Published on Thursday, March 31, 2005 by the Toronto Star
How Southeast Asia Views Bush's America
by Haroon Siddiqui
|Syria should pull out of Lebanon. Iran should be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons. The world should help George W. Bush spread democracy in the Arab Middle East and beyond.
That may be the consensus in North America. But here in Southeast Asia, home to more than 250 million Muslims, the response is: "Yes, but."
This was encapsulated for me in several interviews, two in particular — one in Jakarta with former Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, and the other in this Malaysian capital with a respected political scientist.
Chandra Muzaffar heads the International Movement for a Just World, a non-governmental organization. He is a former director of the Center for Civilizational Dialogue at the University of Malaya.
He said most Malaysians and Indonesians have come to believe that the West wants "to dominate, suppress, marginalize and mock Muslims.
"Bush is just more blatant about it and Lebanon, Syria and Iran are only the latest examples.
"You ask Syria to vacate Lebanon but not Israel from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
"You want Syria to withdraw its troops even while American troops occupy Iraq.
"Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons but no questions are to be asked of Israel, which has nuclear weapons.
"Bush talks of democracy, liberty and freedom but he tries hard to silence Al-Jazeera.
"People here look at all that and say, `What hypocrisy is this?'"
Damaged American credibility also makes the job of Muslim reformers like Muzaffar that much more difficult.
"Many madrassahs, for example, need to reform their curriculum. But if America wants it done, it cannot be done."
Muzaffar takes solace that America, as powerful as it is, is not the whole West. And Bush is not America, where half the voters don't agree with him.
"One should not allow him to speak for the West, just as one should not allow Osama bin Laden to speak for Muslims."
Muzaffar is equally critical of fellow Muslims, too many of whom, he said, remain silent against the "screaming, dogmatic and atavistic clerics."
As Muzaffar spoke of the "siege mentality" of Muslims, Sharifa Zuriah, a founder of Sisters in Islam, an advocacy group for Malaysian Muslim women, sitting nearby intervened:
"Muslims have developed a complex. They think they won't be heard if they don't shout. Every statement is like a war."
Muzaffar agreed but said that while Muslims relate to red-hot rhetoric, they do vote sensibly.
"When it comes to choosing their governments, Muslims in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia have chosen leaders and parties who can help them make sense of Islam in the contemporary world.
"Yet you won't get this sense from the Western media, which always choose the fringe to represent Islam and all Muslims.
"If Muslims are a problem to some people in the West, the Western media are a problem for most Muslims."
In Jakarta, former president Wahid — the moderate leader of Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, the Nahdatul Ulama, with 30 million members — said: "Muslims feel cornered by everybody, especially the West and try to defend themselves by all means, including bombs."
Not that he approves of violence. But he said Bush has made matters worse with his unilateralism, especially his "foolish" adventure in Iraq.
Roderick Brazier, an Australian who works for the Asia Foundation in Jakarta, echoed that assessment: "A majority of Indonesians do feel that America is at war with Muslims and Islam," partly because of American support for Israel against the Palestinians.
U.S. post-tsunami aid did tamp down anti-Americanism in the region, he said, but the estrangement remains.
One associates anger at America with the Middle East, West Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It is significant that it has seeped so deeply in Southeast Asia, home of the so-called Islam Lite, pluralism and pro-Western traditions.
It's a useful reminder that Islam and Muslims, too, have had their globalization.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
© 2005 Toronto Star