State-Society Relations: Reordering Asia and the World After September 11

State-Society Relations: Reordering Asia and the World After September 11
Amitav Acharya
Politics, not geopolitics or culture, may ultimately determine how September 11 and the American response reshape world order in the early 21st century. Many see these events as ushering in a clash of civilizations, or at least a renewed power rivalry among nations. But September 11 may exert its most profound impact on the relationship between states and societies, where a new struggle for authority and legitimacy looms, whether in Muslim or non-Muslim worlds.

Asia, the world’s most multi-civilizational continent, the only part of the world where great power war remains a possibility, and the last major frontier of authoritarianism, offers an important window for assessing the implications of September 11 for world order. The response of states in Asia to September 11 and the US strike on Taliban was not necessarily along civilizational lines. What is more important, reactions to September 11 show a greater convergence among government positions than between them and their peoples. Thus, the most important legacy of September 11 in Asia may be the reshaping of state-society relations. The remaking of reshaping of world and Asian regional order depends on how the international community reconciles the multi-front war against terrorism with the demands and aspirations for freedom and normal living.

Why This Was Not a Clash of Civilizations

Writing in the Newsweek magazine, Samuel Huntington argues that “[R]eactions to September 11 and the American response were strictly along civilization lines.” But the evidence coming from Asia suggests otherwise, at least where government responses were concerned. While, as Huntington observes, the governments and peoples of Western countries were “overwhelmingly supportive” of the US, and made commitments to join its war on terrorism,”1 it was the governments of India and Pakistan, which were among the first to offer military facilities to the US. Pakistan, a Muslim nation, which proved to be the most critical link in the logistics chain that ensured victory for the US against the Taliban.

Governments, including those presiding over Islamic nations, not only condemned the terrorist attacks on the US, many also recognized its right to retaliate against Taliban. Governments in Muslim Central Asia braved popular backlash by offering material and logistical assistance to the US. From Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, from Iran to Indonesia, Islamic nations distanced themselves from the theology of Osama-bin-Laden. Musharaf denounced his homegrown extremists for giving Islam a bad name and for threatening the modernist vision of Pakistan’s founder, Ali Jinah. Iran, having for decades spearheaded the Islamic revolutionaries’s jihad against the “great Satan”, made no secret of its disdain of Taliban’s Islamic credentials.

In responding to September 11, states acted more as states than as civilizations.2 From Hindu India to Muslim Indonesia, from Buddhist Thailand to Catholic Philippines, the response of governments was the same. Asked to chose between the US and the terrorists, they overwhelmingly sided with Washington. They did so despite reservations about the US support for Israel, concerns about civilian casualties in the Afghanistan war, and misgivings about US military and economic dominance of the world. And they chose this course despite the Bush administration’s decision to give short shrift to mutlilateralism and coalition-building.

Why governments acted this way speaks more to pragmatism and principle than to their cultural predisposition and civilizational affinity. National interest, regime security, and modern principles of international conduct were placed ahead of primordial sentiment and religious identity. Pakistan, for example, got badly needed American aid and de facto recognition of its military regime. Indonesia, whose support as the world’s most populous Islamic nation was crucial to the legitimacy of the US anti-terrorist campaign, received both economic and political support for its fledgling democracy. The Saudi regime, which along with Pakistan had created the Taliban, simply followed the dictates of its security dependence on the US. Iran saw an opportunity to rid itself of an unfriendly regime in its neighborhood and extend its influence beyond its eastern frontiers.

For some governments, concerns for domestic stability and regime security proved decisive. In Malaysia and Pakistan, the war against terrorism presented a fresh opportunity for governments to rein in domestic Islamic extremists which had challenged their authority and created public disorder. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed made it difficult for Malaysia Jihadists to travel to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban.

In rejecting the open call to Jihad issued by the Taliban and its supporters, some Islamic nations acted out of interest, others out of principle, but most out of a combination of both. Many nations recognized the US counter-strike as an exercise in a nation’s right of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. They would not grant the same right to the Taliban, whose apologists had portrayed terrorism as a legitimate weapon of the weak against an unjust, anti-Islamic, and overwhelmingly powerful imperialist. A combination of national interest and common interest remains the basis of international relations. Religion and civilization do not replace pragmatism, interest and principle as the guiding motives of international relations.

The clash of civilizations thesis assumes a degree of homogeneity among Islamic rebellions, which they evidently do not possess. Many extremist groups now being branded as Islamic or terrorist (or both), are fighting their own governments, whether or not these governments are allied with the US. Thus Islamic militants in Malaysia seek to create an Islamic state by supplanting a regime known for its anti-Western foreign policy rhetoric. It is thus very much a case of a clash within a civilization than between civilizations. The Abu Sayaaf in the Philippines is motivated primarily by mercenary instinct, not religious sentiment. The armed rebellion in Aceh pursues a political, rather than religious, goal.

Great Power Geopolitics Since September 11

Instead of Huntington’s civilizational thesis, it may be useful to see the repercussions September 11 in terms of the traditional great power rivalries. [this needs explaining to a non IR audience] especially great power geopolitics. Its impact of Sino-US relations, the major strategic contest in East Asia, is noteworthy. In this contest, China, geopolitical pundits have observed, comes out a “loser” on several fronts.3 Pakistan has become less dependent on China than before and India’s influence in Afghanistan has grown while its strategic position vis-à-vis China has been strengthened by American sympathy and support for India’s own war on terrorism. Chinese insecurity is furthered heightened by the dramatically enhanced US military presence in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, especially the latter where China had painstakingly built up its own anti-terror alliance and was in the process of securing its own long-term access to the Caspian Sea oil. These developments, along with China’s renewed insecurities about the awesome display of US power projection in Afghanistan, complicate and worsen the Sino-US strategic rivalry. The strategic tension between China and Japan has also intensified. Using the pretext of conducting operations in support of the US strike on the Taliban, the Japanese Navy entered the waters of the Indian Ocean . This, and Japan’s growing defence ties with India, increases China’s anxiety and anger.

These are important changes which could undermine regional stability in Asia. But their impact would be offset by a number of developments. American hegemony has been strengthened so much so that it now acts as a significant check on regional conflicts. By consolidating its influence over both India and Pakistan, America has acquired an unprecedented ability to restrain their rivalry, one of the most dangerous flashpoints in Asia and the world. A new US-Russian understanding over transnational terror has narrowed the strategic gulf between them over missile defence and minority rights. Sino-US relations may be heading in a similar direction. Throughout Asia, transnational terrorist networks are filling in as the common threat against which states can build new networks of security cooperation. Already, this has led to renewed American strategic engagement in Southeast Asia, something regional governments, if not their peoples generally, regard as a positive force for regional stability. The terrorist threat in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines has already produced the first multilateral gathering of their defence intelligence chiefs.

State-Society Relations Post-September 11

While September 11 produced changes in inter-state and inter-civilizational relations, they pale in comparison with its roots in, and effects (and potential effects) on, state-society relations. Several signposts of this have emerged.

The first is the divergent perception of, and reactions to, September 11, on the part of governments and peoples. Throughout the Islamic world, including Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, societies showed less sympathy and support for the US than did their own governments. And a lot of this popular anger is directed against their own governments, especially those who had sided with the US or had not been sufficiently forthcoming in condemning the US military action in Afghanistan. Popular resentment of American support for Israel made it difficult, though not impossible, for their governments to show understanding and support for the US. President Megawati of Indonesia made a much publicised visit to the White House to show solidarity with the US. But domestic disapproval of this stance soon forced her to criticise the US attack on Afghanistan. Domestic pressures also explain why Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia, after making it difficult for his own citizens to travel to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, also attacked the US military campaign in Afghanistan. The war against terror is thus more divisive when it comes to the relationship between governments and their subjects than that between governments.

The perpetrators of September 11 were inspired as much by a hatred of their own governments as of American hegemony. Osama bin Laden’s turn to full-blown mass terrorism was sparked by his well-known dislike of America but also of the autocratic ways of the Saudi royal family. Mohammed Atta, the apparent ring-leader of the September 11 terrorists, has been described by his German friends as having spoken with “increasing bitterness about what he saw as the autocratic government of President Hosni Mubarak and the small coterie of former army officers and rich Egyptians gathered around Mr Mubarak.”4 Anti-Americanism of the kind that breeds the bin-Ladens of the world goes hand in hand with authoritarianism in the Middle East, where governments routinely permit their media to fuel anti-American sentiments so as to deflect attention from their own repressive rule. In this sense, America’ war on terrorism, as Ellen Amster reminds us, is in reality one in which Washington is interposing in a fight between Islamic radicals and Arab governments.5

The nexus between terrorism and authoritarianism has been a matter of some debate in Asia, and is an important aspect of the changing state-society relationship in the post-September 11 era. In the past, the debate about democracy was about whether democracy is good for development, and whether democratic transitions (as in Indonesia) are a catalyst for regional disorder. The debate on democracy in Asia after September 11 is about two questions; whether lack of democracy is a “root cause” of terrorism, and whether democracy limits the ability of states to effectively respond to it.

On the first question, Anwar Ibrahim, the deposed and jailed Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, has observed: “Osama bin-Laden and his protégés are the children of desperation; they come from countries where political struggle through peaceful means is futile. In many Muslim countries, political dissent is simply illegal.”6 Anwar sees himself as a victim of authoritarian rule in Malaysia, and his comments reflect unresolved domestic struggles in Malaysia. The issue of terrorism and democracy come together in Malaysia; its government faces ongoing demands for political liberalization while responding to a serious challenge from homegrown and Afghanistan-trained terrorists. Farish Noor, a Malaysian scholar of Islam, makes a direct link between terrorism and authoritarian politics in Malaysia. “It is the absence of…democratic culture and practices in the Muslim world in general” writes Noor, “that leads to the rise of self-proclaimed leaders like the Mullahs of Taliban, Osama bin laden and our own Mullahs and Osama-wannabes here in Malaysia. And as long as a sense of political awareness and understanding of democracy is not instilled in the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims the world over…we will all remain hostage to a bunch of bigoted fanatics who claim to speak, act and think on our behalf without us knowing so.7

If the absence of democracy breeds terrorism, does democracy preempt and defeat the terrorist challenge? Some advocates of democracy in the Muslim world hope that “With more democracy…and a stronger voice for advocates of democracy, popular frustrations are less likely to be misdirected, and the resort to violence and terror reduced, particularly among an increasingly disaffected and vulnerable young population.”8 In Southeast Asia, Surin Pitswuan, a former Foreign Minister of Thailand who is a Muslim and who has been a leading voice for democracy in Southeast Asia, argues that democracy reduces the danger of terrorism by enhances the conditions for inter-ethnic harmony in plural societies. “As we pursue our aspirations of democracy”, he contends, “we know that we shall be free to practise our faith fully and on an equal basis with others who also have their own religious faith and rituals sacred to them.”9

But critics of democracy are unlikely to be convinced by the logic of such arguments. As the cases of US, Israel and India demonstrate, democratic governance does not make a country immune to transnational terrorism. Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that the advanced industrial nations of the West are uniquely vulnerable to terrorism because of their growing complexity and interconnectedness, and their tendency to concentrate vital infrastructure in small geographic clusters.10 The fact that these nations also tend to be democracies is not inconsequential, since democracies are also theoretically restricted in their ability to conduct the kind of arbitrary detention and coercive investigation needed to prevent acts of terrorism.

But in supposedly “mature” democracies, such restrictions may be withering, as governments wake up to the dangers caused by traditional pitfalls of civil liberties in combating terror. This was demonstrated for example by the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national, whose laptop computer presumably with information about the impending September 11 attacks could not be legally seized by the US authorities in time to save the World Trade Center. Ironically, it is the immature new democracies, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, which may now be more vulnerable to terrorism because of their inability to imitate Ashcroft’s America.

Democratization has not made them (who?) less prone to terrorist conspiracies and attacks, whether from within or without (both being inter-linked in most cases). But they also offer the least defence against terror in a region where the main weapon against the terrorists have been the Internal Security Act, a holdover from colonial days which have been used to silence political opponents as effectively as religious fanatics. Indonesia’s inability to replicate the efforts of its neighbours, Malaysia and Singapore, in suppressing suspected terrorists has been blamed on democratization (apart from the rise of Islam as a political force since the late Suharto period, and the various other kinds of ongoing domestic violence that make Indonesians relatively impervious to terrorism of the bin-Laden kind). After repealing the notorious Anti-Subversion Law of the Suharto era, Indonesia under its new democratic constitution does not provide for an Internal Security Act similar to those of its two neighbours. In the Philippines, President Arroyo has walked a political minefield and risked substantial domestic discontent in soliciting American help in her own war against terrorism even though the public is generally unsympathetic to the militant’s cause.

The response of Southeast Asian governments to terrorism provides ammunition to those who see democratization as part of the problem, rather than solution, in confronting the terrorist challenge. The case for democratization is undermined when one compares the responses of Malaysia and Singapore (with swift detention under the ISA) with that of Indonesia and the Philippines. “While it may be true that democracy might provide a long-lasting solution”, writes Irman Lanti, an Indonesian scholar, “certainly democratization (as a process) might not, especially if it is conducted without clear agenda and planning….What best can be done…is opening up of political space for the society to engage in discussion with the state on various issues within the framework of the existing system. An ambitious project of democratizing these nations might further complicate the already complex problems there.”11

With democracy on the defensive (perhaps temporarily, only time will tell) in the debates about the causes of, and responses to, terrorism, who is to prevent governments from using national security as a camouflage for regime survival? By creating a sense of national unity and purpose, however brief and superficial, the war against terrorism, like any wars, presents governments with an opportunity to out-maneuver their political opponents. This might be happening in Malaysia today. The war against terrorism thus easily translates into a war against freedom.

In the post-September 11 world, terrorism is rapidly emerging as a convenient and overarching label under which governments and academic analysts could lump any and all kinds of challenges to state authority and regime security. Self-determination, the much vaunted norm of the post-Cold War global political order, becomes a major casualty in this altered political and intellectual climate. Witness the haste with which Chinese official commentators, while showing some empathy for the US after September 11, demanded American understanding of China’s own brush with “terrorism and separatism” in Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, even though the Tibetans and Taiwanese have no record of terrorism. Already, months before September 11, the Shanghai Forum, a regional grouping of China, Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan and Ujbekistan, had issued a joint declaration of its defence ministers pledging “real interaction of the armed forces and other power structures of their countries in the fight against terrorism, separatism, and extremism.”12 To be sure, terrorism and self-determination are not always separable. But in the absence of a common understanding of what terrorism means, governments can be expected to conflate terrorism and separatism to crush legitimate demands for self-determination, even the terror-free variety. Where terrorist acts are carried out in the name of self-determination, governments now have less reason to separate the tactics from the cause. Who tells the nations belonging to the global anti-terror alliance that their fight against a tactic (terrorism) must not come at the expense of a willingness to address the cause (demands for self-determination)?

The post- September 11 world order has suddenly become less hospitable for human rights around the world. An America which carries out secrete detentions of legal and illegal aliens suspected of terrorism and imposes a blanket denial of Geneva convention rights on its Afghan prisoners in Cuba, loses its moral high ground as an advocate for human rights and democracy in the world.13 This message is unlikely to be lost on Asian governments, especially those who have accused the US of double standards when it comes to promoting human rights and democracy. They would feel even less constrained (if they ever were) in challenging the universality of human rights norms, especially when their domestic stability is at stake. This compounds another possible consequence of September 11, the decreased space for civil society, as discoveries are made of how some terrorist organizations thrived by claiming NGO status and adopting their modus operandi.

Last but the least, state-society relations post September 11 will be challenged by the inevitable redefinition of “security”. Before September 11, the security agenda of nations was reorienting towards “non-conventional” issues: e.g. environment, refugees, migration and abuse of human rights, etc. The paradigm of human security, or security for the people, had emerged as an alternative to national security, or security for states (and in real terms, regimes). But the distinction between national security and regime security, always tenuous, will now be further blurred Transnational terrorism may well be classified as a non-conventional threat, but responding this menace is very much spearheaded by conventional configurations of states. And with a vengeance, states everywhere are striking back and re-powering themselves against societal forces. They are doing so in a variety of ways, by regulating financial flows with a view to curb the economic lifeline of terrorist networks, tightening immigration controls, and remilitarizing borders. The US-Canadian border is no longer the longest undefended border in the world. The power balance between globalization and government has shifted in favor of government.

Security is changing in another, and more fundamentally ironic, manner. The “traditional division of security threats into external and internal threats,” declared Defence Minister Tony Tan of Singapore in the aftermath of September 11, “no longer held”.14 The American model of “homeland security” is finding roots in Singapore and in other parts of Asia and the world. Though ostensibly geared to defeating the terrorist menace, homeland security is also a highly elastic notion that could be made to cover all aspects of fighting “low-intensity” threats and controlling day-to-day lives. Going by the thinking of America’s leading experts on future wars, the real heroes in the coming war on terrorism would not be the “Daisy-cutters” and “Predators” of Afghanistan, but the “pervasive sensors” found in America and its fellow-traveling nations, sensors which could be “attached to every appliance in your house, and to every vending machine on every street corner, and which would then register “your presence in every restaurant and department store.”15

In projecting the growing sense of insecurity within America, homeland security blurs the once fashionable distinction between Western and Third World security approaches, in which the latter focused on their domestic front while the former pursued defence against foreign military aggression. With Americans on American soil made to feel and act more insecure than their counterparts in India and Malaysia, the home front against terrorism has brought America’s security predicament closer to that of the Third World. As both situations converge, it is well to remember the words of David Ignatius, “But security is different. Like life itself, it is something for which people will pay almost any price.”16

1Samuel P. Huntington, “The Age of Muslim Wars” Newsweek, Special Davos Edition, December 2001-February 2002, p.13.
2Amitav Acharya, “Clash of Civilizations? No, of National Interests and Principles”, International Herald Tribune, 10 January 2002, p.6.
3Robyn Lim, “Calmer Seas in Asia”, Wall Street Journal, 19 December 2001.
4Neil MacFarquhar, “In Cairo, Father Defends Son as Too ‘Decent’ to be Jijacker”, International Herald Tribune, 20 September 2001, p.3
5Ellen Amster, “The Attacks Were a Bid for Power in the Arab World”, International Herald Tribune, 18 September 2001, p.10.
6Anwar Ibrahim, “Growth of Democracy Is the Answer to Terrorism”, International Herald Tribune, 11 October 2001.
7Farish Noor, “Who Elected You, Mr Osama?”,, 10 October 2001. From http://www.worldpress,org/asia/, p.4
8Shaha Aliriza and Laila Hamad, “A Time to Help Mideast Democracts”, International Herald Tribune, 20-21 October 2001, p.6.
9Surin Pitswuan, “Islam in Southeast Asia: A Personal Viewpoint”, The Nation, 22 September 2001.
10Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The Rise of Complex Terrorism”, Foreign Policy, (January 2002).
11Irman Lanti, personal communication, 31 January 2002.
12“Shanghai Forum Ready to Fight Terrorism, Sepratism and Extremism”, Pravda (On-line English edition), 15 May 2001.
13“The Home Front: Security and Liberty”, Editorial, New York Times, 23 September 2001, p.16.
14The Straits Times, 5 November 2001.
15David Ignatius, “Pervasive Sensors Can Net bin Laden”, International Herald Tribune, 12 November 2001, p.8.