Thailand

PREACHING JIHAD IN A PEACEFUL LAND

Militancy is on the rise among the country's Muslims,

Adnan R. Khan February 24 2003
Thailand

PREACHING JIHAD IN A PEACEFUL LAND

Militancy is on the rise among the country's Muslims,

Adnan R. Khan February 24 2003

PREACHING JIHAD IN A PEACEFUL LAND

Militancy is on the rise among the country's Muslims,

Adnan R. Khan

Thailand

"JIHAD IS COMING TO THAILAND," Abdul Nasir tells me, "and I am ready for it. All Muslims must prepare for it." The call for holy war coming from a 21-year-old Malay-Muslim living in Bangkok is jarring—the city is better known for its go-go bars than its Islamic militants. But as Nasir sits in the courtyard of the Jamee ul Islam mosque in the Bangmakua district, surrounded by other Muslims dressed in a distinctly Arab way, there is a harsh reality in what he says. Thailand, which is majority Buddhist, has remained relatively calm amid the religious violence that has gripped neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. But now, it seems, no place is immune to the growing tide of Muslim discontent, not even a country as supposedly benign as Thailand.

Southeast Asia is experiencing a marked rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Among many adherents, the United States and the West are viewed as the enemy—something tragically underscored by the Oct. 12 bombing of a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali that killed almost 200 people, many of them foreigners. Authorities say the plan to attack so-called soft targets such as tourist destinations was hatched on Jan. 28 at a meeting of Muslim extremists in Thailand— which may itself be facing bloodshed. "I think there is a danger of terrorism in Thailand," says Arong Suthasasna, director of the Institute of Islamic World Studies in Bangkok. "The feeling for jihad is definitely stronger after Sept. 11."

Especially in the south of the country by the Malaysian border, where Malay-Muslim separatists, divided from their co-religionists in Malaysia by an arbitrary border a century ago, have striven for their own nation. Resentment there has been simmering for years; now, in the wake of Sept. 11 and the subsequent start of the U.S. campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—not to mention the threat of war against Iraq—experts say the situation is coming to a boil. Nasir, who is from the south, counts himself among those Muslims who believe the West is a threat to

Islam. "I was in Pakistan for the past six years studying Islam," he tells me in flawless Urdu, Pakistan's official language (I am of Pakistani background). "When I returned, I decided I was needed more here than in the south." He now teaches Koranic studies at the pondoks—Thailand's version of the religious schools that are attached to mosques. "Jihad is our duty," he says ominously before heading into the green-domed mosque for evening prayers.

That militant message, which emphasizes a Muslim's duty to defend Islam even if that means taking up arms, is clearly finding an audience in Thailand. For the real story behind this new militancy, one Islamic expert advised, "you should head south and see for yourself." I set out for Sungai Kolok, the only town of any significance on the Kolok River marking the border with Malaysia.

Thailand's minority Muslims, numbering 2.4 million of the population of 62.4 million, are concentrated in this southern region. At first glance, there is little to suggest that the war on terrorism may be about

to find a new battleground here, amid swaying palms, rice paddies and rubber-tree plantations. But the area's Islamic character is obvious. In Sungai Kolok, every morning at the first sign of light, the call of the muezzin echoes through narrow, empty streets and into bedroom windows, reminding people of their duty to God.

At the mosque in the heart of Sungai Kolok, the conversation quickly turns to the plight of Muslims around the world—and threats against the enemy. "I tell you," says one of the dozen men seated on the floor, "if the U.S. attacks Iraq then Americans will have a problem here. We see them all the time, walking to the train station on their way to Bangkok. If Iraq is attacked, they will be in trouble." The others nod their heads in agreement. Most are Pakistani expatriates, ethnic Pashtuns from the northwest frontier near the Afghan border, who arrived in southern Thailand on the coattails of returning Malay-Muslim students like Nasir. They have a strong affinity with the Taliban, its spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, and his failed attempt to create a socalled "pure" Islamic state in Afghanistan.

Muslim extremists like Osama bin Laden

are honoured in this region. There is mourning when reports circulate of an al-Qaeda fighter being captured or killed. The feeling is strongest in the more remote villages along the banks of the Kolok. My translator tells me that most of the more militant religious schools are there—away from the eyes of government.

It is a dangerous area, much of it under the control of smugglers and drug traffickers. As in the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the border separating Thailand and Malaysia is only a political division bisecting an older culture. People pay little attention to it, crossing back and forth at will. There are pondoks on both sides; some Thai children cross into Malaysia for their religious studies, despite accusations by the Malaysian government that schools in the area are preaching hate.

Many villagers living on the banks of the river say that Islam is under threat. Outsiders are not welcome; paranoia appears to be widespread. "If we see a white person in Sungai Kolok," says one farmer, "we worry he may be from the CIA or FBI." He has built his own mosque and pondok, so his children will not be exposed to outside in-

fluences. "They study the Koran here, close to the family—what else do they need?" he asks. "Everybody around here is angry with the U.S. They're bullies. Nobody wants their children to mix with non-Muslims so we keep them close to us."

Abdul Majid bin Ahmed, the imam of Kampong Baluka, a small village nestled among banana trees, expresses much the same sentiments. "No Buddhists or Christians here," he proclaims with a raised finger. My own presence draws suspicious glances from the locals. Foreigners don't usually venture into this remote part of the country and I'm the first outsider most have seen in years. (At a previous village, I was ac-

'Everybody around here is angry with the U.S.

They're bullies. Nobody wants their children to mix with non-Muslims so we keep them close to us.'

cused of being an FBI or CIA spy and asked to leave by the local imam.) "Most of the imams here have gone abroad to study," my translator, a Malay-Muslim, explains. "Mostly to Saudi Arabia, but sometimes Egypt and Pakistan. They are highly respected for it and the villagers look to them for leadership. But I don't like it. They are too strict and never happy, these imams."

As the influence of the imams spreads, Thai authorities find themselves in a precarious situation. They must deal with international pressure to clamp down on extremism, while facing the possibility of violence if they are perceived to be interfering in Muslim affairs. But officials acknowledge they are nervous—especially over what is being taught in the pondoks. "If students are not in the government system," says Prongtip Khaimook, head of policy and planning for Narathiwat province in Thailand's southernmost region, "we do not control the curriculum, or even monitor what is being taught." Increasingly, those lessons appear to be revolving around militancy—raising the possibility that Thailand may find itself facing the same violence that has already affected its neighbours. Ii1]