Is Southeast Asia the Next Front?

This is adapted from the introduction to "The Next Front," an examination of rising Islamic consciousness and alienation from the United States and published in Singapore by John Wiley & Sons. A review of the book is published nearby.

See the book review: The Next Front: Southeast Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam

The Muslims of Southeast Asia do not register in the American mind's eye. The US turned its back on them and their homelands when we abandoned the quagmire of Vietnam. We can no longer afford this complacency and the ignorance it breeds.

While Southeast Asia's Muslims have for centuries stood apart from their Arab co-religionists, the differences are beginning to shrink. And that is cause for concern and action, from Southeast Asians as well as Americans. Thirty years ago, while American soldiers were fully engaged fighting Vietnam's Communists, the Muslims of Southeast Asia were almost universally what we would have termed "moderate," had we been paying attention. But because they were God-fearing Muslims, and therefore anti-Communist, we paid them little heed.

We took them for granted. Men seldom grew beards, even those sufficiently hirsute to do so. Some women covered their hair; almost none masked their faces. 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 of that, and much more, is shifting dramatically. Moderation is losing the moral high ground, looked down upon as a tool of Western manipulation. And still we are paying scant attention. The flame of puritanical religious practice, which more and more Muslims perceive as the Islam that Mohammed transmitted from God, was reignited by two events in the Middle East during the latter decades of the twentieth century. Only in retrospect have they been recognized as Earth-shattering.

First, the mullahs' revolution of 1979 in Iran demonstrated to Muslims everywhere that Islam was not merely a litany of rites to be performed in the mosque, but a way of life meant to control their every move as well as the legal system and governance of the state. The second was Saudi Arabia's pouring of vast amounts from its staggering oil earnings into building and running ultraconservative Wahhabi mosques and religious schools throughout Southeast Asia, teaching that their intense practice alone was the true Islam of Mohammed.

At about the same time, Osama bin Laden began agitating for stricter implementation of the faith within the Saudi kingdom. He preached that the influence of Christian-Jewish "Crusaders" was eroding the purity of Islam and that the presence of US troops was sullying the very land of its birth. This culminated in the 9/11 attacks. In direct reprisal, on October 7, 2001, the United States attacked Afghanistan in what the Pentagon called Operation Enduring Freedom. Seventeen months afterward, US forces unleashed the Shock and Awe bombing campaign of Baghdad, laying the groundwork for a swift, cross-country armored assault.

T President George W. Bush and Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, argued that they must "disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people."

It quickly became evident that Saddam did not possess any weapons of mass destruction, and US credibility suffered its greatest blow since we abandoned our friends in Indochina. Throughout the Muslim world and beyond, America became not a defender of freedom but an aggressor.

Many of the Muslims with whom we spoke during our research travels through Southeast Asia said they had been horrified by 9/11. Many others, however, acknowledged exhaling a collective, long-held sigh of relief and vindication for a score settled. Still, they bit their tongues and swallowed their instinctive resentment when the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. They had little empathy for the Taliban and they understood, even if they did not condone, Americans' need to settle their own score with bin Laden and his hosts.

But the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the protracted and violent occupation appalled them. They condemned the war, not because they admired Saddam but because they viewed it as unprovoked and a clear demonstration of Americans' universal disregard for Muslims. They found in the killing, the Abu Ghraib torture, and what they perceived as the blatant hypocrisy of the Guantánamo Bay imprisonments all the proof they needed that Americans cared little, if at all, about the human rights of Muslims and about bringing the blessings of democracy to Iraqis.

In their reality, the United States wanted Iraq's oil, its strategic location as a permanent base for US military forces, and a springboard from which to better defend Israel — the quintessential symbol of Islam's humiliation. After years of theoretical teachings, Iraq provided them with incontrovertible evidence of America's anti-Islamic bias.

Resentment of Western influence, never very far beneath the surface after centuries of colonial domination in Southeast Asia, percolated up to ground level. Muslims we had considered moderate—or "mainstream"—began to take on the fundamentalist trappings of Arabs, though not necessarily their intellectual comprehension. Small percentages of Southeast Asian Muslims, mainly undereducated, unemployable young men, heard the siren call of terrorism and bought into it as the best weapon available to them to fight against their own disadvantaged status and what they believed was the evil of the West. In Indonesia, officials estimate that 2 percent of Muslims fit within the "radical" rubric. While initially that seems reassuring, in a nation of 238 million, 90 percent of them Muslim, 2 percent works out to well over 4 million.

Yet most Southeast Asian Muslims continue to fit Western standards of moderation. Most value democracy and want to live in democratic societies. Most admire much of what Americans believe in and want the United States to remain an active participant in their region's economic and diplomatic lives. But they will no longer accept the big brother–small brother relationship that we have long demanded of them and that their own governments have accepted as unavoidable.

Because we lacked insight the last time we bumbled into the jungles of Southeast Asia, we left with 58,000 of our own and perhaps 6 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians dead. Our greatest failure was to convince ourselves erroneously that if Ho came to power over the South, a reunited Communist Vietnam would align with China, its millennial enemy, and the Soviet Union. Today, by continuing to lump religious fundamentalists together with radical extremists and assuming that they all hate Americans, we are compounding the same kind of simplistic mistakes. First among these is the widespread and insulting tendency to think of all Muslims as Arabs and as terrorists.