closely links the organization with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), and through it, the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. In fact, the group is said to have received spiritual guidance, logistical information and funding from leaders of the JI. Some members of the group are also said to have undergone intensive military training in Afghanistan.
The group is relatively small, with only 70 to 80 members, though it has small factions in other Malaysian states, such as Perak, Johor, Kedah, Selanger, Terangganu and Kelantan and even in Kuala Lumpur. It is currently led by Nik Adli Nik Abdul Aziz (Thayer, 2003).
Lakshar-e-Taiba (LeT). The Lakshar-e-Taiba, also known as Lakshar-e-Toiba or Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jamaat al-Dawat, which means Army of the Pure, is a radical Islamic group in Pakistan, which, like the JEM, seek to free Kashmir from Indian control (Aden, Cronin, Frost & Jones, 2004). However, the South Asia Terrorism Portal (2001) says the ideology of the group goes beyond this, seeking Islamic rule in all of India and all the countries around Pakistan without regard to democracy and nationalism. Its founder, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, advocates jihad and the use of force in “a sustained struggle for the dominance of Islam in the entire world and to eliminate the evil forces and the ignorant” and considers India, Israel and the United States as primary enemies of Islam, vowing to establish Islamic rule in New Delhi, Tel Aviv and Washington D.C.
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