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Rising Extremism in South East Asia: Dangerous Repurcussions

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Chickens are finally coming home to roost in South East Asia. Christians are being attacked in Malaysia and their churches being burnt down. The seemingly unending scuffle over the name of Allah has imploded the fragile society of Malaysia that is already teeming with racial disputes. The rising violence should not be any surprise to anyone as Malaysia has emerged as the new center of Islamic extremism. The region is home to the largest concentration of Muslims after South Asia and they cannot remain aloof from the rising tide of militancy in other parts of the Muslim World.

Although it was a court ruling that stirred the recent spate of rioting, Malaysia and Indonesia are not immune to Islamic extremism. Malaysia, in particular, has become the hotbed of extremism and exporting it to Indonesia and Brunei. It was even before the 2002 Bali bombings when extremists from Indonesia and Malaysia started interacting with their counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hundreds of Malaysian and Indonesians participated in the Afghan Jihad during 1980s and they maintained their contacts after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. Unlike their Afghan and Arab counterparts, Indonesian and Malaysian militants were relatively more assimilated into their respective societies and did not face any major repercussions. There were, however, other forces in the region that were not ready to tolerate the pluralistic and relatively moderate societies of South East Asia.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has become an important player in this game. Although it is losing political power -- with just seven seats in national parliament down from 27 in 1999 elections -- its leaders have shored up their support for Islamic extremists. A faction of the party is even against the democratic process. Although it veered off from its usual stance and supported the court ruling, many party leaders would be happier with the recent attacks.

Indonesians have also rejected Islamic parties in polls but it does not mean that they have lost their support. Conservative Islamic parties around the world are eschewing from the democratic process for a more hard line approach. Even those that are still involved in the democratic process, like the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, are gradually endorsing more violent activism. Jamaat has a tattered past when it comes to violence and the new crop of leaders are further propagating the notion of alienation from the west and a direct confrontation. It boycotted the 2008 elections in Pakistan and thus has no representation at any level except for a couple of Senators that are about to complete their terms.

Jamaat, Prosperous Justice Party, PAS or any other Islamic party in other parts of the Muslim World has never enjoyed a mass popularity. Some of them maintain active links with extremist outfits while others offer a more shrouded assistance to extremist groups.

Pakistan has become the hotbed of Islamic extremism and its main exporter but Indonesia and Malaysia should not follow the same path. Apart from the racial and geopolitical situation, which calls for a pluralistic secular society in these countries, these countries are located in a region that cannot afford any other crisis. The row over use of Allah should come to an end in a peaceful manner. Allah is for everyone and Malaysian Muslims have no right to claim ownership of this word.