By Fareed Zakaria
This week’s tragic terror attack in New York was the kind of isolated incident by one troubled man that should not lead to generalizations. In the 16 years since 9/11, the city has proved astonishingly safe from terror groups and individuals. And yet, speaking about it to officials in this major global hub 10,000 miles away, the conclusions they reach are worrying. “The New York attack might be a way to remind us all that while Daesh is being defeated militarily, the ideological threat from extremists is spreading,” says Singapore’s Home Minister, K. Shanmugam. “The trend line is moving in the wrong direction.”
The military battle against terror groups in places like Syria and Afghanistan is a tough struggle, but it has always been one that favoured the United States and its allies. After all, it’s a contest between the combined military forces of some of the world’s most powerful governments against a tiny band of guerrillas. On the other hand, the ideological challenge from Daesh has proved to be far more intractable. The terrorist group and ones like it have been able to spread their ideas, recruit disaffected young men and women, and infiltrate countries across the globe. Western countries remain susceptible to the occasional lone wolf, but the new breeding grounds of radicalism are once-moderate Muslim societies in Central, South and Southeast Asia.
Consider Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, long seen as a moderate bulwark. This year, the governor of Jakarta, the country’s capital and largest city, lost his bid for re-election after he was painted by hardliners as unfit for office because he is Christian. Worse, he was then jailed after being convicted on a dubious and unfair blasphemy charge. Amid a rising tide of extremist politics, Indonesia’s “moderate” president and its mainstream “moderate” organisations have failed to stand up for the country’s traditions of tolerance and multiculturalism.
Or look at Bangladesh, another country with a staunchly secular past, where nearly 150 million Muslims live. Founded as a breakaway from Pakistan on explicitly non-religious grounds, Bangladesh’s culture and politics have over the last decade become increasingly extreme. Atheists, secularists and intellectuals have been targeted and even killed, blasphemy laws have been enforced, and a spate of terror attacks have left dozens dead.
Why is this happening? There are many explanations. Poverty, economic hardship and change produce anxieties. “People are disgusted by the corruption and incompetence of politicians. They are easily seduced by the idea that extremism is the answer, even though they don’t know what that means,” a Singaporean politician explained to me. And then, the local leaders make alliances with the clerics and give platforms to the extremists, all in search of easy votes. That political pandering has helped nurture a cancer of extremism.
How to turn this trend around? Singapore’s Shanmugam says that the city-state’s population (15 per cent of which is Muslim) has stayed relatively moderate because state and society work very hard at integration. “We have zero tolerance for any kind of militancy, but we also try to make sure Muslims don’t feel marginalized,” he explained. Singapore routinely gets high marks in global rankings for its transparency, low levels of corruption, and the rule of law. Its economy provides opportunities for most.
Asia continues to rise but so does radicalism there. This trend can only be reversed by better governance and better politics – by leaders who are less corrupt, more competent and crucially more willing to stand up to the clerics and extremists. – Washington Post