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HOW TO HEAD OFF THE NEXT JIHAD
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
March 9, 2006

March 9, 2006 -- TIRED of Aceh, Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya and Kashmir as places to do a spot of jihad? Worried Iraq may be a shrinking market for terrorism, and Pakistan tougher than expected? Consider Thailand - where a little publicized war has raged between Muslim Malay insurgents and Bangkok's army since 2002.

Such is now the talk in international jihadists circles, both in cyberspace and in the network of radical-controlled mosques from London to Amman to Jakarta to Sydney. Well-funded jihadist groups may be preparing a takeover bid for the Malay insurgency.

If that happens, the first and biggest losers will be the Malay Muslims, who have been fighting for autonomy since their land was annexed by the Kingdom of Siam in 1902. But transforming an essentially ethnic rebellion into a religious war is also sure way to do great harm to Thailand's efforts to build a modern society.

The arrival of professional jihadists is a proven kiss of death for Muslim movements, including those with the most legitimate grievances.

Kashmir: The Kashmir conflict started in 1947 as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan as they emerged from the debris of the British Raj. The conflict was over land, borders, water and national security - not religion. Indeed, it could not have been about religion, because there were (and still are) more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.

Initially, all the Kashmiri parties, including those that sought independence or union with Pakistan, were secular, thus keeping alive the possibility of a political solution. But as professional jihadists started to arrive on the scene, the conflict assumed religious characteristics.

The Pakistani military created several jihadist organizations to fight in Kashmir. All now threaten Pakistan's own security.

Turning Kashmir into a religious conflict had another negative result: It was partly in reaction to the "jihad" in Kashmir that the Indians voted a coalition of radical Hindu parties into power for the first time, and kept them there for almost a decade.

Chechnya: In the early '90s, the Chechen nation was building a position to seek the independence that it had intermittently sought for two centuries. After many ups and downs, Chechnya and Russia concluded the Lebed-Mash'hadov accord, which envisaged an amicable divorce, if a set of conditions were met.

But the professional jihadists didn't care whether Chechnya achieved autonomy within the Russian federation or even became independent. They wanted not simply to defeat the Russian "infidel" but to humiliate and destroy him. They wanted a "holy war," not a compromise peace.

In the process, these jihadists ended up killing more Muslims than "infidels." They provoked a full-scale war that forced more than half of the Chechen nation to become refugees all over the world. They also killed Chechnya's hopes of autonomy or independence. A decade ago, a majority of Russians supported independence for Chechnya; today, there is virtually no sympathy left - Russians remember the jihadists' atrocities.

The impact has also been disastrous for Russia. It has allowed President Vladimir Putin to impose an authoritarian style of rule, placing much of the government under military or security control.

Algeria: In 1991, Algeria was divided over whether an election that an Islamist coalition was slated to win should go ahead. This, too, was a political conflict that could have been resolved through political means. In fact, some leaders of the Islamist group, including the late Abdel-Qader Hachani, were engaged in secret talks with the Algerian army leaders to find a compromise.

But then the professional jihadists intervened, starting with series of brutal killings of civilians that had nothing to do with the immediate conflict. In the words of one leader, Jamal Zeituni, they wanted to "shed blood to irrigate the tree of martyrdom."

The jihadists have been defeated in Algeria as they have been, and will be, everywhere else. But over a decade of terrorism they provoked the death of more than 150,000 people, halted Algeria's economic development and slowed down its democratization - and drove more than 3 million Algerians into exile.

IS it possible to avoid a repeat in Thailand? Yes - but the task is not easy.

Just as it takes two to tango, the jihadists always need a partner like that to transform a political conflict into a religious war. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now facing a general election, looks to be walking into a trap.

A former police chief, he is cultivating his image as "strongman," and promises to "crush the criminal," his code-word for Malay rebels, with "an iron fist." Encouraged by Thai nationalist groups who fear further democratization, Thaksin is trying to become an Asian version of Putin.

Urgent moves must be made to prevent the southern Thailand rebellion from becoming another front in the global war that Islamist terror is waging against many different states, including half a dozen Muslim ones.

One initiative could come from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - leader of the world's most populous Muslim state and the key power in Southeast Asia. He could invite the rebel leaders and Thai officials to a dialogue in Jakarta, with a view to organizing a ceasefire followed by negotiations.

The Indonesian leader has the moral authority to make such a move because of his success in ending the 40-year long Islamist rebellion in the island of Aceh. An ex-general, Yudhoyono decided not to play the strongman; instead, he offered the Achenese a large measure of autonomy, some control over their natural resources and linguistic and cultural freedom - in exchange for laying down their arms. The Achenese leaders, with longtime ties to Thailand's Malay rebels, could join the "dialogue" initiative.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) could provide added cover. Thailand, an associate OIC member, could present any peace initiative as a friendly gesture by Muslim countries, not an imposition by hostile powers.

Thaksin must abandon the dream of "assimilating" the Malays by destroying their language, culture and religion. Instead, he must lift the state of emergency he imposed in 2002 and restore at least part of the local autonomy that the southern provinces enjoyed until the late '90s. In exchange, the four principal rebel groups should agree to a moratorium on their demands for full independence and negotiate greater linguistic, cultural and religious rights for their constituents.

All the signals indicate that a substantial segment of the Malay leadership is desperate for a political settlement and apprehensive about the hijacking of their cause by foreign jihadists.

The United States, probably the most influential foreign power in Bangkok, should also take an interest in preventing a new jihadist struggle. While military force should never be ruled out in fighting terror, it is important not to forget the role that the intelligent use of politics could play in meeting the global terrorist challenge.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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