Islam’s New Strongholds

The recent bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, killing at least 183 and injuring hundreds, fits into a larger pattern. Militant Islam used to be mostly confined to Middle Easterners, but in recent years it has spread to Muslims in other parts of the world.

This can be seen especially in the cases of Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nigeria, three countries with a combined population of about 494 million inhabitants. Their Muslim population of some 378 million constitutes about a third of the global Muslim community.

Indonesia: This Southeast Asian country, 88 percent Muslim, hosts Islamist efforts to impose Islamic law (Shari’a) through both legal and violent means.

On the island of Aceh alone, more than 6,000 lives have been lost in fighting between the Islamist “Free Aceh Movement” and government forces. Asian intelligence sources believe this group may be an al Qaeda affiliate. The goal of these and other radicals, CNS News reports, is “to turn the world’s most populous Muslim country into an extremist Islamic state by 2003.” Muslim-Christian tensions have led to a full-blown religious war on other islands.

In Sulawesi, Islamists have deployed roadblocks, armored bulldozers and rocket launchers, thereby isolating the indigenous Christian community. They have also systematically targeted Christians, forcing them to convert, circumcising their children, burning churches and other buildings.

In all, Muslim-Christian clashes in Indonesia have killed more than 19,000 since 1999 and left over 600,000 displaced from their homes.

Bangladesh: Islamists in this 83 percent Muslim country of South Asia aspire to establish a true “Islamic Republic of Bangladesh” with a constitution based on the Shari’a. The goal, says the head of one group, is to “pursue a slow but steady policy towards Islamization of the country” – much like Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Not surprisingly, al Qaeda has tentacles in Bangladesh. “Harakat ul-Jihad Islami, Bangladesh” was reportedly established with direct aid from Osama bin Laden in 1992 and calls itself the “Bangladeshi Taliban.” The group claimed responsibility for attacking U.S. government offices in Calcutta, killing five policemen in January 2002.

Since Sept. 11, thousands of al Qaeda supporters have taken to the streets of Dhaka after Friday prayers, touting posters that read: “Osama is our Hero,” while burning effigies of President George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, members of minority religions have suffered from ghastly violence, including collective terror. The Nation reports that some Buddhists and Christians were blinded, had fingers cut off or had hands amputated, while “others had iron rods nailed through their legs or abdomen.” Women and children have “been gang-raped, often in front of their fathers or husbands.” In addition, hundreds of temples were desecrated and statues destroyed; thousands of homes and businesses looted or burned.

As for Hindus, the human rights organization Freedom House reports they have been subject to “rape, torture and killing and the destruction of their cultural and religious identity at the hands of Muslims.” In one indicative step, Islamists sometimes force Hindu women to dress in the Islamist fashion.

Nigeria: Disregarding both the Nigerian constitution (which stipulates a separation of church and state) and demographic realities (only 50 percent of the population is Muslim), Islamists of this West African country have adopted or announced plans to adopt some version of Islamic law in 12 of its 36 states since 1999.

Implementing Islamic law means forbidding such practices as the construction of churches, music performances, the wearing of pants, drinking alcohol and riding in mixed-gender taxis. Forced conversions to Islam are reported, as well as coerced divorces of Muslim women from Christian men.

Vigilantes enforce Islamic law via punishments that include stoning, flogging and the chopping off of hands. Solidarity visits from Sudanese, Pakistani, Saudi, Palestinian and Syrian Islamists tie Nigeria to the wider forces of militant Islam. Freedom House concludes that Nigeria is undergoing a process of “Talibanization.”

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That militant Islam and its companion violence have spread from the Middle Eastern core to the periphery of the Muslim world is of great concern. It means that the enemies of the United States, moderate Islam, and of civilization itself are far more numerous and entrenched than previously thought. This implies that the current war will likely be longer, bloodier and more demanding than most people imagine.

Originally published in the NY Post.