Middle East societies should embrace political openness to avoid Islamic extremism, said Thailand's leading Muslim politician Surin Pitsuwan.
The former Thai foreign minister, said Middle East governments could prevent radicalism by following the lead of more open South East Asian states. But he warned the United States not to rush the democratisation of Iraq.
Pitsuwan said the societies of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia had generally avoided the radical Islamic extremism associated with the Middle East because they were more democratic.
But the leader of Thailand's Democratic Party said the US should take its time in setting up a democratic political system in Iraq, saying the country was unprepared after years under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
"You can't transform a society in a hurry," he said. "I don't think you can do it just like that."
Surin was speaking at a luncheon in San Francisco, California, sponsored by the Asia Foundation. The audience included former World Bank president, James Wolfensohn.
South East Asia's Muslims were in the vanguard of global Islam, he said. The region has more than 230 million Muslims, including over 200 million in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim population. Malaysia is one of the most economically advanced Muslim countries. About one in ten people in predominantly Buddhist Thailand is a Muslim.
Islamic debate the key to moderation
Surin said Muslims needed to be able to practice their religion in a free and democratic environment. "The demand to live in an open society is there in all Muslims," he said.
In Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, discussion of Islamic teachings was severely constricted to local orthodoxies, while in South East Asia, discussion and debate are wide open, he said. This has been key to limiting the rise of radical Islam in the region.
In South East Asia, extremists engaging in terrorism, including kidnappings in the southern Philippines and the bombing of a disco in Bali, Indonesia last October, have earned much more attention than they deserved, he claimed.
Among the many groups he was referring to was Jamaa Islamiya, said to have links with Usama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
"The extremists steal the show" in South East Asia, Surin said, adding that they enjoyed little popular support.
Surin is a doctoral graduate of Harvard University and served as Thailand's foreign minister from 1997-2000. He was also chairman of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) from 1999 to 2000.