SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001

Keeping the lid on Malaysia


"Without doubt, this is a tragedy of humanity . . . However, it is deplorable how certain political parties are trying to capitalise on this issue, using the most disgraceful methods." So goes the reaction in Malaysia to the terror attacks on the United States, as written by 19-year-old college student Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad in The Harakah Daily newspaper.
His comment highlights the dilemmas in Malaysia, a country where Muslims, who make up just over half the population, are divided as never before. Any canvass of opinion in Malaysia about the US-led "War on Terrorism" is driven almost solely by the country's highly partisan domestic politics.
Across the political spectrum, the message is mixed - deploring the terror attacks and expressing condolence and at the same time resenting US policy in the Middle East and America's free-wheeling definitions of "terrorism".
Near one end of the spectrum are those who delight in the new-found opportunity to crush "terrorists", especially if they happen to be part of growing domestic opposition to the Government.
When the executive director of the often pro-government Malaysian Strategic Research Centre, Abdul Razak Baginda, was asked whether the US attacks could lead to a further crackdown on Islamic militants in Malaysia, he said: "Well I sure hope so . . . To me, there is only one way to deal with fanatics - clamp down. If the US wants to retaliate against the sponsors of terrorism . . . the Americans would do us a damn good favour."
At the other end of the spectrum are the calls for all good Muslims to obey the call for jihad (holy war) the moment Muslim brothers in Afghanistan come under attack. One can almost pity the political leaders trying to navigate such troubled waters.
"If [we] want to wipe out terrorism, the problem in Palestine must be eradicated as well as that in Iraq and Chechnya," said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, appearing to play to domestic Muslim concerns. "Only when there is no fresh oppression will the problem of terrorism be overcome."
Yet he was speaking as he made a personal visit to the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to sign the condolence book, in a statement of concern not made, for example, by leaders in Indonesia. Finding the facts about actual terrorist activity in Malaysia, or links to America's prime suspect Osama bin Laden, in hiding in Afghanistan, is tricky in such a setting.
It was Dr Mahathir who first raised the spectre of radical Islamic terrorism in Malaysia, long before the attacks on New York and Washington. On August 4, Malaysia's police arrested Nik Adli Nik Abdul Aziz, the son of Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Last Tuesday, police and the Home Ministry sent Nik Adli to jail for two years.
The 34-year-old is accused of plotting a campaign to establish Islamic rule across the region. "Your actions aimed to topple the Government through an armed struggle and replace it with a pure Islamic state comprising Indonesia, Mindanao and Malaysia," read the detention order heard in court.
Nik Adli is also alleged to have been planning to overthrow Dr Mahathir's Government, plotting assassinations and sending Muslims to battle Christians in Indonesia's Maluku Islands. His period of alleged military training in Afghanistan in the early 1990s is listed too, but there was no overt allegation of links to bin Laden.
Government investigations of the Kumpulan Mujahedeen Malaysia (KMM) - allegedly led by Nik Adli - have so far led to the arrests of 12 people, most of them from PAS.
As in Indonesia, the prism of fear created by the US attacks has led to old events taking on a new meaning, such as the murder last November of state assemblyman Joe Fernandez in Kedah, northern Malaysia. When it happened, the idea that it might be related to a wider militant Islamic conspiracy with roots right back to bin Laden in Afghanistan was not mentioned.
Now, it is listed as part of a mosaic of growing threats to the free world as we know it. The KMM is also blamed for several armed bank robberies, attempted murders, a mini-market robbery, an attack on a police station and the bombing of a Hindu temple in Malaysia. Two Malaysians caught in Indonesia in connection to bombings there are alleged to have KMM links, although they deny it.
One clue to links with bin Laden, which has been confirmed by the US, is the sighting of Khalid al-Midhar, who the FBI says was one of the hijackers on the plane that smashed into the Pentagon. He apparently met with associates of bin Laden in Malaysia in January last year, including one who was later named as a suspect in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October last year. Meanwhile, a former member of bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement, Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadhl, has also told a US court that money was deposited in Malaysia, which Malaysian authorities deny.
Going beyond this to a wide-ranging local conspiracy is another matter, made no easier by Dr Mahathir's divisive effect on public opinion. With his use of the Internal Security Act to detain people indefinitely without trial, public scrutiny of the legal process is rare.
The Nik Adli case could presumably allow Dr Mahathir to say "I told you so", showing how he is far ahead of the anti-terrorist campaign now raging in the US. But because the allegations of home-grown terror come straight from Dr Mahathir - who has steadily lost credibility among his Malay Muslim constituency since he fired Anwar Ibrahim, his popular deputy, in 1998 and later had him imprisoned - many Malaysians refuse to believe them.
"In the States, it might be a matter of being with the US or with the terrorists," said an educated Kuala Lumpur resident. "For us here, it's a matter of being with Mahathir or not. But the trouble now is that even though we're not with Mahathir and all his talk of the so-called Islamic threat, the attacks on the US force us to look again," the resident said.
"Certainly Mahathir is transparently using allegations against PAS for his own purposes," said political scientist Harold Crouch, head of the Jakarta office of the International Crisis Group, who spent many years in Malaysia.
"But I think, abstractly, regarding Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere, we have to assume these [terrorist] groups exist. I'm not sure how significant they really are. Regarding Nik Mat's son for example, we can't deny the possibility he's involved, but we likewise can't deny the interests of Mahathir in this."
Several leaps of faith are required if the Government's version of burgeoning conspiracies in Malaysia are to be believed. After accepting the existence of the KMM, questions need to be asked about any proven connection between it and PAS. The main evidence so far brought to the public on this is the arrest of Nik Adli, which remains too politically convenient for some to swallow.
Also, as several analysts point out, it is hard to believe that anyone who has studied in Pakistan is by definition a trained terrorist and follower of bin Laden.
"I would say perhaps a maximum of 100 Malaysians have been involved in Afghanistan but remember, that was when the Mujahedeen was fighting Soviet occupation," noted political analyst Farish Noor.
"It was not a jihad but a war of liberation. Also some of the students who went there are from middle-class families connected to Umno [Mahathir's ruling United Malays National Organisation], not only people from PAS."
At the same time, there are no doubt "some nutters" in PAS, another analyst said.
"It's a widely mixed party, with some loose canons, some ideologues who go on far too much about theological purity and jihad."
Mr Noor agreed, noting that Nik Aziz Nik Mat studied at the Deodandi school near Delhi, India, which is one of the most conservative and a source of inspiration for Afghanistan's ruling Taleban.
But no general whipping up of fear and loathing is good enough in law: "We've got to take each alleged threat on a case-by-case basis, dealing honestly with actual evidence, or we'll get nowhere," another source said.
However much Dr Mahathir might choose to exploit rising fears of Islamic extremism, his anti-terrorism message carries great risks too. Just as with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, he wants to assist the US and tackle home-grown threats at the same time as sustaining or shoring up local support among the Muslim community.
The challenge faced by both leaders, and others of countries with large Muslim populations, is to try to please two very different constituencies at the same time: the pro-Western voters who fear radical Islam and the often anti-American Islamists.
Even placing the debate in this either-or fashion is disturbing to progressive analysts in Malaysia. It strengthens the extremes of opinion, between repressive government and militant Muslims, while squeezing those in the middle who want the Internal Security Act abolished and the creeping conservatism stopped in its tracks.
"It's very confusing. To accept what Mahathir says about terrorism is equated with an endorsement of his policies. And there's a growing sense that it gives Mahathir a pretext to act against the opposition in general," said political analyst Mr Noor.
"This is a dilemma for a lot of human-rights activists and others. And I speak for myself also. We are pressing for a more liberal and tolerant society, a more relativist approach to religion, but now it's very difficult for us.
"Once the militant card is played, we all have our backs to the wall. It's a discourse of absolutes."
Vaudine England ( ) is the Post's Jakarta correspondent.