LOS ANGELES — Location, in politics as well as in real estate, is almost everything. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair came calling on U.S. President George W. Bush, America’s foremost ally raised with Washington the tender issue of repairing badly damaged relations with America’s “old Europe” friends. That’s not bad advice at all, of course. The views and indeed friendship of Paris and Berlin are important to have, especially over the long run.
But had it been the prime minister of Malaysia or the president of Indonesia showing up at Camp David last week, our Texas Methodist president would have been exposed to a profoundly different perspective. What you see — and what you lose sleep over — so often depends not only on where you stand but also with whom you live.
Living in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, not to mention Tehran and Cairo, are a lot of devout Muslims. In Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, Muslims account for 95 percent of the people; in Malaysia (which has twice the population of Belgium), 52 percent. There are 133 million Muslims in China, 10 million in the Philippines.
Muslims comprise 17 percent of Singapore’s population and 14 percent of India’s. Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim — just like Iraq. Across the region, the followers of Allah are extremely potent domestic political factors.
This fact creates a religious dimension to this war even though that’s the furthest thing from the mind of the invading coalition. Unwittingly, however, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has stepped into centuries of roiling history involving clashes between East and West.
And so the worry in Asia, especially among America’s supporters, is that the Bush administration may have saddled itself with a lose-lose strategy. To lose the war to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, of course, would be unthinkable; but victory inevitably will be twisted by Muslim radicals — hardcore fundamentalists or ultraconservative revivalists, not to mention venomous terrorist groups — to make the case that colonialism has returned to their neighborhood in force and with a vengeance.
The unwanted consequence of that propaganda line could be to vault Islam’s worst elements into positions of power and influence, leaving the vast middle ground of moderate and reformist Islam behind in the dust. The American occupation of Iraq, no matter how short-lived, would be rhetorically bookended with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands for incendiary political effect.
An Islam more or less united against the United States would be a force far more awesome than Iraq, even on Hussein’s best day. Already fiery speeches in mosques from Egypt to Pakistan are calling for a jihad. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (who supported last year’s U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan) recently blasted the war effort: “Today the U.S. is more belligerent than Hitler.”
An absurd statement, but one that’s inspired by domestic politics: The prime minister’s ruling party confronts fierce fundamentalist Islamic opposition that proposes to convert secular Malaysia into an official religious state like Iran. Indonesia, another secular state, is home to the world’s largest Muslim population. Recently, the head of the Indonesia-based Liberal Islam Network, Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, said: “From my perspective, the Bush war in Iraq is a sort of jihad, its own sort of fundamentalism.” LIN is a progressive reformist group that pointedly campaigns against Islam’s deeply encrusted ways (veiled women, etc.).
Such Islamic reverberations in Asia could trigger corresponding tremors in the United States, where Islam is perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, soon to eclipse Judaism in numbers. The Islamic community has been cooperating responsibly with the FBI in fighting the domestic war on terrorism and reaching out to Christian religions. Even so, it is continually the target of ethnic profiling and hate crimes, more than ever now as emotions over the war heat up.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, has even distributed a “community safety kit,” a booklet offering worried Muslim-Americans advice on how to make mosques safer, how to respond to bomb threats and how to deal with suspect letters and packages.
Defusing a potential Islamic bomb of worldwide anti-U.S. hatred is as important as locating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. That can be done only if Bush himself takes the lead, as he did poignantly but briefly a few days after 9/11, when he directly addressed the Islamic Center in Washington. With evident feeling, the president praised the Islamic community’s contributions to American life and excoriated perpetrators of anti-Islamic hate.
“When we think of Islam,” he said then, “we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race — out of every race.”
The remedy to the rise of anti-U.S. fundamentalism is not to lose the war to Iraq, of course — but to win the peace that will follow. This means America must do everything possible not to alienate the hearts and minds of Islam.
Diplomatically, winning back Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta is as important as mending fences with Bonn and Paris. Domestically, America must be munificent as well as meticulous in its dealings with its 6 million or so Muslims. The Blair vision covers only part of the globe.
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