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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Asia's Muslims uncertain after US attack
Twin towers
Many Asian businesses were based in the twin towers
By Mangai Balasegaram in Kuala Lumpur

Beyond the initial shock and horror of Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the US, many Muslims in South-East Asia - as elsewhere - are now looking at the likely repercussions on their own communities.


We could see a new crisis, in a Muslim-Christian confrontation

Dr M Nasir
Many have expressed concern about a backlash and US retaliation against fellow Muslims elsewhere.

"There's fear that the West may equate terrorism with Islam," says social activist Dr M Nasir in Malaysia.

"This could snowball, and we could see a new crisis, in a Muslim-Christian confrontation."

His comments are echoed by Syed Azman , a MP with Malysia's Islamic party in opposition, PAS, who says there is a danger that innocent Islamic communities could become demonised.

"We urge the the media, especially the Western media to exercise retraint and act responsibly when reporting this act," he said.

Malaysian worker reads about US attack
Islam is the dominant religion in much of Asia
But the attacks - if proven to have a link to Islamic terrorists - also have greater political implications right at home.

Muslim extremism remains a politically explosive issue in many Asian countries with significant Islamic communities.

Many governments might now be pushed to rein in militant groups, particularly amid reports of Afghan links, but further polarisation between moderates and extremists could upset an already delicate balance.

Polarisation

"The potential for polarisation and division is there," says political scientist Suzaina Kadir, from the National University of Singapore.

Divisions in responses to the attack are already appearing within the community.

In Indonesia, some Mulim protesters shouted anti-US slogans
In Indonesia, some Mulim protesters shouted anti-US slogans
"Not everybody has been fully sympathetic [to the American victims]. I was unhappy to see these reactions, but I was not shocked," said Ms Kadir.

"The situation is complex because it involves US foreign policy - there has been long-standing resentment against US policy in the Middle East."

Such sentiments seep through editorials in local newspapers, which while condemning terrorism, also argue that this is the product or "revenge" for America's Middle East role.

In Malaysia, police arrested two men on Thursday accused of harassing or threatening the US Embassy.

Afghan link

Islamic militants have gained a strong foothold in parts of the region. In Indonesia's Aceh province and the southern Philippine islands, they have been waging separatists wars.

Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels
Aceh rebels have been fighting for an independent Islamic state for decades
In the Moluccas, members of Laskar Jihad were blamed for whipping up attacks on Christians. Last year, extremist members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, pledged to lay down their lives to secure the rule of former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Im Malaysia ealrier this year, police rounded up members of an extremist Muslim group, KMM, blamed for an assassination on a Christian politician, and attempted attacks on temples and a brewery.

"Prior to the attacks, governments in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were looking at the potential for Muslim extremism. This now bolsters the position of these governments - it legitimises their fear," says Ms Kadir.

What may be particularly alarming are reports of links between some of these extremists and Afghanistan. Some members of KMM in Malaysia and the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines reportedly spent time in Afghanistan.

There have also been rumours that Osama Bin Laden has been travelling incognito around the region to help promote his cause.

Governments may come under pressure to clamp down on these extremists, but in doing so, they might spark a tinderbox at home, particularly if the gulf widens between the Muslim and Western world.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Daniel Lak in Delhi
reports on the Indian victims in New York
The BBC's Charles Scanlon in Tokyo, Japan
"There is overwhelming sympathy here for the United States"
Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.


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