'The Next Front' in the War on Terror

Western minds continue to fixate on the Middle East as a cauldron for Islamic radicals bent on bringing terrorism to our shores.

The new book The Next Front shines a disturbing light on another part of the world which should not be forgotten – the rise of Islam in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Co-authors Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo) and Lewis M. Simons traveled throughout Southeast Asia to interview American ex-pats, aging Islamic soldiers, diplomats and even the Prime Minister of Malaysia to get their views on how to deal with the increase in Islamic radicalism. They also speak bluntly about the actions the U.S. has taken in recent years – and their consequences.

Each country featured in the book has a different relationship to the U.S. – and a different situation in which Islam is on the march. But their similarities, and concerns, paint a picture American politicians would be wise to consider.

The region is home to “one of the greatest concentrations of Muslims on Earth,” the authors say. And Muslims there are turning to the Middle East to “reaffirm their identity.”

What’s revealed in the book, subtitled, “Southeast Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam,“ is alternately shocking and sad, with glimmers of hope should international policies embrace the information revealed within. It’s not too late, but the stakes are remarkably high and the dangers even higher should the wrong actions be taken.

The rise of Islam is being triggered by a number of forces. Poverty often accelerates the religion’s grip on a populace, but so does corruption, bitter historical memories and current events. Islamic forces run the gamut from peaceful to barbaric, with some Muslims eager to install Sharia law and restore the Caliphate.

Not all the countries featured here are suffering either financially or socially. Take Malaysia, which we’re told went from a “sleepy backwater at ‘the confluence of two muddy rivers’” to a bustling metropolis in under 25 years.

The interviews glean plenty of fascinating – and troubling – material from those living across Southeast Asia. Some themes are constant throughout the book. The U.S. invasion of Iraq hurt this country’s image abroad profoundly, and Asians are hoping that new president Barack Obama will chart a new, and less aggressive course, over the next four to eight years.

What emerges is a web of contradictions – Southeast Asians want more money, more food and more training from the U.S., but they don’t want it made obvious where it all comes from.

Too many don‘t believe Muslims committed the 9/11 attacks, while many remain fixated on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Some of the arguments=2 0offered up by the interview subjects make little sense, but the authors argue such rationales don’t help in the long run. These are the realities the U.S. must deal with in order to stop the spread of radical Islam at a time when it’s possible to do so. That won‘t always be the case.

The Next Front also delivers emotionally powerful passages that put a human face on the region’s present state of mind. Consider Safina Garim, a new mom at 42 who recently lost her 27-year-old son when he was suffocated by police after taking part in a peaceful protest. Or the aging Philippines guerilla eager for peace after too many nights spent away from his family and in the middle of gun fights.

And while Americans ponder what the rise of Islam in Southeast Asia means to them, it’s already having an effect on Asian citizens. Consider the Indonesian woman sent to jail for three days for having her hair uncovered and traveling with lipstick and powder in her purse. Indonesians say they want to live in a democracy, but most of the country’s Muslims believe Islam rule may be the best weapon against poverty.

So what should the U.S. do next? The authors argue for an increase in soft power, a reinvigorated attempt to share American values with Southeastern Asia through personal contact and an understanding of the long-term consequences of our actions. The simple act of de-funding libraries America established in different parts of the world left=2 0a bitter taste for some young readers.

The book interviews Australian soldier David Kilcullen, someone who helped create the “surge” in Iraq and brings a 21st century vision to the world – and the battle against Islamic militants.

Kilcullen argues that the U.S. need only spend a little at this point to do a remarkable amount of good in this part of the world, whereas with the Middle East the radical movement is too big for such a modest approach.

At some point, though, Southeast Asia may also be too far gone for such modest actions to have an impact.