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Death of a terrorist

Noordin Top, leader of al-Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, has been shot dead in Indonesia. But there

Just over a month ago, Indonesian police claimed they had shot dead south-east Asia's most notorious terrorist. Unfortunately, it turned out that Noordin Mohammad Top, wanted in connection with both sets of Bali bombings and a further series of bomb blasts in Jakarta, had got away from the house in a village in central Java before the shoot-out. This time, say the police, they really have got their man. The Malaysian-born leader of al-Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, a splinter group from Jemaah Islamiyah, was caught in a raid in Solo, also on Java. Asked to surrender, he continued firing until he was killed instead.

Islamist terrorist groups in south-east Asia make the news when they are successful in perpetrating outrages: either the bombings of the past decade, or when groups based in the Philippines, such as Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, come into conflict with government forces or engage in kidnapping and beheading.

These incidents often lead western observers to imagine that the region is dangerous (which, apart from the far south-east of the Philippines, it is not) and a hotbed of religious fanaticism. In fact, it has historically been home to a very moderate form of Islam, one that has happily accommodated many of the animist and Hindu traditions that preceded the arrival of Islam between the 12th and 15th centuries.

But this relatively easygoing and tolerant approach is under attack. I have written about "creeping Islamisation" in Malaysia for the New Statesman before, and I recommend this article, "Indonesia drops the ball on radical Islam", from the excellent Asia Sentinel, to read further about what's happening on the other side of the Malacca Straits.

While capturing or killing terrorists like Noordin Mohammad Top is naturally to be welcomed, it is also vital to look at the culture from which he sprung. The vast majority of Muslims in south-east Asia would condemn his actions without reservation. But more fundamentalist Islam is gaining ground, with the result that at the same time as Indonesia and Malaysia slowly become more democratic, the liberal and secular freedoms we associate with democracy are increasingly under threat.

As the region is home to 250 million Muslims, more than in the Arab Middle East, wouldn't it be wise for us to pay it a little more attention?