SPEECH BY MR GOH CHOK TONG,SENIOR MINISTER, AT OPENING CEREMONY OF EAST-WEST DIALOGUE, 16 NOVEMBER 2005, 6.30 PM AT BARCELONA, SPAIN

AFTER AMMAN: UNITING TO DEFEAT TERRORISM

 

 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

 

A New Focus

             New challenges have changed and also sharpened the focus of East-West Dialogue.

2                             During the Cold War, such a dialogue would have focused on nuclear arms control.  The peril of atomic warfare held the world's attention.  However, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed the strategic picture.  Without a clear, common threat, pundits predicted the end of history and the world reaping dividends of peace.  But the events of September 11 surfaced an insidious, growing threat.  The attacks on the US hastened a new post-Cold War battle against global radical Islamic terrorism.  In essence, this terrorism is a war waged by fanatical Islamists against civilisation itself.  Their goal is to replace secular or moderate Muslim states with a caliphate based on their narrow, distorted interpretation of Islam and an imaginary ideal vision of 7th Century Arabia.  Their enemies are both Muslims and non-Muslims - Muslims who do not agree with their goal and non-Muslims whose way of life they reject.

3                             This transnational threat confronts all civilised nations today.  The "Alliance of Civilisations" is therefore a timely initiative.  I commend the Dialogue's broad themes.  However, for the East-West Dialogue to have real impact, we must be clear what exactly we are discussing.  Our objective for meeting cannot just be to promote greater cultural awareness between East and West.

4                             While East and West may have different political, cultural and social values, they are not enemies.  Putting aside diplomatic niceties, I believe that to have real meaning, the Dialogue must focus on the threat of transnational terrorism to human civilisation, including to Islam.  The "Alliance of Civilisations" must unite to defeat this global scourge, whose latest victims were innocent Jordanians.  I feel deeply for the Jordanians because I have visited their beautiful country twice and I know King Abdullah II well.  However, my own perspective of terrorism is shaped primarily by our experience in Southeast Asia.  Post 9/11, my region has emerged as a key theatre for operations by the global jihadi network.  In Southeast Asia, we face a trans-regional coalition of terrorist groups.  Most prominent amongst them is the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network which has links with Al-Qaeda.  These groups are all linked by the same radical and militant ideology of Al-Qaeda.

Understanding the Threat

5                             I spoke on this growing challenge at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC in May last year.  My speech was entitled "Beyond Madrid: Winning Against Terrorism".  It addressed the ideological aspect of the war against terrorism.  From our own Southeast Asian experience, I drew three major conclusions that I believed contained wider relevance.

6                             First, I pointed out that to the jihadists, the struggle was zero-sum.  They sought to bring about their goal of an ideal Islamic world through violent means, confident that they would triumph eventually.

7                             Second, I highlighted that we must distinguish militant Islamic terrorism from mainstream Islam.  I had warned that if we failed to make this distinction, we risked alienating all Muslims.

8                             Third, and most importantly, I urged that the war against terrorism must be waged ideologically as well as with armies and security forces.  Like the Cold War, it was both a struggle of geopolitics and ideologies.  Unless the entire civilised world united and fought terrorism ideologically, we would not be free of terrorists for a long time.  A steady stream of so-called martyrs would set off more bombs and cause more damage.  However, I also noted that today's struggle was more complex than the Cold War.  The ideology we were up against was based on religion.  The battle of ideas must therefore be fought primarily by and in the Muslim world.  But the international community could help.  We must gain the confidence of the moderates to engage the extremists vigorously.  If not, this battle would be difficult to win.

9                             Over the past year, the spate of terrorist attacks in Riyadh, London, Sharm El Sheikh, Bali, New Delhi and now, Amman, tragically confirms these conclusions.  The latest attacks also revealed two dangerous trends that complicate security actions in the war on terror.  First, global terrorist groups are becoming increasingly decentralized and dispersed.  Second, terrorist leaders are able to continue recruiting new operatives worldwide.  Of particular concern is their ability to convince 'clean-skins', or fresh, home-grown recruits, to mount suicide attacks.  In the Amman attacks, the terrorists even used a husband-and-wife suicide team.  They were deployed to detonate themselves at a wedding party.

Spread of Suicide Ideology

10                         For Southeast Asia, suicide terror is a relatively new phenomenon.  The Bali attacks of October 2002 had seriously escalated the violent tactics used by the extremists.  More suicide bombers in Indonesia have since joined the first Bali bombers.  The recruits are typically about 20 years of age.  They come mostly from the working class.  They have little education and only a shallow understanding of Islam.  Indonesian authorities have also discovered that many prospective recruits were drug addicts.  Glorifying "martyrdom" inspires these suicide bombers to give up their lives for the terrorist cause.  Their weaknesses are easily exploited by terrorist leaders.  It took the JIís top strategist, Noordin Mohamed Top, only two days to recruit the suicide bomber for last yearís bomb blast outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.  These leaders are usually better educated than their recruits.  But they are equally willing to die for the cause.  Azhari Husin, Noordinís compatriot, was about to detonate himself when he was shot in a gun battle with Indonesian security forces.  Azahari received his PhD from Reading University in the UK and lectured at Universiti Technologi Malaysia, before he disappeared to become the JIís bomb-maker.

11                         Along with their zeal, the region's militants are becoming increasingly skilled and sophisticated.  After the first Bali attacks, the Indonesian authorities stepped up security measures.  However, the terrorists adapted to the new conditions to launch last month's repeat attacks on Bali.  Instead of traceable vehicle bombs used in previous attacks, they deployed three walk-in suicide bombers with explosives in their backpacks.  The bombers are suspected to be 'clean-skins'.  They were unknown to existing terrorist detainees and had not surfaced on the radar screens of security services in the region.

12                         This was also the case in the Amman bomb blasts.  In fact, only recently a Jordanian Minister recounted to me the hot-housing of young Iraqi suicide bombers.  Iraqi youths aged between 15 and 18 years were brainwashed to undertake suicide missions, after being recruited by the militants for only one or two weeks.  On an assigned day, they were told not to take lunch as they would be eating with the Prophet Muhammad after their supposed martyrdom.

13                         The 7/7 London bombings also confirmed the spread of this fanatical and cruel ideology.  After the London attacks, television audiences heard a chilling message recorded by one of four home-grown London bombers.  Speaking with an English accent, he declared:

"I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe.  Our driving motivation doesn't come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer  ...  We are at war and I am a soldier".

14                         The 30-year old bomber graduated from a British university.  He had worked with primary school children and left behind a baby and a pregnant wife.  But he also considered himself a holy warrior fighting in the name of religion.

15                         For the terrorists, the desire for an idealised, Islamic community, the ummah, is so strong that they are even prepared to forsake their lives, families and friends.  The concept of the ummah potentially links Muslims of every race and creed.  More so today than at any time in history, global forces of technology and communication create the potential for a living, dynamic ummah.  With simple and powerful slogans, the terrorist ideologues seek to rouse Muslim feeling and mobilise Muslim outrage to secure support for their deeds.

16                         Let me be clear.  Terrorism is not inherent in Islam.  That is what Muslim scholars and religious leaders tell us.  That is what my Muslim friends tell me.  That is my own experience with our Muslims.  Fifteen percent of Singaporeís population are Muslims.  They live harmoniously with Singaporeans of other races and religions.  The Mufti of Singapore, the highest religious authority on Islam, has strongly condemned terrorism and terrorist acts.  He emphasised that the actions of JI suicide bomb-maker Azahari Husin were a complete deviation from the teachings of Islam, which forbid anyone from committing suicide.  He added that the teachings of the Koran call for peace in multi-religious societies.  If only more Muslim scholars (ulemas) and religious teachers (asatizah) all over the world would state their positions so openly and courageously.

17                         To recruit for their violent cause, terrorists exploit the vulnerability of those in search of the meaning of life and Islam.  They interpret Islam in a manner which feeds the anger and frustration of Muslim youths.  They exploit and stoke Muslim anger over grievances like the Israel-Palestine conflict and other historical legacies.  Their ideology is infused with hatred for what they perceive as a secular and decadent West, in particular the US.  But their hatred is not confined to the West.  In 2001, despite an international outcry, the Taliban blew up two 3rd Century gigantic Buddhist sculptures in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, as they were deemed by these extremists to be offensive to Islam.  These terrorists even turn on innocent Muslims.  They use the concept of takfir, that is, condemning other Muslims for apostasy, to advocate violence against anyone whom they believe is not a devout Muslim.

18                         Defusing this complex of deviant ideas is a key challenge.  But the real and practical problem we face is how to isolate the extremists from the moderates.  Mainstream Muslim communities around the world must themselves do so.  Non-Muslim communities can help by giving them support and resources.

Positive Developments

19                         There are grounds for optimism that we have reached a turning point in this war.  Some Middle East governments are taking the battle for the soul of Islam to the terrorists.  Among the Muslim leaders, King Abdullah II of Jordan has spearheaded a key initiative in the ideological struggle.  Just before the London bombings, he hosted the First International Islamic Conference in Amman.  The Conference achieved a historic, mutual recognition agreement between the eight major schools of Islamic thought.  180 religious leaders affirmed the Amman Message, which shows the true essence of Islam as a moderate, inclusive and tolerant faith.  It also constrains the militants' religious justification for violence, forbidding the practice of takfir.  I have no doubt that King Abdullah II will follow up on this initiative with renewed vigour and determination after the recent savage attacks in Amman.  Indeed, after the recent bombings, His Majesty underlined that terrorism was a global threat and stressed the need for global cooperation to fight this menace.  King Abdullah II also declared:

"Terrorists will not prevent us from carrying our Message and           defending Islam."

20                         A recent Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) Islamic Scholars' Conference also recognised the primacy of the ideological battle.  Held in September in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, at the behest of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, the Conference gathered over 80 Islamic intellectuals and scholars worldwide.  The Conference called for the urgent re-structuring of the OIC so as to revitalise it for the struggle against extremism.

A Growing Backlash

21                         These initiatives are timely.  There are already signs of a backlash against Muslims in the US, UK, France, Australia and elsewhere.  The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights reported that Europe's 20 million Muslims have faced increasing discrimination and distrust since 9/11 and the Madrid bombings.  After the 7/7 bombings, hate crimes in London soared.  If non-Muslim communities routinely and increasingly view Muslim communities with suspicion, we will see the beginning of a clash of civilisations between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world.  This is what the extremists seek.  This is what we must deny them.

22                         In Southeast Asia, terrorists also seek to divide communities.  One likely reason for the repeat attack on Bali is to inflame communal tensions.  Bali is an island with a majority Hindu population.  The repeat bombings were aimed to drive a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim communities.  Some signs of discord emerged after the attacks.  Fortunately, Balinese people have shown deep restraint.  They were determined not to play into the hands of terrorists.  Just three days after the attacks, Balinese Muslims and Hindus held an interfaith procession to show their solidarity.  Bali's Muslims leaders and other Indonesian leaders also condemned the bombings.  They made clear that the island's Muslims hold moderate views.

23                         In Europe, the problem of disharmony between Muslims and non-Muslims is growing.  Second and third generation European Muslims are caught between their Islamic and secular worlds, and the country they came from and the country that adopted them.  The gulf of misunderstanding is widening.  Extremists can exploit these weaknesses.  They will seek out opportunities to create further divisions within multicultural societies.  The recent large-scale Paris riots arose because of social alienation and economic frustration.  They can be easily exploited by more sinister minds.  They underline the importance of building strong community relations and integration in diverse societies.

Sharing the Singapore Experience

24                         Singapore has a multi-religious, multi-racial society.  We do not take racial and religious harmony for granted.  We work hard at it, knowing the fragility of race relations and religious harmony.  In the 1960s, we had experienced serious racial riots.  As a result, we laid strong foundations for managing racial and religious harmony.  Ours is not a melting-pot approach in nation building.  Instead, we adopt what I call an overlapping circles approach.  Each community is like a circle with its own values, beliefs and culture.  Where the circles overlap is the common space where we interact freely.  We try to expand and maximise this space.  The space which does not overlap is the communityís own space where they are free to speak their own language, practise their own religion and have their own way of life.  This way, each community retains its separate identity and yet is bonded to each other through common national values.

25                         We also foster tolerance and trust between our Malay/Muslim, Chinese and Indian communities.  We have a Presidential Council for Minority Rights to protect the rights of minorities and ensure that they do not suffer discrimination.  We also have a Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to nip any inter-faith problems in the bud.

26                         We have a special body, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), and a Muslim Minister, to administer Muslim affairs.  More than half of the Council is made up of influential social and business leaders.  The rest are clerics who provide religious guidance.  This body builds and manages Singapore's mosques and oversees Muslim education.  It regularly reviews the curriculum of our madrasahs or Islamic religious schools.  Our madrasahs teach both religious and secular subjects.  We require them to meet national standards for secular subjects like English, Science and Mathematics.  A recent revamp of the madrasah curriculum introduced critical thinking skills and Information Technology.

27                         In Singapore, education has long been used to promote social cohesion and integrate our communities.  The vast majority of Singaporean students attend national schools where English is the teaching medium.  There are no special schools for any one race other than the handful of madrasahs whose annual intake of students is capped at 400.

28                         Our public housing policy guards against formation of racial enclaves.  In the past, there were distinct Malay and Chinese, and to a lesser extent, Indian areas.  Our regulations cap the maximum proportion of each ethnic group in any single public housing estate.  This ensures that every public housing estate reflects the national racial composition.   On the ground, there are grassroots organisations to facilitate interaction between different groups and to promote community cohesion.

29                         We have pro-actively tackled the specific concerns of our individual communities.  Minority communities like Singaporean Muslims are therefore not isolated from the wider society.  Far from it, our Muslim community is a key pillar of multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore and has contributed significantly to our nation-building efforts.

30                         But Singapore is an open society.  Our Muslims are also exposed to wider currents in the Islamic world, which has seen growing religiosity since the 1970s.  No country is immune from extremist teachings and the terrorist threat.  A tiny minority of our Muslims has imbibed the radical teachings and was prepared to mount terrorist attacks.

31                         In January 2002, we foiled a plot by Singaporean members of the JI group to carry out attacks against Western and Singapore assets in our country.  Their plan was to set off seven ammonium nitrate bombs simultaneously at seven different targets.  The combined force of the bombs would have packed a punch several times that of the Oklahoma bombings.

32                         In foiling the planned attacks in Singapore, we were the first country to draw attention to the JI threat in Southeast Asia.  But the JI security challenge had to be handled sensitively to maintain our social harmony.  As the Prime Minister then, I was concerned that revelation of Singaporean Muslim involvement in the JI could affect the confidence and attitude of our non-Muslims towards our Muslims.  Together with key members of the Cabinet, I held several dialogue sessions with leaders from the various communities and religions to explain why the Government had made the JI arrests.  We stressed that they were not targeted against Muslims.  We also urged non-Muslims to reach out to Muslims, and for the Muslim community to integrate more with the other communities.

33                         Policies which we put in place to promote racial and religious harmony have over the years contributed to building a foundation of mutual trust and understanding between the communities.  Sensitive issues could also be discussed openly because of the trust built up between the government and our Muslim community and between our Muslim and other communities.

34                         After the JI arrests, we also took other measures to ensure that our Muslim community did not feel besieged.  At the community level, in schools and work places, we implemented initiatives to promote better inter-racial and inter-religious understanding.  Various ethnic and religious groups reached out to each other and enhanced their interactions.  There were mutual visits to places of worship and small group discussions on religious practices and values.

35                         Fortunately, our Muslim community understands the threat posed by extremist ideas.  It openly denounced the JI terrorists and their plot.  It has been working with the Government to root out extremists and radical teaching.  To combat this deviant ideology, a group of Muslim clerics took the initiative to study the JI ideology, focusing on their distortion of core concepts like baiíah (oath of allegiance), the ummah and jihad.  In April 2003, they formed a Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) to help counsel the detained JI members.

36                         This Group has developed its own model for countering extremist ideas.  Beyond rehabilitating extremists, it also counsels the detaineesí families and educates the wider Muslim community on the true meaning of jihad and the terrorist threat.  Several key members of the Group spoke at a recent public forum attended by 3000 Singaporean Muslims on "The Meaning of Jihad in Islam".  After the forum, one participant remarked:

"Before I came here tonight, I thought jihad means fighting for Islam.  However, what we observe today is not jihad because from what I see now, the victims are children, innocent people, women and those earning a living."

Asia-Middle East Dialogue

37                         During my travels to several Middle East countries over the past two years, I was encouraged by their progress and aspirations.  A thought came to me that the world would benefit from a dialogue between the Middle East and Asia.

38                         I therefore initiated the Asia-Middle East Dialogue (AMED) to serve as a bridge to promote greater understanding between Asia and the Middle East.  The inaugural session was held in Singapore this June.  It was a first step towards increasing awareness and interaction between the two regions.  The Dialogue also offered a wider platform for moderate Muslims to speak up and challenge extremist interpretations of Islam.  AMED is not a one-off exercise but will be a long-term process.  Egypt will host the second AMED in 2007, followed by Thailand in 2009.  Saudi Arabia will organise the fourth AMED in 2011, with Bahrain following after.

A United Front

39                         Cross-regional linkages can help in the fight against terrorism.  But the biggest fight must be mounted by moderate Muslim communities in the East and West.  They must take responsibility for what is going on in the Islamic world.  They are stake-holders of Islam.  They must deepen their internal dialogue to help win the battle against extremism.  They must debunk the religious underpinning of radical ideology and terrorism.  This is part of the struggle for the soul of Islam.  Waging this war successfully will minimise the number of new recruits for the terrorists.  The small, extremist jihadist minority claims to speak for an entire faith and uses Islam to foment divisions within societies and civilisations.  The moderates must counter them and seize back the agenda.

40                         This is not just a theological or ideological struggle, but one with wider political implications.  Currently, Iraq is a major front in the global struggle.  The terrorists seek to achieve a demonstration effect there.  If the American-led coalition and the democratically-elected Iraqi Government are defeated, terrorists around the world will be emboldened.  They will redouble efforts to overthrow secular or moderate Muslim governments all over the world.  They will chase after the US and its allies.  They will explode more bombs, whether in the Muslim or non-Muslim world.

41                         Let me conclude.  In our globalised world, people of all faiths and races must live alongside each other harmoniously.  A terrorist attack in one city should be considered an attack on all humanity.  Both Muslims and non-Muslims have to wage this battle together, and the theological battle must be fought by the Muslims themselves.  Winning against the terrorists will take a long time.  The terrorists will create many difficulties for us.  They have shown a capacity to adapt their strategies and tactics.  But they cannot win.  They can be a menace but they cannot win, certainly not when we unite to defeat them.