Terror attacks in recent months — some claimed by Isis or its adherents — suggest that the Sunni Islamist extremist group and its violent, ultra-conservative ideology are successfully extending their influence to Asia from the Middle East and Europe, The FT’s Victor Mallet reports:
In a world of instant connections via the internet and social media, the growing popularity of the Isis brand among young Asian Islamists should be no surprise. Asia is home to about 1bn Muslims, nearly two-thirds of the world total, and has undergone waves of radicalisation in earlier decades.
Western governments are particularly concerned about Russia and central Asia, an important source of the foreign fighters who join Isis in the Middle East, and see radicalisation in other parts of Asia as well.
“Asia-wide, it’s more of a concern than people think for the governments concerned,” says one western official. “You’ve essentially had the
Islamic radicalisation, the Daesh [Isis] brand . . . though you still have a range of local brands.”
The U.S. government should find room for a well-funded regional media effort promoting tolerant, liberal Arab Muslim values in contrast to the vision of Salafi jihadism, argues Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
This is a longer-term project that has value in promoting the pluralism and open discourse that are anathema to movements like IS and al-Qaeda, he writes for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
Some pioneering efforts to do this have arisen in the private sector (e.g., Fikra Forum). And clearly there are enough eloquent individuals in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and even the Gulf states who hold tolerant worldviews but are rarely empowered by Washington or anyone else — certainly not on a consistent basis, and not remotely like the support lavished on a range of non-IS Salafi media…..
Washington should also look to expand the scope of nongovernmental messaging platforms and organizations in the Middle East, with the goal of building sustainable messaging efforts against Salafi jihadists. Last month, for example, an IS “Wilayah Nineveh” video launched as part of a coordinated campaign on North Africa spent almost as much time attacking Sufi Muslims and liberals as it did criticizing political authorities. The Salafi “sea” from which IS rises should not be ignored — encouraging regional partners to push back against the political and societal discourse that sets the stage for violence is good policy.
Finally, it must be remembered that the Islamic State is only one part of a larger ideological trend that is inimical to U.S. values and foreign policy interests, notes Fernandez, a former State Department coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications :
The petri dish where it and al-Qaeda evolved was not created overnight, and the political, military, and ideological factors that led to their rise will not be easily reversed. Salafi jihadism needs to be fought on every front, and there seems to be a slow coalescing of critical mass against it; for example, witness the Marrakesh Declaration that emerged from a recent conference on “Religious Minorities in Muslim Lands,” jointly convened by the Moroccan government and the UAE-based “Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.” Yet the jury is still out on whether these efforts are too cosmetic, superficial, or esoteric. The challenge is to translate understanding and alarm into substantive policies and projects that are as self-sustaining and nimble as IS has proven to be.
The world’s largest Muslim-majority country is highly tolerant. Among the five principles of the Pancasila founding philosophy of the Indonesian state is a belief in one God — but none in particular — and minority groups have long controlled pockets of the archipelago, from Hindus in Bali to Christians in Papua, The FT adds:
There have been signs of creeping piety in recent years: a growing number of young women choose to wear the veil, more Muslims are fasting during the holy month, and sharia-inspired laws have been introduced in several provinces. Academics say these trends indicate political corruption and fashion more than a pronounced shift to radical Islam. Security analysts, however, say that a new generation of extremists is emerging, while pro-Isis fighters returning from Syria could provide the training needed to revive local networks.
“This kind of competition spells more violence because it gives an incentive to the different groups to outdo one another and show that they are the most active proponents of Isis,” says Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based security analyst. “Isis is now what is binding everything together.”