Book Review: The Next Front: Southeast Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam

See the book excerpt here: Is Southeast Asia the Next Front?

Alarmed by reports of rising fundamentalist Islamic activity in the nations of Southeast Asia, US Sen. Christopher Bond and Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent Lewis Simons traveled through Mindanao in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Southern Thailand to attempt to ascertain the level of rising jihadi activity in those countries.

The result is The Next Front, a well-researched 276-page book published earlier this month by John Wiley & Sons. Given the fact that it was co-written by a veteran Republican US senator, it is a book that proceeds from one premise: What does this mean to America?

Despite the generally alarming feel to the book – the front flap says Southeast Asia will be the next front in the fight against global terrorism - it is quite a sober examination, much of it built on an exhaustive tour of the region in which the two actually talked to human beings – a physician whose wife was raped and whose son was murdered by Abu Sayaf insurgents in Mindanao, a Jihadi who helped to assemble a massive car bomb that blew up outside the Philippine embassy in Jakarta and killed two people and severely injured 20 others, a successful Muslim lawyer who defends Islamic clients in Jakarta courts, Malaysia's former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and many more. It is a book built more on anecdotal evidence on the ground than deep Google searches or policy reviews in US embassies or consulates. And, one gets the feeling, it is far more Simons' work than Bond's.

Simons has been a respected foreign correspondent since 1967 throughout Asia, for the Associated Press, the Washington Post and Knight-Ridder before it collapsed into the McClatchy Newspaper chain. He won the Pulitzer for delineating the billions of dollars that former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, stole from his country. And, one gets the feeling, one of his major jobs was to keep the saddle and bridle on Bond. "The authors continue to disagree sharply with each other over the advisability of the United States having gone to war in Iraq," they state in the conclusion. Bond, vicechairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, is an unadorned hawk who refused to sign on to a major Intelligence Committee report accusing US President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of hyping intelligence to get the US into the Iraq War.

Nonetheless, the book draws some thoughtful conclusions about what the United States gets wrong not only in Southeast Asia but the world in general. "The disconnect between Americans and Muslims is based almost entirely on American's certainty that they stand in defense of freedom and human decency and Muslims' equal assuredness that Americans adhere to a double standard that is wholly biased against them," they write. "These antagonistic convictions, taken together, constitute powerful glue that holds organizations such as the MILF together and draws them into closer contact with Muslims of the worldwide ulama."

They quote an attorney in Mindanao quite appropriately: "You Americans lack any sense of history. That's why you're in such trouble in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. All you know and care about is what you consider the moment's reality on the ground. But that's all wrong. Muslims today are trying to project their history onto their future, and if Americans don't understand that, you don't understand anything."

It is quite clear, the authors write, "that American exceptionalism will not forever shield us from history's harsh lessons. To come to terms with the world's Muslims, we are going to have to learn from and pay respect to their history."

So, at the end of the book, how justified is their alarm about the Muslims of Southeast Asia? There have been serious incidents over the past few years that, if American newspaper editors ever actually paid any attention to the region, should have US readers shivering in their easy chairs – if they would bother to read newspapers, that is.

There is no better example than the church burnings that took place in Malaysia at the early part of this month. What made the news was the fact that 11 Christian churches in a predominantly Muslim country were attacked with Molotov cocktails after the Prime Minister tacitly gave approval to Islamic worshipers outraged over the use of the word Allah for God in the Malay language sections of the Catholic Herald newspaper. (Read The Fallout from Malaysia's Allah Flap, Asia Sentinel, Jan. 20, 2010, for additional details).

What none of the stories tell, (admittedly including the Asia Sentinel story cited above), is that these 11 incidents do not appear to have been a mass movement in Malaysian society. They were instead a handful of occurrences committed by hotheads. The bulk of Malaysian Muslims were horrified by them, if the country's multitude of blogs were any measure, or the dozens of letters to editors and others. In fact, after the first burnings got underway, teams of Malay Muslims took to the streets to protect Christian churches. In both Indonesia and Malaysia, seeming religious protest is largely driven by political agendas rather than religion, except in the case of bombers who targeted the Bali nightclubs and hotels in Jakarta. They were rounded up rather effectively and were a tiny cell.Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines is more a bandit gang making money off ransome.

The moderate attitude is prevalent across much of Southeast Asia. Indonesian Muslims, despite headlines of repressive movements in Aceh and other areas, remain tolerant as they grow more prosperous, although their concept of themselves as part of the larger global Muslim community continues to grow.

Previously, the authors write, "people greeted each other in the vernacular selamat pagi, never the Arabic salaam aleikum. They thought of themselves first as ethnic Malays and only then as Muslims. All that, and much more, is shifting dramatically as the Muslims of Southeast Asia turn increasingly to the Middle East to reaffirm their identity."

Part of the answer to American concerns is one they really probably never thought of. That is that Southeast Asia, as it grows more prosperous and slowly slips into the Asian ambit of China, is probably less preoccupied with America than it has been for many decades. The growing economies of the region are delivering their own promise to the citizens, except in the trouble spots of southern Thailand and Mindanao, where Muslims are truly trapped by the predominant Buddhist and Catholic cultures respectively as second-class citizens and where they stand little chance of breaking out of their poverty and isolation. But the bulk of the millions of Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia are getting ready to join the middle class. They see the promise of better times. That ultimately is what is most likely to keep them out of the ranks of the jihadis.