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Thursday, October 04, 2001

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Bush seeks Mahathir's support for coalition

By Amit Baruah

SINGAPORE, OCT. 3.New alignments are coming into being and old ones are being given a quiet burial. As the United States seeks new allies in its battle against terrorism, moderate Muslim nations have a major role to play in the coalition against extremism.

The U.S. President, Mr. George Bush, telephoned the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, and set up a meeting to discuss global terrorism on the sidelines of the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Shanghai on October 20- 21. Not so long ago, the Americans were lambasting the Malaysian Government for taking ``anti-democratic'' measures and using preventive detention laws against the Opposition. The tone and tenor of American policy, it would appear, now has the anti- terrorism coalition as its underpinning.

In 1998, the then American Vice-President, Mr. Al Gore, angered Dr. Mahathir and many Malaysians when he compared Malaysia unfavourably with Vietnam. However, after the Clinton Presidency, Malaysia hoped for a change in the antagonistic relationship that existed between the two countries. Now, it appears that the post- September 11 scenario provides the right kind of environment for the two countries to start on a new footing. According to the official Malaysian news agency, Bernama, Mr. Bush had assured Dr. Mahathir on the phone that a war against terrorism was not a war against Islam.

For his part, the Malaysian Prime Minister said he would write to Mr. Bush in detail, setting out his views on how to combat terrorism. (Dr. Mahathir has already proposed that a global conference should be held to fight terrorism). The U.S. President, who thanked Dr. Mahathir for his support in the battle against terrorism, said since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, he had learnt many things about Islam and the good things in the religion. ``While both leaders agreed that the world should be mobilised against terrorism and that each country should pay its part in its own way, Dr. Mahathir stressed that fighting terrorism was different from an ordinary war as the enemy is invisible,'' said the Bernama report.

In Washington, a White House spokesman was quoted as saying that Mr. Bush informed Dr. Mahathir that the American ``war'' against terrorism was ``against evil and not Islam''. ``The two leaders agree that the unprecedented nature of the terrorist threat requires new type of tactics and new forms of international co- operation,'' the spokesman said. There is little doubt that the equation between Washington and Kuala Lumpur has changed after the September 11 attacks. While the U.S. is courting Malaysia as a moderate Muslim nation, Dr. Mahathir is aware that co-operating with the international community has its own benefits. The activities of groups like the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM) came to light even before the September 11 attacks and the Government had taken steps to combat such elements. However, Dr. Mahathir is aware that there is a domestic dimension in his position against terrorism. The killing of innocents in the American ``war'' can complicate matters for him given the fact that hardline Islamists are waiting in the wings to mobilise public opinion against the Government. While dealing with the U.S., Dr. Mahathir has to simultaneously wear his Islamic hat as well. Malaysia regards itself as an important ``Islamic'' player on the world stage and is active in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) as well.

The Malaysian Prime Minister has also spoken to the Iranian President, Mr. Mohammad Khatami, on the war against terrorism. According to one account of their conversation, the Iranian President called on the ``Islamic world'' to take a united stand on terrorism. Mr. Khatami was quoted as telling Dr. Mahathir that the ``Muslim world'' should take a common and united position against terrorism as well as arrive at a ``clear and positive definition of terrorism''.

In the days ahead, positions taken by leaders like Dr. Mahathir and the Indonesian President, Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri, can make or break the credibility of any alliance against terrorism.

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