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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2001 / 25 Kislev, 5762

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Emerging friendships? -- AS the Taliban collapses, Washington is filled with advocates of dramatically expanding the war on terrorism. But the U.S. will do best working with friendly countries.

For instance, Malaysian police have just arrested Nur Misuari, a Filipino Muslim insurgent turned provincial governor, who fled the Philippines after staging an uprising on the southern island of Jolo, in which 160 people were killed.

The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Bush administration's focus on terrorism have transformed the international firmament.

Russia is helping whole heartedly, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia much more reluctantly. Terrorism reaches into East Asia, where Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic nation, is a tentative ally at best. The Philippines is willing, but incapable.

Nearby Malaysia is more helpful. Indonesia is a particular problem. An unstable democracy has succeeded the Suharto dictatorship; President Megawati Sukarnoputri is an uncertain leader who took office only after parliament ousted her erratic predecessor. The economy is a disaster, with extensive government mismanagement discouraging foreign investment. And the country is an ethnic volcano, plagued by religious conflict and multiple secessionist movements.

Yet President Megawati took time away from pursuing the military campaign against rebels in the province of Aceh to demand that the U.S. cease military operations over the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Killing Muslims is apparently OK, so long as the killing is done by Muslims.

More stable is Malaysia, though its relationship with the Clinton administration was often difficult. Kuala Lumpur is, however, serious about combating terrorism. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed his condolences after the World Trade Center attack and endorsed Washington's goal of eradicating terrorism.

At the recent APEC summit in Shanghai, President George W. Bush thanked Mahathir for his nation's support. Indeed, at a recent conference at the School for Advanced International Studies, there was general agreement that the increased tempo of meetings and visits suggested a warming relationship. Such contacts could reach beyond the immediate concern of breaking international links to terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Improving relations will take work. Mahatir has, for instance, criticized the bombing of Afghanistan. But he must contend with Islamic radicalism at home. The president of the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia, or PAS, Datuk Fadzil Noor, led a protest across from the U.S. embassy. Party secretary General Nasharudin Mat Isa declared: America's bombing "is a clear act of terrorism by America against innocent people of Afghanistan."

PAS is interested in more than the Afghan people. As cabinet minister Lim Keng Yaik warns, PAS "is trying to use an international matter to gain local political mileage." Roughly 60 percent of the population is Malay and Muslim. Chinese Malaysians, many of whom are Christian, make up roughly 30 percent of the population. About 10 percent are Indians or others.

Ethnic tensions are evident in Malaysia as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but Mahathir has managed a more successful balancing act than other leaders. He has been prime minister for two decades, boosted by good economic growth. However, he now finds it more difficult to win support from both Chinese and Malays, his traditional strategy.

In the November 1999 election, Mahathir retained power, but a slowing economy and political controversy cut his party's vote among ethnic Malays by as much as 20 points. Ominously, PAS gained seats in parliament and control of a second state.

Although PAS has won support from some younger, more moderate professionals, its leadership tends toward theocracy. There have also been worrisome indications of violent fundamentalist activity. The Mahathir government warns that the extremist organization, Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia, has been involved in assassinations, bombings and robberies. It has also apparently cooperated in violent attacks in Indonesia.

PAS denies any ties to the KMM, and some question the group's existence. But PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat has warned: "If the U.S. doesn't stop [bombing Afghanistan] and Malaysians want to retaliate, it would be unwise for me to stop them."

Moreover, Islamic fundamentalists in Malaysia have aided terrorists in Indonesia and guerrillas in the Philippines. Nur Misuari was arrested at a training came for the Moro National Liberation Front, long active in the Philippines. Mahathir argues that Islamic extremists want to unite radical Muslims in all three countries.

Malaysia's government has yet to face a serious threat. Two other parties have left the opposition coalition because of PAS's anti-American stand. Nevertheless, PAS has been seeking respectability at home and abroad. A strong public stand by the Mahathir government -- of the sort lacking in such countries as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- should help prevent extremists from winning over the Muslim majority.

Combating terrorism is not easy. Allies are essential, particularly in the Islamic world. It is better to work cooperatively than intervene unilaterally. One of the most important international friendships that might emerge from the war on terrorism is that between America and Malaysia.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


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