New Tremors Feared Along ‘Fault Lines’ of Radical Islam Around the World
ATHENS, Greece Nov 14, 2004 — The same day Dutch mourners gathered outside a crematorium for a final goodbye to slain filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, police on the other side of the world made a horrific discovery in a hut: the decapitated body of a Thai laborer.
The two events in settings as different as tidy and prosperous Holland and a tropical rubber plantation in southern Thailand bear similarities that suggest new flash points in the global struggle against radical Islam.
A note impaled on Van Gogh’s body by the alleged Muslim killer threatened further attacks against Dutch politicians in the name of Islam. The body of the 60-year-old Buddhist worker in Thailand also was found last week with a message: “More will be killed” in revenge for the deaths of 85 Muslim protesters last month in a region with a mounting Islamic insurgency.
“The fault lines are growing,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. “It’s not just between the Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s also within Islam itself. It’s a battle between moderate Muslims and extremist forces that threaten to hijack Islam.”
The most recent hot spots zigzag around the atlas from Liberia in West Africa to the Netherlands to Southeast Asia. They join a growing roster of places already feeling the strains of religious conflict and terrorism along the edges of the Islamic world regions as diverse as Chechnya, Nigeria, Spain, Central Asia and the Philippines. Even China is worried about separatist sentiment in its vast and mostly Muslim western province of Xinjiang.
“The militant voices on the street are gaining credibility in more and more places,” said Gerges. “That’s a worrisome trend.”
Part of the reason, many Islamic experts say, can be traced to global communications that forge common points of reference such as al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s defiance or the guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. But even more powerful rallying cries come from firebrand imams and opinion-shapers: that Islam is under threat and it’s the duty of followers to take a stand.
In Amsterdam, a moderate imam, Abdel Eillah, feared the scales were tipping in a troubling direction among Muslim immigrants in Europe who fail to adapt.
“When I hear young men praise violence in the name of Islam, I fear for my faith and I fear for the world. We must fight it before it’s too late,” he said after the Nov. 2 slaying of Van Gogh, whose work included harsh commentary against traditional Islam. “I didn’t like what Van Gogh said, but he should not pay with blood.”
Dutch police moved sharply against suspected Islamic radicals following the murder. Last Wednesday, special forces stormed a house in The Hague following a 15-hour armed standoff. The two suspects captured among more than a dozen detained since the Van Gogh slaying are under investigation for possible links to terrorist cells accused of plots in Morocco and elsewhere.
New laws were proposed to give Dutch authorities greater powers to hold and investigate suspected terrorists.
“Extremism is reaching the roots of our democracy,” the Netherlands’ prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, said last week in Parliament.
Or as former U.S. ambassador Richard Parker terms it: “The common language of Islamic militancy is growing louder.”
“This is not something that happened overnight. It’s a feeling of injustice among Muslims that goes back decades,” said Parker, who served as a diplomat in Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco. “But now it’s become much more legitimate to say that violence and ‘holy war’ is the proper way.”
The Van Gogh killing and backlash has captured headlines. But the bloodshed in southern Thailand could mark a resurgence of a long-simmering Muslim insurgency and, some officials fear, fertile ground for Islamic terrorists.
Thailand’s Muslim minority has complained for decades about economic and social discrimination by Buddhist authorities. Violence subsided in the 1990s after government concessions for greater funds and Muslim political representation. But the calm began to erode in recent years.
In April, more than 100 Islamic militiamen were killed in raids on security posts. On Oct. 25, at least 85 Muslims died when security forces dispersed a demonstration outside a police station. Most of the victims suffocated or were crushed after being packed into army trucks.
More than 500 people have been killed this year in three southern Thai provinces, including attacks targeting Buddhists in possible bids to drive out non-Muslims. On Friday, suspected Islamic insurgents gunned down a non-Muslim boxing instructor.
Authorities are investigating possible links between separatist groups and Islamic terrorist organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah, which seeks a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia. It’s blamed for attacks including the 2002 bombing in Bali that claimed 202 lives.
Hambali, accused of being Jemaah Islamiyah’s operations chief and bin Laden’s alleged point man in Asia, was arrested in Thailand last year and it’s unclear how much the group has rebounded.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an assistant professor of international relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, believes the strong retaliation from authorities “can only galvanize the Muslim insurgency in the south.”
“We have not yet seen escalation,” he said. “But I still think we may be headed from bad to worse.”
He speculated that the attacks could move out of the south to hit Thailand’s vital tourism industry.
“The gruesome fashion of these (beheadings) by presumably Muslim assailants … is not normal violence,” said Pongsudhirak. “It is driven by deep animosity and hatred.”
In West Africa, a rare outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in Liberia last month stunned authorities and drew comparisons to nearby Nigeria, where more than 10,000 have been killed in sectarian clashes since 1999.
At least 16 people were killed and more than 200 others injured in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, where five churches and two mosques were set ablaze. U.N. troops stepped in to restore order.
“We are seeing more tears in the fabric between Muslims and non-Muslims,” said Mohammad Khalil, who researches Islam and modern society at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “In too many minds, violence has replaced dialogue; calls for separation have replaced efforts at coexistence. These are not good signs.”