Nine years after Operation Protective Edge and publication of this author’s previous blog on October 13, 2014, the advice of Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is standing the test of time.
Back in 2003 Lee Kuan Yew already recognized the root cause of Hamas, ISIS, al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. When Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek interviewed him regarding al Qaeda and Islamic extremism in Iraq, he warned, “In killing terrorists, you will only kill the worker bees. The queen bees are the preachers, who teach a deviant form of Islam in schools and Islamic centers, who capture and twist the minds of the young.”
Lee added, “Americans, however, make the mistake of seeking a largely military solution. You must use force. But force will only deal with the tip of the problem.”
Two decades later, Israel is experiencing Groundhog Day with Hamas and going down a similar path.
A battle of ideology
Lee Kuan Yew understood the ideology of Wahhabi Salafism as the fount of terrorism, and was critical of Saudi-funded madrassas that radicalized Asian Muslims. He argued that Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant, but in the 50-odd years since the oil crisis and petrodollars became a windfall in the Muslim world, Saudi extremists have been proselytizing, building mosques and madrassas that preach Wahhabism.
As a result, this extreme version that Lee characterized as a “venomous religion” have radicalized Southeast Asian Muslims, and pitched to Muslims throughout the world that the gold standard for being a good Muslim is Saudi Arabia. Lee noted terrorists are only the worker bees, and the queen bees are the preachers that radicalize young minds.
Over time, Southeast Asia fell victim to a litany of Wahhabi-driven terrorist groups, such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing and a string of terrorist attacks in Indonesia from 2003 to 2005. In 2014 Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines also witnessed a revival of Islamic extremism via the spread of ISIS, including formation of a Malay-speaking ISIS military units Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah, or Malay Archipelago Unit for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The embedded Wahhabi ideology among Asian Muslims continues to express itself via violent jihad, including in India which is also confronting Islamic terrorism.
Similar to Lee, India’s Prime Minister Modi understands this is an ideological battle, and in the aftermath of Hamas October 7 massacre, India broke from its traditional stance of supporting Palestinians to support Israel.
Since Modi took power in 2014 and with the rise of ISIS back then, New Delhi has been upgrading ties with Jerusalem especially in counter-terrorism. As Michel Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center observed, India is standing with Israel because it “views the current conflict through the lens of counterterrorism, and it views the Israeli assault on Gaza as a counterterrorism operation. And counterterrorism operations don’t pause for humanitarian truces.”
Nonetheless, while military campaign can achieve tactical success against Hamas and its sponsors, in the long term this will be an ideological battle to counter extremist theology.
Western universities as the new madrassas
Now it seems Western university campuses are the new madrassas for extremist ideology, with the rise of antisemitism and anti-Judeo-Christian bias. Immediately after the October 7 massacre, pro-Palestinian/Hamas protests already erupted across Western capitals and university campuses.
In Los Angeles, a Jewish protestor was killed by a professor from Moorpark College, and one ponders how many students he and other like-minded professors have radicalized during their tenure.
In a prescient 2002 speech for Singapore’s National Day, Lee Kuan Yew argued that in the post-Cold War world, the big divide is no longer between communist and democratic countries, or between the West and the East.
“Now it is between Muslim terrorists versus the US, Israel, and their supporters. A secondary battle is between militant Islam and non-militant modernist Islam.” He doesn’t believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or US action in Afghanistan and Iraq are the cause of Islamic terrorism, and that terrorism would continue even if the Middle East problem were solved.
Lee continued that in Southeast Asia “Malaysia and Indonesia have to face the challenge of militant Islamists, those who go for militant jihad and want to implement Shariah law so that Muslims will be strict in dress code, in food, in prayer, in punishment for crimes. Fortunately, the majority of Muslims seek their way forward through trade, investments, knowledge, management, science and technology.”
As such Lee exhorted moderate Muslims must have the courage to go after the queen bees and delegitimize the Wahhabi brand of Islam, and go in mosques and madrassas to switch off the radicals and stem the spread of this virus of the mind. He added unless militant groups in Arab states and Islamic theocracies are seen to fail, Jemaah Islamiyah and other militant groups in the non-Arab Muslim world will continue to recruit extremists.
Now, parents also have to go into schools and university campuses and switch off the radicals spreading the virus of extremism corrupting the minds of their children.
As for the Israel-Hamas war, Mosab Hassan Yousef–son of Hamas leader known as the Green Prince–urged liked-minded democratic countries with shared values to wake up and take a stand against Islamic extremism. He underscored Hamas is not fighting a national war over borders but an ideological and religious war, to eventually establish an Islamic state on the rubbles of the state of Israel.
American pastor Greg Laurie from Harvest Christian Fellowship concurs. As he observed, the truth about Hamas is that “They are not looking at a two-state solution, they are looking for a final solution.”