9th Asian Security Conference

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  • Session II: Terrorism and Rise of Religious Fundamentalism

    Rapporteur Report
    Pushpita Das and Th Khurshchev Singh
    February 9, 2007

    In his paper titled “Terrorism, Insurgency and Religious Fundamentalism in Southeast Asia,” Andrew Tan differentiated between terrorism and insurgency. He defined terrorism as “the use of violence, usually against selected urban or human or human targets, as a means for further ethno-nationalist or religious objectives.” Insurgency, according to him, “is essentially planned and organized violence aimed at establishing bases that are secure from the control of the Central government.” He also differentiated between old and new terrorism. Some of the features of new terrorism are motivation by apocalyptic, millenarian religions espousing violence, transnational mode of operation that disregards national borders, etc. Al Qaeda is a prototype of new terrorism. Tan explained that Southeast Asia has been designated as the “Second Front” in the Global war on Terrorism because of a substantial Muslim population in the region. Most of the militant groups in the region are local in origin, as issues of poverty and oppression have caused alienation. Most of these militant organizations do not resort to violent tactics except for the Jemah Islamiyah (JI), which is suspected to have links with Al Qaeda. Tan concluded that a comprehensive strategy is required to contain terrorism in the region. Instead of resorting to military means, governments should attempt to win the hearts and minds of alienated people and try to tackle the fundamental roots of alienation and rebellion.

    Jawahar Hassan, in his paper tilted “Terrorism, Insurgency and Religious Fundamentalism in Southeast Asia,” asserted that the rise of terrorism in Southeast Asia in the 1970s coincided with the rise of religious identity among its Muslim population. He defined terrorism as “organized violence against civilians in pursuit of political objectives;” whereas insurgency is “an uprising against the State.” Religious fundamentalism, in his view, is “understood to describe religious, social or political groups that believe in the literal and total application of religious teachings.” He argued that religious fundamentalism poses a potential security threat only when its beliefs are translated into violent acts. He too stressed that terrorism in the region is basically home grown and the political agendas of groups resorting to this tactic are restricted to their own grievances. They do not constitute part of “international terrorism,” except for the JI, which has links with Al Qaeda. He is against any generalization of militancy in the region and emphasized that each militant group is unique and should be viewed in its own context.

    Azyumardi Azra’s paper titled “The Rise of Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism: An Islamic Experience” focused on terrorism and religious fundamentalism. He explained that some Islamic doctrines like jihad are abused to justify acts of violence and terrorism. There is, therefore, an urgent need for Muslim scholars to reinterpret the concept of jihad to prevent any religious validation for acts of violence. A start towards this was initiated in Indonesia with the formation of the Anti-Terrorism Team comprising of Ulemas to disseminate the valid interpretation of jihad to institutions including educational institution. Although the manifest reason for terrorism seems to be the rise of religious fundamentalism, in reality politics, both domestic and international, is the root cause.

    “Terrorism and Rise of Religious Fundamentalism” by Afsir Karim focused on the scourge of terrorism in South Asia. He contended that fundamentalism is a sociological, rather than a political, phenomenon. Fundamentalists consider terrorism as a justified defence against modern secular tendencies, which threaten to destroy Islamic values. Consequently, the increase of free flow of fundamentalist ideas and members of terrorist groups across countries, coupled with the availability of new technologies and weapons, would make terrorism a threat around the world. India, in Karim’s view, is a victim of cross border terrorism. Terrorists trained in Pak’s madrassas take advantage of the porous border to commit acts of terror in India. He also expressed apprehensions about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh and the future possibility of these elements taking control over that country.

    The ensuing discussion included a focus on the issue of Muslim solidarity and the Ummah as well as on the question of whether terrorism is more effective as a tool in weak states. Questions raised included:

    • Do terrorist movements have religious objectives? Does Southeast Asia also face sectarian violence?
    • Does the concept of Ummah apply to Southeast Asia? What is the binding force for Ummah? Is it Arabic language and Haj?
    • Comment on the concept of unequal war.
    • Is the concept of clash of civilizations influencing the analysis on terrorism?
    • Why is JI move effective in Indonesia than Malaysia? Where does State weakness figure in this equation?
    • What is the role of modern technology in the spread of terrorism?
    • What is the distinction between fundamentalist and extremist groups?
    • Does JI exists in the same form it did prior to 2001-02 or has it mutated?
    • What is the definition of terrorism? Is the State also a perpetrator of terrorism if terrorism is defined as violence against the civilian population?

    Responses from the Panel

    • There is an element of the concept of clash of civilizations in the contemporary analysis of terrorism, which idea got reinforced after 9/11. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what we are actually witnessing today is not a clash of civilizations but a clash of interests over land, ideologies, etc. In the contemporary world, the clash is between the ideologies of Western countries, which are essentially secular, and the worldview of people who use religion as a binding force.
    • JI is more effective in Indonesia because it is an Indonesian group formed during the Darul Islam Movement during 1948-1960. Also, Indonesia lacks the capability to contain JI. After the introduction of democracy in 1998, many Islamic groups formed to articulate their grievances. In addition, Prime Minister Habibi lifted the anti-subversive law, which allowed the JI to operate more effectively. The failure of government law enforcement agencies and the decentralization of authority were also instrumental in the persistence of JI in Indonesia.
    • Ummah, both theologically and sociologically, is a romanticized and idealized concept. There are differences between Muslim communities. Therefore, the movement to establish an Islamic state failed as it failed to garner any support from its own community. In addition, the concept of caliphate is also romanticized.
    • The distinguishing factor between fundamentalists and extremists should be the use of violence.
    • JI today is a loose network. It has a single fundamental document PUPJI. Differences have crept into JI regarding the strategy and tactics that the movement should adopt. As a result, there has been a great deal of fragmentation in its network. In addition, it got involved in local sectarian violence.
    • State can also be a perpetrator of violence, since it has greater access to military means. Examples include the Junta in Myanmar, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, etc.