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A Public Forum on: “Islamic State and Middle East Turmoil: Lessons From and Implications for Southeast Asia”


A Public Forum on: “Islamic State and Middle East Turmoil:
Lessons From and Implications for Southeast Asia”


Time: Friday, 6th February 2015 at 08.30 – 11.30 a.m.

Location: The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th Floor, Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University




08.30 – 9.00 a.m.              Registration and Coffee

09.00 – 11:30 a.m.            Opening Remarks


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana
Dean, Faculty of Political Science,
Chulalongkorn University



Ehud Ya'ari
            Lafer International Fellow, The Washington Institute

Tan Sri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan
                Former Chairman, Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS Malaysia)

Prof. David Menashri
                Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University

Endy Bayumi
                Senior Editor, The Jakarta Post

Dr. Jonathan Spyer
                Senior Reserch Fellow, Global Research in Internatinal Affairs Center

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn
                Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand
                Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University



                                                Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

                                                Director, ISIS Thailand

                                                Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Videos:  A Public Forum on: “Islamic State and Middle East Turmoil:
Lessons From and Implications for Southeast Asia"

Islamic State and Middle East Turmoil: Lessons From and Implications for Southeast Asia 1/3:

Islamic State and Middle East Turmoil: Lessons From and Implications for Southeast Asia 2/3:

Islamic State and Middle East Turmoil: Lessons From and Implications for Southeast Asia 3/3:


If you wish more detailed information concerning this seminar please click



Introductory Remarks: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

The Islamic State and Middle East politics and government have been in the news. Most spectacularly, we have recently witnessed the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot following the killing of two Japanese journalists, and the growing radicalization and violence of Islamic State.


The objective is for the two regions – the Middle East and Southeast Asia – to learn from each other. Developments in the Middle East, particularly from the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, can impinge on regional peace and stability in Southeast Asia as much as inputs from Southeast Asia have affected the Middle East. For example, in the past, we have seen foreign fighters from Southeast Asia joining militant Islamist movements in the Middle East. When these fighters returned to their respective home countries in Southeast Asia, they have posed security challenges to regional and local authorities. How to handle the challenges of returned fighters from the Middle East is one of our aims here today.


Overall, we are here to promote a dialogue and understanding between these two regions. Southeast Asia is the home of the largest Muslim country, namely Indonesia, and the region comprises a combined population of 620 million which is more than half Muslim. In Southeast Asia, too little is known about the Middle East’s ongoing turmoil, its roots, its dynamics and its directions.



Dr. Jonathan Spyer


Syria is a country which no longer exists. It has fragmented beyond recognition as a result of a three year war into variety of different blocs of control.



There are currently four areas of control in Syria.

1.       The capital Damascus and up to the western coast of Syria are still controlled by what calls itself the “Government of Syria” ruled by Bashar al-Assad.

2.       The pockets in the Northwest, Southwest and East of Syria are controlled by the Sunni Arab rebels, the remnants of what declared war on the Assad regime in 2011.

3.       The vast area in the centre of Syria is ruled by the Islamic State, which stretches eastwards into Iraq. 

4.       Pockets in the North are controlled by the Kurdish forces.


How did this fragmentation come about? The Arab Spring, a moment of great hope for the region, came to Syria in March 2011 after an uprising of school children in the southern Daraa province. The regime failed to crush the uprising, and it subsequently spread throughout the region. After some attempts at superficial reforms, the government effectively declared war on the uprising. The result was predictable, the rebels began to arm themselves and by summer 2011 Syria was in a full-fledged civil war.


The Assad regime did not have a sufficient number of soldiers willing to take up arms for the government. As a result, by the summer of 2012, Assad made the strategic decision to withdraw from a large part of the North of Syria. In doing so the regime effectively divided Syria up into three component parts. Since July 2012 some of the basic lines of fragmentation have shifted, but the division into different blocs largely remains the same. Since April 2013, the Islamic State has absorbed a large part of the territory of that was once controlled by the Rebels.


1.       Government Control

The Assad regime’s problem throughout the civil war has been its insufficient manpower, however it has been able to endure in its truncated form (and will likely continue to endure) because it has been fortunate in its choice of friends, most notably the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Assad regime has been in an official alliance with the Iranians since 1982. The Iranians were quick to mobilise manpower and support for Assad from the Shia dominated Hezbollah organization that dominates Lebanon as well as providing and training a large Shia sectarian force of around 30,000 men.


2.       Sunni Rebels

The Syrian rebels have been less fortunate in their choice of friends, notably being the powerful Sunni states of the region; the Saudis, Qataris and Turks. The rebellion has been notably deficient in its ability to unite. It is a disparate collection of military forces, sizes ranging from a few hundred men to up to 10,000. The inability to unite and its confusing networks of support is one of the main reasons why the Islamic State, a cruel and brutal but unified and centralised organization, has been able to swallow up many of these rebellion groups.


In the Southern part of the country where the Islamic State has been unable to penetrate, the rebellion remains strong and is currently gaining ground against the regime.


3.       Kurds

The Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic minority in Syria, have managed to carve out three enclaves in the North controlled by the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party). The area is fairly peaceful, and despite being threatened by the Islamic State, it is likely to survive for the foreseeable future.


The country has collapsed into separate blocs, with supported by different regional powers. Syria is not the only state fragmenting or collapsing into several blocs in the region. State fragmentation is taking place in Iraq (parallel fragmentation to Syria: Kurds, Sunni Arabs and the Shia component currently governing Iraq) and Yemen. These states are now simply expressions on a map, their tradition borders no longer retaining any coherent political meaning.


Syria has not broken up on lines of power or geography.  Rather each of these blocs represent a section of one of Syria’s main ethnic groups, the Kurds, the rebels and Islamic State representing Sunni Islam, and the Assad regime which represents a coalition of minority groups including the Alawites, Druze and tacit support of the Christians. Sectarian is the new language of politics in the region leading to the physical and conceptual (shared secular Arab identity) collapse of states in the region.


Power blocs in the region are also attempting to unite these disparate sectarian groups under a single banner. The Islamic Republic of Iran stands at the head of a quite cohesive and coherent bloc of mainly Shia countries and movements in the region such as Hezbollah, the Assad regime, the government of Iraq, and increasingly, Palestinian Hamas. The second is a broad bloc based on Sunni Islamism, far less united and cohesive compared with the Shia bloc, but powerful nevertheless. Finally, the bloc of states which are the current or future allies of the United States in the region including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Kurds and Israel. There is little ideologically to unite these states, but they jointly opposed to the Iranians and Sunni Islamism, and is important for the region.


The Middle East is in the midst of an historic convulsion characterised by the collapse of states and the collapse of assumptions about the region and its history.


Moderator: So we can look back to the Arab Spring as a basis for the Islamic State, which has led to the unravelling of borders drawn up after the Sykes-Picot Agreement.



Ehud Ya’ari

The emergence of the Islamic State is the product of the Arab Spring which led to the collapse of a series of Arab states, completely obliterating the borders between many of the states in the region, not just in Syria. The border between Libya and Egypt no longer exists, nor do many of the borders across North Africa and Somalia. The state security forces have been weakened by the Arab Spring leading to the current picture of chaos.


The result is an unwinding of the unwritten social contract between the authoritarian national leaders – whether they were Kings, dictators or Presidents – and their subjects. This Arabian social contract was very simple: the authoritarian leader would take care of the population, provide basic services and protection in return for the subjects’ automatic support for their policies.


During the Arab Spring, Arabs were transformed from subjects to citizens. However, there is no Arab legacy of citizenship, so the new Arabian citizens did not know their new rights and responsibilities, and the governments in the region had no track record of responding to citizens. Out of this emerged the Islamic State whose narrative did not focus on ‘citizens’ or ‘subjects,’ but rather religious devotion predicated on goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. This is in contrast to Al Qaeda which was focussed under Osama bin Laden against fighting the ‘far enemy,’ or more recently on focussing the ‘near enemy’ in the Arab states. 


1)      The most crucial battle currently underway is the struggle to define Islam in the modern age. There is a clash between a forward leaning, tolerant and enlightened reading of the Holy Texts and the medieval, fundamentalist and jihadist version followed by the Islamic State and Shi’ites like the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah. This is a clash between Islam as a guide to life and Islam as a ritual of death.


2)      This battle should be conducted by Muslims themselves, rejecting Salafist texts. Muslim academics in particular should take a clear cut stand against the doctrines of the Islamic State. So far, efforts of this ilk are neither loud nor orchestrated enough to overcome extremist Islamic movements. 


3)      Although many are willing to take part militarily in the campaign against Islamic State, this war must also be waged on the ideological and intellectual level in mosques and education institutions.

4)      The main impediment to successfully confronting extremism is the lack of a comprehensive argument to demolish the foundations of the vast body of extremist literature created since Ibn Tahir witnessed the fall of the caliphate to the Mongols in the 7th Century, who argued that “Jihad is not an appendix to the other duties of a good Muslim, it is the main organ.” The Islamist groups we see today are all products of this literature. The claims of Ibn Tahir, Sayyid Qutb and other extremists must be refuted by tolerant and enlightened Muslim scholars.


5)      As long as preachers of intolerant and hateful interpretations of Islam are able to gain ground amongst young Arabs and other Muslims, the rest of the world will suffer the consequences reflected in the spread of jihadism breeding terrorism. This is true not only for the Middle East, but also Southeast, East and Central Asia. Development across the region will be threatened by Islamists in control of vast stretches of land in Asia.


6)      Iran and its formidable militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria cannot be regarded as a trustworthy ally against Sunni Salafi jihadism. Iran is offering its own Shia version of the same extremist reading of Islam. The War on Terror cannot be won with terror sponsors. The Islamic State terrorism includes beheadings and burning people, but Iran also has also introduced suicide bombings and public stoning.


7)      The Muslim Brotherhood has served as the incubator for Islamic terrorism. President Obama’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood as moderate Islamists is unfounded and off the mark.


8)      The great Muslim nations of Asia, with their moderate movements, should get more involved in the Middle East offering Asian schools of thought in order to help shape the debate underway between the Arabs. If you do not come to the Middle East, the Middle East will visit you.


9)      There should be collective and systematic coordination between Muslims in Asia, Europe and other countries.


10)   Although the main battleground is in the long term war of ideas, in the short term military success against the Islamic State is indispensable. Such outcome will not be possible at the current level of military investment. Islamic State cannot be uprooted by a limited air campaign. What is required is no more than 30,000 boots on the ground.



Professor David Menashri


Over the past 200 years the Middle East has been undertaking a quest to find ways to cJombat modernity. Islam is the final iteration of the major Abrahamic beliefs. For many Muslims this means that they are following the paramount version of the religion, and they feel that they should subsequently be more enriched, successful and enlightened. Islam can lay claim to many of history’s most advanced and enlightened civilizations, but in the past 200 years another religious power has emerged as more successful, the world of Christianity. There have been a number of attempts to combat these challenges through nationalism, Islamism, Alamism, constitutionalism, Communism and liberalism but all failed. In the 1970s a new major trend of political Islam emerged which argued for a more radical version of ‘true Islam.’ The early climax of this movement was the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which inspired other Muslims to follow their own ideology to achieve salvation and a brighter future.


While the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are seeking to establish their own states or caliphates, it should be remembered that there is an existing Islamic state in the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the Islamic Revolution 36 years ago, none of the young people protesting against the Shah had a dream to establish an Islamic Republic. They wished to resolve the problems of their society: they were rallying against social and political injustice. They wanted to remove the Shah to make sure there was greater welfare, respect and freedom. Today, the average Iranian does not experience any greater welfare or freedom. Iran’s jails are full of dissidents, intellectuals and clerics who are critical of the regime. There is a saying in Iran, “To speak against the Shah was a crime, but to speak against the Islamic regime is a sin.”


No single person can claim to know the will of God. There is no one official reading, and thus there has been a proliferation of interpretations of Islam to suit different contexts. In Iranian Islamism, a cleric being at the head of government is an innovation which conflicts with other interpretations. The combination of radical ideology and nuclear weapons is something which should be totally unacceptable. The Iranian regime is radical and brutal, so why would they be restrained with a nuclear weapon?


The hope is that moderate Muslim silent majority will start to stand up against radical Islamism. The hope is that education and moderation will see a change in the Muslim world.



Moderator: After 9/11 Southeast Asia, a region with over 300 million Muslims and the largest Muslim majority country, was seen as the ‘Second Front’ in Islamic terrorism. However, Southeast Asia has not seen the same level of sectarian violence and turmoil as the Middle East. But now we are facing a second round of potential militant Islamism in Southeast Asia.



Endy Bayuni


In Indonesia, it is more politically correct to refer to the Islamic State as ‘ISIS,’ as calling it the Islamic State gives it credibility as an Islamic Caliphate. The Middle East has already come to Indonesia in the form of Islamic State. As early as April last year, at least 200 young Indonesians had left to fight for Islamic State, some of whom have already returned. These returning fighters have already established outposts, are recruiting and have begun allegiance pledging ceremonies.


Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recognised the potential danger of Islamic State in August 2013, and officially banned the Islamic State and made a number of arrests. While there has been a great deal of coverage due to beheadings and the burning of the Jordanian pilot, the influence of IS has been more or less contained. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, so inevitably whatever happens in the Middle East will have some bearing on Indonesia. As such, Indonesians are closely following the developments in the Middle East.


Since becoming a democratic country 16 years ago, Indonesia has become an open marketplace for different ideas and ideologies. Inevitably, there are some people within the country who are drawn to the idea of an Islamic State and Indonesia implementing Sharia Law. Islamic radicalism is not a new phenomenon, it has been in Indonesia since its independence in 1945. Indonesia’s founding fathers decided on a secular republic rather than an Islamic state in order include all of the nearby islands in the Indonesian archipelago regardless of their religious demography. Today though, the reality is that Indonesia is neither an Islamic nor a secular state.


Under Suharto, campaigns for Indonesia to become an Islamic state were banned, but since the democratic transition they have re-emerged. There are a number of groups who are attempting to bring about this change through the electoral system, but have so far only made minor progress. Being a country with a large Muslim population, Indonesia is not immune from what is going on in the Middle East, but very few aspire for an Islamic State and the political implementation of Sharia law. Some civil aspects of Sharia law are acceptable.


Indonesia has had its fair share of radical terrorism, most high profile have been the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2003 as well as the most recent attacks on the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in 2009. The government and police force should receive credit for their efforts to curb terrorist activities, and having countered plots against Parliament and the President. Since the Bali bombings, the capacity of the police has been improved, they have received more funding and training, received foreign assistance, their intelligence capabilities improved and the effective Detachment 88 unit was been established. 


Moderator: Education and law enforcement are institutions which provide empowerment and a voice. Perhaps this is one major difference between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Do you think that we could see the reincarnation of Jemaah Islamiyah of radicalised returned fighters?


Endy: The police are already on top of this and the government has already banned the Islamic State ideology. Based on the track record of the last decade, it seems like the police are able to deal with this issue effectively.



Tan Sri Dato' Seri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan


While the dynamics within Southeast Asia and West Asia are dissimilar, the regions share a number of traits. They are both largely made up of post-colonial countries grappling with state and nation building challenges while striving for a greater quality of life with greater dignity for all. Some states in Southeast and West Asia have moved ahead in economic, political or development terms, but progress is often tentative and uncertain with regression as a distinct possibility.

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