The main reasons for the growing popularity and strength of Islamic jihadi terrorist groups in Southeast Asia

To understand how Islamic jihad gained support in Southeast Asia, it is important to gain cognisance of its founding principle.  And the present wave of Islamic revivalism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia originated during the 1970s. The movement started as a reaction to the disillusionment and failure associated with modern neo-liberal economic policies.  The first world has had longstanding association with Muslim-dominant nations that are oppressive, authoritarian and dictatorial.  A prime example of this would be Saudi Arabia, with whom the United States and its allies (including Australia) don’t seem to have a problem, in spite of copious evidence of severe human rights violations within its borders (Smith, 2002, p.34).  This apparent hypocrisy of the west had induced a sense of discontent and anger within the wider Islamic community.  That is when influential Muslim thinkers such as like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb involved themselves in social activism, which later spawned militant outfits like the Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah.  This point is illustrated succinctly in the following passage:

“Islamic radicalism in Southeast Asia is not a sudden and recent phenomenon. In reality, it has been in the making for more than 20 years; its roots originate in events in the Middle East, the effects of which have reverberated worldwide. This in turn was facilitated by the impact of globalization and technological advancement. However, the catalytic role played by Al-Qaeda, especially since the early 1990s, is perhaps the single most significant factor in the global terrorist threat confronting the world today.” (De Castro, 2004, p.194)

To gain a deeper understanding of the rise of Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia, we need to delve into its instigating causes.  The first and the seemingly perennial of the three is the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Ever since the installation of Israel in 1948, a status of second-class citizenship was imposed on the native Arab Muslims in the region.  American interference in Iran, where it deposed democratically elected government and handed over the reigns to the Shah.  The subsequent dilution in Islamic values in Iran as a result of Shah’s inclination toward modernity and his apathy toward declining economic conditions had enraged Iranians – a radical section within its population has pledged participation in Jihad.  And thirdly, when the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union played out their Cold war conflict in Afghanistan, its people felt “used and exploited” by the hegemonic western powers (Smith, 2002, p.33).  These blatant political indiscretions on part of the First World and the more subtle cultural imperialism in the form of capitalism and material consumerism have provided sound rationale for organizations such as Al Qaeda (in Afghanistan and the Middle East) and Jemaah Islamiah (in Southeast Asia) to fight for their right to self-determination.

The key to the support of outfits such as Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia is the underlying common Islamic precept shared by its people.  The various Islamist terror groups across the world are not distinguishable by ideology, for they all claim to fight for Islam in their respective regions.  A powerful leader such as bin Laden was able to successfully franchise Islamic Jihad to a broad range of local Muslims, each with their own unique history of suffering and grievances.  Hence, there is an aspect of fluidity in the locations/regions in which various units operate.  Jemaah Islamiah was initially founded in Singapore, but now has spread its tentacles to other parts of South East Asia.  It now poses the greatest threat to Australian interests.  But even Jemaah Islamiah was inspired by Osama bin Laden and in that sense all these terrorist groups with different labels are essentially the same for all practical purposes.  In other words, the common mandate provided by Osama bin Laden–a broad based jihad against the enemies of Islam–facilitates these outfits to persevere with their domestic struggles, but is contained within the broader global cause, namely, the defense of Islam. In Southeast Asia, some important groups that came under the influence of Al-Qaeda, include “the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the KMM, and Jemaah Islamiah” (Brimley, 2006, p.30).


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