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Time: Wannabe Warriors
By Simon Elegant

24/11/2001 8:58 am Sat

NOVEMBER 26, 2001 VOL. 158 NO. 21

Wannabe Warriors

Some Muslims in moderate Malaysia are drawn to the fighting in Afghanistan-on the Taliban's side


Imran doesn't look like trouble. a slight Malay youth of 28, sporting a small goatee and a skull cap, he looks like someone who might hand you a Slurpee at 7-Eleven. But look closer and you'll notice a thin, dark line of kohl-traditional eyeliner that some conservative Muslim men believe the Prophet's injunctions recommend. The black line is the only outward symbol of Imran's burning secret: he wants to be a warrior of Islam to "fight the terrorism unleashed upon the Muslims by the Americans." Undeterred by Northern Alliance victories these past two weeks, Imran plans to join the Taliban, traveling to Afghanistan in the first few weeks of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which began Nov. 17. "It doesn't matter that the Taliban may lose the cities," he says, softly, oblivious to the bustle of Kuala Lumpur around him. "That just makes it more risky, but I am not afraid of dying in the war. A martyr's death is the best thing that can happen to a Muslim."

Such extremist sentiment is common in the Middle East or Pakistan, but it is not what you'd expect in Malaysia, a small, prosperous, multiracial country where the nearest most Muslims come to religious conflict is neighborly arguments over the volume of mosque loudspeakers calling the faithful to prayer. But if Imran is in a minority, he is far from alone. Hundreds of Malaysians like him are volunteering to fight for the Taliban. For them, the U.S.-led campaign is beginning to seem like a war on Muslims, not just terrorism-just as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned at a conference in Kuala Lumpur Nov. 16. Such a war would spark an unstoppable cycle of violence, Mahathir said, with each attack by the U.S. fueling Muslim anger and spawning more terrorists. "The world is going to be saddled with the terrorist problem forever," he cautioned.

Although he has condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, Mahathir is well aware of the need to address the feelings of Malaysia's majority Malay Muslim population, which is growing increasingly critical of the U.S. military campaign. Another example of Kuala Lumpur's ambivalence: the authorities have said that while they don't support citizens traveling to Afghanistan, they won't stop Malaysians like Imran from going. Government officials estimate that as many as 2,000 Malaysians have made their way to Afghanistan or are already en route. And that's not counting the roughly 700 Malaysian students who were studying in Pakistan when the fighting started, many of whom have also volunteered.

Imran and 200 other volunteers plan to fly to India and then on to Karachi. From there, they will make their way to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where he says the group will spend three weeks in a camp receiving basic combat training. Imran declines to say who is behind his meticulously organized trip or even if he is paying himself. Some of the group have already received instruction in unarmed combat and survival at camps in Malaysia, Imran says, though he himself is sticking to "jogging every day, reading the Koran and praying to strengthen the mind."

Malaysian police have quietly closed two rural training camps in recent weeks. Both were run on weekends for teenagers and located away from prying eyes deep in secondary forest. The camps held prayer sessions and lessons in unarmed combat. Each of the 40 or so students was issued with a kris, or traditional Malay curly bladed dagger. Other such camps are still in operation, say police, who are keeping their activities under surveillance. The police have good reason to be concerned about the kind of graduates such camps produce: 16 Islamic militants have been arrested in recent months. Police allege they were intent on installing an Islamic government in Malaysia and had collected heavy weaponry and committed robberies and a murder to that end. Five Christian churches have also been burned down in the same period, some of them by what police acknowledge in private are rogue groups of Muslim militants.

Imran says the killing of innocent civilians is un-Islamic. But then, in the same quiet voice, he adds an ominous coda: "If my leaders call for a jihad here in Malaysia, then of course I would have to fight here too."

-With reporting by Mageswary Ramakrishnan/Kuala Lumpur