Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Political leaders in Malaysia have reacted angrily to new U.S. visa restrictions on younger men from 28 Muslim countries and territories who want to visit America.
The move will strengthen perceptions in the Muslim world that the U.S.-led campaign against terror is aimed at Islam, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar charged.
"While recognizing the right of the U.S. to take appropriate measures to safeguard itself, the proposed measures may be construed as singling out Muslims and selected Islamic countries," he told a press conference.
It was galling that Malaysia had been added to a list of affected countries, Syed Hamid said, as the country was safer than some developed nations.
U.S. officials late last week said men aged 16-45 from specified countries would have to complete special questionnaires which will then be checked against U.S. security agency databases - a process that could delay visa approval by around 20 days.
Visa applicants would have to disclose any previous weapons training or military background, previous travel itineraries and indicate whether they have lost a passport in the past.
The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said in response to queries Tuesday that the 20-day waiting period for non-immigrant visas would affect both those males aged 16-45 who were citizens of the specified countries, and those who were born in them.
"This procedure is being implemented on an interim basis to enhance the security of our visa issuing process," a spokesman said.
Malaysia and Indonesia, both predominantly Muslim southeast Asian nations, are on the list. The others are Arab or Muslim states in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
While reaction from elsewhere has been muted, Malaysian leaders have lined up to slam the restrictions.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed his dismay, saying it appeared the U.S. was focusing its attention more and more on Muslims.
"This is disheartening as we know that presently there are also terrorists among non-Muslims," he said, pointing to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, for which Timothy McVeigh was executed earlier this year.
Information Minister Khalil Yaakob added his protest, questioning the relevance of some of the questions Malaysian nationals will reportedly be asked.
"Why is the need to ask the background whether a Muslim had undergone training in handling firearms, what's the relevance?" he asked.
Some countries, Malaysia among them, require citizens to undergo national service which can involve some military training, Khalil said.
"If they want to become terrorists, it is not necessary for them to undergo military training at an early stage," he said. "They can train at a later stage," he said.
'Wild and arbitrary'
Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak added his voice, questioning the inclusion on the list of a country he claimed had "continuously campaigned against terrorism acts by various groups."
And in yet more reaction, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called the decision discriminatory.
The American assumption that Muslim males between the ages of 16 and 45 could be terrorists was "wild and arbitrary," he said during a visit to Singapore.
Abdullah, who has jurisdiction over immigration affairs, said while it was the right of the U.S. to enforce the measure, it should not be too widely applied, and exemptions should be made for certain categories of traveler - diplomats, students and businessmen - even if they fell within the targeted age group.
Frank Whitaker, press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said by phone Tuesday the Malaysian government had expressed its views on the new visa procedures to Ambassador Marie Huhtala.
He acknowledged that reaction to the news in Malaysia had been "quite strong."
Whitaker said the new procedures would come into effect immediately. He could not say how many Malaysians applied for U.S. visas each year, but said the average application under normal circumstances could take as little as two days.
"Because of the delays that these new procedures may cause, we urge all applicants for non-immigrant visas to apply for their visas as far in advance of their planned travel dates as possible."
Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged earlier that the move could upset some Arab-Muslim countries considered allies of the U.S. as it builds a coalition against terrorism.
"We are sensitive to how it would affect some of our friends and allies around the world," he told Fox News.
Powell said the administration hoped the delay-causing restrictions would be temporary, "because we are putting together a more elaborate system where we can make that instantaneous check of all of our intelligence and law enforcement databases."
Although Malaysia joined the international chorus of condemnation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., it opposes the U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan, arguing that the military campaign will not help the fight against terrorism.
The countries affected by the new visa rules are Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, as well as the Palestinian self-rule areas in the West Bank and Gaza.