Thomas Daniel was quoted in South China Morning Post, 21 October 2023

  • Analysts warn of a spike in Hamas-inspired radicalisation and plummeting interfaith relations as the Middle Eastern conflict continues to escalate
  • Washington’s attention, meanwhile, looks set to remain elsewhere due to a fundamental ‘shift of focus’ – unless China ‘does something really drastic’

By Maria Siow and Amy Sood

As the civilian death toll from the bloodiest Israel-Gaza conflict in decades climbs ever higher, analysts warn that Asia must be on guard against deep divisions over the war tearing at the region’s social fabric – and the consequences of an increasingly distracted United States turning the bulk of its attention elsewhere.

Some observers have cautioned that China could seek to take advantage of Washington’s preoccupation with the new Middle Eastern conflict, and Russia’s nearly 20-month-long war on Ukraine, to advance its own agenda in Southeast Asia.

A surge in Islamist propaganda as a result of the war has also been predicted by some security observers, threatening to radicalise citizens in the region’s Muslim-majority nations and fuel “the next generation of global jihad”.

The region’s scholars of interfaith relations, however, say they fear an equally insidious outcome from the conflict: the return to the social milieu in the immediate years after September 11 when all Muslims were viewed primarily through the prism of extremist acts.

Asia, with Muslim-majority nations such as PakistanBangladeshIndonesia and Malaysia, is home to over 60 per cent of the world’s Muslim population.

“This feels like 9/11 again. Hamas is equated with all Palestinians, and Palestinians with Arabs, and Arabs with all Muslims,” said Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri, an associate professor of political science at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

“We saw post-9/11 the dangerous effect of discrimination and ostracization … what we need now is to have everyone on the same page denouncing violence and aggression by all sides,” Syaza said.

Mohamed Nassir, a Singapore-based scholar of inter-religous relations, said he hoped the current crisis would precipitate discussions on interfaith cooperation.

“Intercivilisational dialogue and understanding should be forged during times of peace to prevent colossal crises like what we are witnessing in the Middle East,” Nassir said.

During his brief visit to Israel on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden urged the country not to be consumed by rage over the October 7 Hamas assault that left some 1,400 civilians dead. More than 3,000 Gazans have been killed and 12,500 injured in retaliatory Israeli strikes, a top UN humanitarian official said that same day.

Biden is reportedly preparing to ask Congress for billions of dollars in support for Israel while only pledging US$100 million in aid to the West Bank and Gaza, where the World Health Organization said on Tuesday that hospitals were already at “breaking point”. Two massive US carrier strike groups have also been dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean in a bid to deter outside belligerents from escalating the conflict.

Washington and its allies view the Israel-Gaza war through a very different lens than does the Global South, especially Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nations, where a spike in extremist-related violence and tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities cannot be ruled out, according to Kumar Ramakrishna, a national-security studies professor and dean at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

Regional governments should be wary of posts on social media, in particular, that “amplify not just real news, but also disinformation and false narratives that seek to whip up popular sentiment”, he said.

This, according to Iftekharul Bashar, an associate research fellow at the RSIS’ International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, could result in a “new wave of Hamas-inspired radicalisation, attempts to travel to conflict zones possibly under the pretext of humanitarian activities [and] copycat attacks emulating that of Hamas”.

Divergent views fuel radicalisation fears

While some Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are more sympathetic towards the Palestinian struggle, other Southeast Asian nations like Singapore took a harder stance on Hamas’ attack on Israel.

Last weekend, protesters in Indonesia and Malaysia gathered in large numbers to condemn the war and express their solidarity with the Palestinians. Both countries have also issued statements pointing to Israel being the “root cause” of a conflict whose origins stretch back decades, said Andreyka Natalegawa, an associate fellow at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia programme

“Divergences in how the US and Global South nations, including those in Southeast Asia, view and approach the crisis thus could impact Washington’s ties with key Asean member states,” he said.

Abdul Rahman Yaacob, a research fellow with the Australia-based Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia programme, said the conflict had exposed a deep religious divide that could “boil over and threaten the social fabric” of the region.

Within Singapore, “hostile exchanges” of opinions about the Middle Eastern conflict are already under way on social media, he said, further warning that photos and videos of civilian casualties circulating widely online could encourage attacks on American and Israeli targets in the region.

“I would not be surprised if Singaporean authorities are already in touch with potential targets, such as American and Israeli embassies, and business and religious premises, to beef up their security,” Rahman said.

Noor Huda Ismail, a visiting fellow at RSIS whose research interests include jihadist networks and religious extremism in Southeast Asia, agreed that there was a risk of the conflict prompting a “resurgence of jihadist activities within the region” if it caused citizens to travel abroad to take up arms against a perceived enemy of Islam.

This had happened in past Middle Eastern conflicts, he said, with the jihadists often returning home radicalised and battle hardened, their heads filled with extremist ideologies that can be used to propagate further violence.

Though efforts have been made to counter the threat by strengthening border security, intensifying intelligence operations and promoting regional counterterrorism cooperation, Huda said “the persistent evolution of extremist tactics, combined with the volatile geopolitical landscape, underscores the need for continual vigilance”.

If the Israel-Gaza conflict were to expand in scope and duration, Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who specialises in Southeast Asian politics and security issues, said an “invigorated” militant group might emerge.

“With a new issue to rally around, and with a charismatic leadership that can lead the next generation of global jihad, [this group would] inspire Southeast Asian militants for years to come,” he said.

But for now, Abuza said the priority for many Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand and the Philippines was repatriating any of their nationals who were still in Israel or had been kidnapped by Hamas.

Thomas Daniel, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia who specialises in regional security challenges, said that by displaying “blatant double standards” towards the Israelis and Palestinians, the US and other Western countries risked undermining the influence and goodwill they enjoy in Asian nations with substantial Muslim populations.

“Especially if we see soaring civilian casualties, deliberate displacement and destruction of infrastructure … narratives on the West’s support of Ukraine for example, already shaky in Southeast Asia, will come further undone,” he said.

Given the Middle East’s importance as a source of investment, energy supplies and employment for huge numbers of migrant workers, Daniel said any expansion of the war would have inevitable implications on Southeast Asia.

“No one expects a larger war in the Middle East, but then no one predicted this scale of an attack from Hamas either,” he said.

Another possible victim of the unfolding carnage could be recent US-led efforts to normalise ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Biden, in an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes earlier this month, was at pains to stress that the normalisation deal, under which Riyadh would be offered a defence treaty and help developing its own civilian nuclear programme, was not dead despite the escalating violence in and around Gaza.

If it does survive, it could allow “Washington to focus even more on the China challenge in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific”, said Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow with the Washington-based Wilson Centre think tank’s Asia programme.

A worrying US ‘shift of focus’?

Washington has a disconcerting track record of paying little regard to Southeast Asia when its attention is diverted by other issues it regards as more pressing. Biden’s decision to skip last month’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and send Vice-President Kamala Harris instead was widely interpreted as a snub of the region.

“Singapore, which prefers the presence of several major powers in Southeast Asia to counterbalance each other, will be worried about the shift of focus away from the region,” said Lowy Institute’s Rahman, adding that next year’s US presidential election will serve as a further distraction.

Washington’s new preoccupation with another “intractable” Middle Eastern conflict was unfortunate in light of the Biden administration’s efforts to pivot more towards Asia, National War College’s Abuza said. Despite this, he predicted the US would continue to keep a focus on Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.

RSIS’ Ramakrishna said the US was unlikely to “pay a lot of attention to Asean” while a fresh conflict was raging in the Middle East “unless China does something really drastic in East Asia and the South China Sea”.

But such a scenario could yet play out, Rahman said, as Beijing was likely to “take advantage” of a distracted Washington to advance its own regional interests.

“China may decide the time is ripe to conduct more aggressive manoeuvres in the region,” he said, citing a recent confrontation between the Chinese and Philippine navies in the South China Sea near Thitu Island, which is currently administered from Manila.

“This is an escalation as previous confrontations tended to be between coastguard vessels,” Rahman said.

Though Washington’s time and attention will increasingly be drawn to conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, “all is not lost” in terms of the US’ “intensive engagement” with the wider Asia-Pacific region, according to Brian Harding, a senior Southeast Asia and Pacific expert at the United States Institute of Peace.

“The US business community and Department of Defence will remain focused on the Indo-Pacific, where the preponderance of major challenges and opportunities lie,” he told This Week in Asia, pointing to planned visits to the US in the coming weeks by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and an Apec summit that’s set to be held in San Francisco next month.

Indeed, very little could prevent Washington from pursuing its chief strategic goal of countering China, said Michael Vatikiotis, a senior adviser at the Switzerland-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue that works to prevent and resolve armed conflicts around the world.

“I do not see much of a recalibration of the already quite advanced strategy of cementing allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said, referring to recent US efforts to strengthen partnerships with regional allies, most notably JapanAustralia and South Korea.

Dylan Loh, an assistant professor of foreign policy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, predicted that the Israel-Gaza war would prove be a “short-term distraction” in the Middle East for Washington, noting that US officials were well aware of the perennial questions that surround American commitment to Southeast Asia.

“It’s not as if the US can only do one thing at a time,” he said.

This article first published in South China Morning Post, 21 October 2023

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