US loses hearts in Muslim Asia

JAKARTA: Amien Rais has fond memories of studying in the United States more than two decades ago. 

A legislator and contender for Indonesia's presidential election next year, he came to admire American democracy while pacing the corridors of the University of Chicago with students such as Syafii Maarif, now head of Indonesia's second biggest Muslim group. 

But since US-led forces marched into Iraq, he feels those qualities he so respected have been turned on their head. 

He said the administration of President George W. Bush was alienating the elite in the world's most populous Muslim nation, many of whom lived on US campuses, and it could take years to rebuild trust in US intentions toward the Islamic world. 

That sentiment is found elsewhere among the US-educated elite in Pakistan, Malaysia and among the Muslim minority in India, raising the question of the consequences for US policy on such an influential body of public opinion in Muslim Asia that one would expect to be normally sympathetic towards Washington. 

“We are disillusioned. We believed that America was the bulwark of democracy. We know about the noble system of American values, but then suddenly the United States mobilises hundreds of thousands of (soldiers) to remove Saddam,” said Amien.  

Despite harsh words from Indonesia's Muslim elite – Maarif calls Bush a “war criminal” – few expect them to become outright militant, but some fear their many moderate followers could. 

Maarif has repeatedly urged his 30-million member Muhammadiyah group and other Muslims not to resort to violence. 

In Muslim Asia, support for the war on terror might be the first casualty if the elite lacks the will or ability to keep followers on a peaceful path. 

That concern exists especially in Pakistan, where anger is strengthening the hand of Islamic radicals and leaving the liberal elite that is supportive of the US and the war on terrorism feeling threatened and isolated. 

“I used to be among the staunchest supporters of US foreign policy prior to this war. But I think Bush has antagonised a lot of people like me worldwide,” said Javeria Abdullah, a US graduate who works for a multinational company in Karachi. 

Added Aslam Khan, a businessman from a prominent Muslim Indian business family: “I used to support and argue strongly in favour of US market policies and liberal political values.” 

“But after Iraq, I feel embarrassed I did that. If I go on a holiday today, I would not go to the United States. I don't want to be harassed because of my religion,” said Khan. 

At the moment most governments have too much to lose by going beyond verbal criticism of the US, a vital trade partner. That could change if the war drags on, street protests explode and America's normal friends lose the will to sell a non-violent and cautious approach to the conflict to the public. 

“We are in a real dilemma. When journalists ask me do I agree to cutting off diplomatic ties I say, 'No, don't even think about that, you are being emotional',” said Amien. 

In Asia, the spotlight of the US-led war on terrorism has been on Pakistan and more recently Indonesia in the wake of October's Bali bombings that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists. 

Moderate Muslim leaders in Indonesia openly backed the war on terror after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the US. 

They may be less inclined to give unqualified support now. 

The religious right in Pakistan is already on the rise since the invasion of Iraq and “jihad” or Muslim holy war is back on the political agenda. At risk, liberals there fear, could be Islamabad's partnership with the US in the war on terror. 

Amien said he still supported the battle against terrorism but warned the Iraq crisis could jeopardise the fight. 

“I can accept the simple logic held by many that sometimes people will be transformed into a kind of radicalisation, if these moderate people see injustice is not addressed,” he said. 

Other US-educated elite in Asia such as Azyumardi Azra, head of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, said the US had lost the moral high ground when talking about democracy and respect for human rights. 

This had deepened scepticism about US intentions and policies in Muslim Asia, moderate leaders said. 

For many, there was a clear difference between going after Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network – blamed for the Sept 11 attacks – and seeking to remove Saddam. – Reuters  

  • Another perspective from The Jakarta Post, a partner of Asia News Network. 

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