The illustrious and deservedly beloved Hugh Fitzgerald has sent me this precise,
perceptive, and courageous address by Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Notes Hugh: “Goh Chok Tong has given no indication of being a devout follower of Pat Robertson. Nor is there any record of his changing his name from something reminiscent of Perle or Wolfowitz… He does, however, live between Malaysia and Singapore, and has a lifetime of experience with Islam.”
Chris Patten would do well to read this speech carefully. What follows here are some good excerpts, but it is all excellent. Read it all.
The war against terrorism could shape the 21st century in the same way as the Cold War defined the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall. To win, we must first clearly understand what we are up against.
Terrorism is a generic term. Terrorist organizations such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or ETA in Spain are only of local concern. The virulent strain of Islamic terrorism is another matter altogether. It is driven by religion. Its ideological vision is global. It is most dangerous. The communists fought to live whereas the jihadi terrorists fight to die, and live in the next world.
My perspective is formed by our own experiences in Southeast Asia which post Sept. 11 has emerged as a major theater for terrorist operations. In December 2001, Singapore arrested 15 people belonging to a radical Islamic group called the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). They were plotting even before Sept. 11 to attack American and other Western interests in Singapore. In August 2002, we arrested another 21 members of this group. Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have also made many arrests of terrorists.
The JI regional leadership spanned Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Southern Philippines. Its tentacles even probed into Australia. JI’s objective was to create a Daulah Islamiyah, an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. This was to be centered in Indonesia but would include Malaysia, Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines, and, inevitably, Singapore and Brunei.
But the most crucial conclusion our investigations revealed was this: the existence of a transregional terrorist brotherhood of disparate Southeast Asian groups linked by a militant Islamic ideology to each other and to Al Qaeda. Whatever their specific goals, these groups were committed to mutual help in the pursuit of their common ideology: they helped each other with funds and support services, in training and in joint operations.
In 1999, JI formed a secret caucus called the Rabitatul Mujahidin, meaning Mujahidin Coalition, to bring together various militant Southeast Asian Islamic groups. It was responsible for the bombing attack against the Philippine Ambassador to Indonesia in Jakarta in August 2000. The brain behind the attack was Hambali, the link man between Southeast Asian terrorism and Al Qaeda. Fortunately, he is now under arrest.
But the threat remains. It stems from a religious ideology that is infused with an implacable hostility to all secular governments, especially the West, and in particular the U.S. Their ultimate goal is to bring about a Caliphate linking all Muslim communities. Their means is jihad which they narrowly define as a holy war against all non-Muslims whom they call “infidels.”
Likewise, JI’s ultimate goal is a Caliphate, by definition not confined to Southeast Asia. The dream of a Caliphate may seem absurd to the secular mind. But it will be a serious mistake to dismiss its appeal to many in the Islamic world, though the majority do not believe in killing and dying for it.
But there are radicals and militants who do. The terrorist brotherhood in Southeast Asia and its links to al Qaeda were first forged through the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Ibrahim Maidin, the leader of the Singapore JI cell, underwent military training in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. His encounters with the Mujahidden deeply impressed him. Maidin wrote several letters to the Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and to Osama bin Laden. He asked whether Mullah Omar was to be regarded as the Caliph of the Islamic World. After returning to Singapore, Maidin arranged for JI members to visit Afghanistan and to undergo training there.
Islamic militancy is not new to Southeast Asia. But what is new is this type of fanatical global ideology (including the phenomenon of suicide bombers) that has been able to unite different groups and lead Southeast Asian groups to subordinate local interests to the broader struggle.
Ibrahim Maidin has confessed to a senior Singapore intelligence officer that
in retrospect he had made the mistake of moving too quickly and should have
waited for Malaysia, Indonesia, the Southern Philippines and Singapore to
become an Islamic state before acting against U.S. interests. But he still believes that his side would ultimately win.
From our experience in Southeast Asia, I draw three principal conclusions that I believe have a wider relevance.
First, the goals of these terrorists make the struggle a zero-sum game for them. There is no room for compromise except as a tactical expedient. America may be the main enemy but it is not the only one. What Osama bin Laden offered Europe in April was only a “truce” [if it stopped “attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs including [participating] in the American conspiracy”], not a lasting peace. The war against terrorism today is a war against a specific strain of militant Islamic terrorism that wants, in effect, a “clash of civilizations.”
The JI has tried to create the conditions for Christians and Muslims in Southeast Asia to set against one another. In December 2000, it attacked churches in Indonesia, including one church in an Indonesian island off Singapore. It has sent its members to fight and stir up trouble in Ambon against Christians.
One of those we detained in Singapore was a service engineer with an American company. He confessed that he actually liked his American friends
and bosses. He was nevertheless involved in targeting American interests. We
have a sense that he had struggled with this. He eventually decided to testify against the spiritual leader of JI, Abu Bakar Bashir, but only because he felt betrayed by Bashir’s denial of the very existence of the JI organisation which Bashir headed and to whom he and other members had sworn allegiance.
And just as Osama bin Laden is trying to drive a wedge between Europe and America, in Southeast Asia, JI was plotting to do the same thing by blowing up the pipelines that supply water from Malaysia to Singapore. The JI knew that water from Malaysia is a matter of life and death for Singapore. They knew that race and religion have historically been the major fault lines within and between both countries. The JI’s intention was to provoke a conflict between Singapore and Malaysia and portray a “Chinese Singapore” as threatening a “Muslim Malaysia,” and use the ensuing confusion to try and overthrow the Malaysian government and establish an Islamic state in Malaysia.
That particular plot failed. The governments of Singapore and Malaysia could not have allowed it to succeed. We know only too well what is at stake.
My second conclusion is that it is only through absolute and unsentimental clarity about the threat we face that we can define, differentiate and therefore, isolate militant Islamic terrorism from mainstream Islam. It is not sufficient to repeat, mantra like, that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and do not believe in violence. Unfortunately, we too often sacrifice clarity to be politically correct.
This brings me to my third and perhaps most important conclusion. Just as the Cold War was an ideological as well as a geopolitical struggle, the war against terrorism must be fought with ideas as well as with armies; with religious and community leaders as well as police forces and intelligence services. This ideological struggle is already upon us. Unless we win the battle of ideas, there will be no dearth of willing foot soldiers ready to martyr themselves for their cause.
We know that we should work with the moderates and isolate the extremists. But as we seek to separate the wheat from the chaff, we need to recognise that both come from the same plant. How we seek to engage and encourage the Muslim world to fight the ideological battle against the extremists must reflect this sensitivity and awareness.
This is complicated but not impossible. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi fought the Islamic party, PAS, on the issue of the kind of Islamic state that Malaysia should be. He won a resounding victory in the general elections. He checked PAS’ advance towards an austere Muslim state with Sharia laws with his vision of an Islamic state that is Islam Hadahri or “Progressive Islam.” He has joined issue not on whether Malaysia should be an Islamic state but on the nature of such a state; and the struggle to define Malaysia’s Islamic state will continue for a long time. In Indonesia, Islamic based parties generally did not do as well as parties that do not campaign under the banner of Islam in the recent parliamentary elections. But the Islamic parties will remain a crucial swing factor in the presidential elections later this year.
Let me conclude with a few words about the role of the U.S. Only the U.S. has the capacity to lead the geopolitical battle against the Islamic terrorists. Iraq has become the key battleground. Before he was killed in Saudi Arabia, Yousef Al Aiyyeri, author of the al Qaeda Blueprint for fighting in Iraq, said: if democracy succeeds in Iraq, that would be the death of Islam. That is why Osama bin Laden and others have put so much effort to try and break the coalition and America’s resolve to stay the course to build a modern Iraq that Muslims will be proud of. Those who do not understand this, play into their hands. The key issue is no longer WMD or even the role of the U.N. The central issue is America’s credibility and will to prevail. If that is destroyed, Islamic extremists everywhere will be emboldened. We will all be at greater risk.
If we are to win the war against terrorism, we must, as Sun Tze in “The Art of War” says, understand the enemy. And we must, all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Asians, unite against it. But we must create the conditions that will make this essential unity possible.