American Muslim reformer frets over spread of radical Islam in Asia

Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta

Radical Islam is growing in Asia. One widely-known American Muslim reformer says that’s because Saudi Arabia — which he calls a cauldron for radicalism —  has got its tentacles increasingly into the region to promote its extremist version of Islam. At the same time, the success of terror group ISIS is emboldening Islamist groups in Asia.   

“Malaysia is becoming more radicalized….Why? Because of the Saudi influence,” Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, told Borderless News Online.

Jasser was referring to the turn toward stricter Islam that Malaysia has seen in recent years — such as banning music authorities deem as “un-Islamic” — which is largely a result of Saudi-financed imams. While Islam in Malaysia has existed alongside other religions such as Hinduism and Christianity for hundreds of years, Saudi Arabia, awash in oil money, has financed the spread of its intolerant brand of the religion.

Not far away, Indonesia is seeing the rise of a vocal minority of radicals.

“Indonesia is among the countries where an environment of radical Islam is growing, flexing its muscles and causing the government to cower to its demands,” Jasser said.

“Unfortunately (the government) is giving in to the bullies of the Islamist movement,” he said.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia — a major U.S. ally — has for years quietly been getting its hooks into Asia and pushing its brand of intolerant Islam. Within Saudi Arabia, that version of the religion has led to extreme violence against women and the public beheading of so-called apostates.

This goes back more than 30 years. In 1980, Saudi Arabia founded the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic, or LIPA, in Jakarta, Indonesia’s largest city. The school is completely free, and has churned out thousands of graduates who studied a puritanical version of Islam — a far cry from the much less rigid and much more tolerant version of the religion that most Indonesians practice. Men and women are separated, and casual dress such as jeans, as well as music and TV, are strictly off limits. The Saudis have plans to expand the university and establish branches in other major cities, and to boost graduates from 3,500 to ten thousand per year, according to journalist Margaret Scott. 

Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, despite the fact that the Islamist state has promoted radical ideology worldwide, and has allegedly had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

At the same time, young radical Muslims from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are increasingly inspired by terror group ISIS. Thousands of Asians – the largest group of all foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria – have headed to the Mid East to fight for ISIS, and it was recently reported that a band of young Malaysians started their own, Malay speaking unit of radicals to fight with ISIS.

This move toward extremism has also been underscored by hundreds of thousands of Indonesians who’ve taken to the streets of Jakarta to demand that the city’s governor, an ethnic Chinese Christian, be prosecuted under the nation’s blasphemy laws. His crime? Interpreting a verse in the Koran to mean that Islam allows non-Muslims to rule over Muslims. The comment has outraged a very vocal minority of radicals, prompting them to demonstrate in the hundreds of thousands, causing the judiciary to put the governor on trial for blasphemy. A popular governor, experts said he could be jailed for the comments.

Critics said the governor committed no crime, and that the charges are ridiculous, contending that a vocal minority is bullying the government into caving to demands to reduce the separation of mosque and state. The judiciary is backing down, and moderate Muslim groups have wilted away out of fear. Violent attacks by Islamist street thugs on the nation’s gay and transgender communities are on the rise. Recently radical groups in the nation’s second city, Surabaya, roved through local shopping malls – with police protection – and threatened stores not to make employees wear Santa clause hats or other Christmas garb. Moderate Indonesian Muslims told Borderless they wonder if the radical groups will become even more brazen, especially since everyone seems to be caving to their demands.

“(Indonesia is) proving the point, that…an anti-Islamist movement, a counter Islamist movement…to somehow to come to terms with modernity, liberalism and freedom,” is needed, Jasser said.

While Indonesia boasts the world’s largest Muslim population, critics said the archipelago risks tarnishing its reputation as a success story of a massive Muslim population that can coexist with other religions and live under Democracy.

Jasser contended Indonesia’s judiciary is afraid of the Islamist movements. Moreover, he surmises they might not be as democratically inclined as they seem, even amid the Jakarta governor’s blasphemy trial.

“These judges might not be as ideologically secular as we think they are. These judges see that if they don’t convict this guy, and the same thing with the police, if the police don’t arrest this guy, then there are vigilante acts done against police. We see this in Pakistan,” he said.

Indonesia is still a moderate Muslim country, and this reporter has always been welcome there and treated with respect and kindness, despite not being Muslim. But the danger is that Indonesia is creating an environment of intolerance, and that could breed even more violent extremism than has been seen in the past, some experts said. Indeed, police in Jakarta in December killed three suspected terrorists who were allegedly planning attacks over the Christmas holidays. A year earlier, four victims were killed in a terrorist bomb attack in Jakarta.

“Indonesia shouldn’t even have on the books blasphemy laws if it truly separates mosque and state. This is the schizophrenia of states like Indonesia who claim to be secular,” he said.

In Indonesia, there are many seeming contradictions. Prostitution is illegal, yet it’s widespread in major cities, and critics have said it’s possible that the same radicals calling for a ban on sex workers also frequent brothels in secret. During the Christmas season, the majority Muslim country sees airports and major hotels decked out in holiday lights, as well as staff wearing Santa hats.

The nation seems to have the underpinnings of a secular state, but yet on the books it has anti-blasphemy laws and anti-apostasy laws. Female genital mutilation – the cutting off a girl’s clitoris at an early age – is still practiced in many parts of the country, noted Jasser.


Despite the fact that terror group ISIS’ back is against the wall in its Middle Eastern strongholds amid the U.S.-led bombing campaign, it’s attacks on civilians worldwide have boosted recruitment. Many supporters see the group as winning what they think is a doomsday battle between radical Islam and the rest of the planet.

“Every successful act of terror completed by ISIS is a recruitment tool. Regardless of what happens on the battlefield, if they see Westerners, even women and children, dying,” they are seen as successful, Jasser said.

Sympathizers don’t care about what happens on the battlefields in the Middle East, as long as ISIS continues to mount bombing attacks outside the Middle East, such as in the West and in Asia, he said.

“This is why you have to defeat them quickly. You can’t let these slow processes of a two or three year battle against ISIS,” he said.

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