With the recent revelations that a youth was picked up and arrested on the way to a suicide bombing, hundreds of arrests of suspected terrorists have been made, and security is being drastically tightened across Malaysia. What is happening?
In the aftermath of the recent suicide bombing, blamed on ISIS in Jakarta last week, Malaysia is in a panic. Reports are coming out in the media that hundreds of Malaysians are joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq, and the elaborate means through social media young people are being recruited to the cause of Islamic State.
According to a report by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, there are about 450 Indonesians and Malaysians, including women and children in Iraq and Syria today. Islamic State has a special unit in Syria called Katibah Nusantara that is made up of Indonesian and Malay speaking fighters and their families. There are great fears that members of this group will return to Malaysia to carry out jihadist activities at home within the near future.
This should not be a surprise, as the Islamic narrative within Malaysia has been edging towards a more fundamentalist stance over the last two decades, since UMNO and PAS began competing against each other to show the Malay heartland that they are more Islamic than the other.
According to a recent Pew Research Centre study on attitudes towards ISIS, 12% of Malaysia’s Muslims are supportive of the group.
Islamic State formed out of the remnants of Al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq during the Maliki regime as a consequence of his persecution of the Sunni population. Baathists quickly joined the ranks of ISIS, along with a number of local tribes. Sunnis within Iraq saw ISIS as the lesser of two evils and reluctantly supported them. The leader is ISIS Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi last September gave a sermon in the Great mosque in Mosul declaring a Caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria, which has been inspiring to many Muslims around the world.
Malaysia had experience with a group with similar aspirations to develop a caliphate back in the 1980s. Al-Arqam was founded by the charismatic Ashaari Mohammad with a vision of developing small village economy and trade. Ashaari advocated a strict but simple sustainable community lifestyle, following the Syariah codes. Instead of blood and warfare Al-Arqam saw trade and Daqwah (spreading the message), as the future of Islam, where the group started a conglomerate of enterprises all over Malaysia, the region, and even in Europe, US, and Australia.
At the time, the Al-Arqam movement had the sympathy and respect of many Malays within the community, including civil servants, members of the armed forces, police, professional people, academics, and even politicians.
However in the early 1990s, Al-Arqam ran afoul of the authorities when Ashaari was rumoured to claim that he could mystically communicate with the Prophet. There was also a rumour that Al-Arqam was planning to topple the Malaysian Government and replace it with a Caliphate, with Ashaari as the Caliph. Rumours also existed that Al-Arqam had a commando training camp in Thailand, although this was denied by the Thai Government at the time.
In September 1994, the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir banned Al-Arqam and arrested many of the leading group, putting them under ISA. Most went underground and kept their sympathies to themselves. Even up to the Badawi era, there have been attempts by Al-Arqam to make a re-emergence.
In the absence of Al-Arqam, there has been a vacuum in ‘revolutionary’ Islam, to topple existing governments and establish a utopian Islamic state. Al-Arqam had a vision of an Islamic life under a caliphate and now Islamic State has filled this vacuum.
The moderate Malay Muslim demeanour that Malaysia once grounded Malays into the social status quo has long disappeared. There is now outcry about how Malaysian Airlines stewardesses are dressed. The slapstick comical P Ramlee films of yesteryear that reflected Malay society at the time would probably not even pass the Censorship Board today.
Malaysia has become a religiously compliant society, very ritualistic, where non-adherence is frowned upon. Arabness is replacing Malay culture under the assumption that one would be a better Muslim under such a persona. Islam Hadhari was pronounced ‘dead and buried’ along with the demise of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and replaced with a look-alike Taliban blend of Islam that wants HUDUD without the Tawhid.
Islam in Malaysia is evolving into a religion of exclusion. Biro Tata Negara (BTN) dogma preached to civil servants and students on scholarship has extended this concept of exclusion, into an ‘us and them’ paradigm, depicted by the concept of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, which assumes Muslim and non-Muslim are adversaries.
Consequently, Muslims now mix much less with non-Muslims, where joint celebration of non-Muslim festivals like Christmas is frowned upon by authorities. Malay Muslims now believe it is wrong to ‘Salam’ non-Muslims in Arabic. In Kelantan, cashier lines in shops are gender segregated, and halal trolleys proposed in national supermarkets.
We have seen protests against Hindus where cow heads have been displayed, and churches burnt down, without authorities taking much action against the culprits. Authorities have ordered the demolition of a surau because it was used for purposes other than praying in a resort complex. Authorities try to remove anything that may look like a cross, even though there are not religious connections to the structure. Women are being blamed for rape by ‘exposing and flaunting’ their bodies in front of men.
This is a perfect environment for Islamic State philosophy and dogma to breed and fester, rekindling new visions for the Muslim youth of Malaysia.
The strengths of Islamic State lie at multiple levels. First there is the Caliphate, the first in many years, something that many Muslims aspire to. The Caliphate is about living a life within Islam, something extremely important to many Muslims. Then there is the political Islamic State which is repelling the evilness of the world away, which includes all the enemies of Islam. Then there is the Jihadist Islamic State which encapsulates both Islam and bloodthirstiness, a mixture that appeals to many marginalized people, unemployed, lacking self-esteem, and under achieving, become the targets of Islamic State social media.
Islamic State has both a utopian appeal to Muslims and a deranged Jihadist appeal to those who want to achieve martyrdom in a Holy war.
Islamic State’s messages through social media are powerful. They show starving children as victims of war, and the results of US drone strikes, which are designed to form outrage and anger within impressionable young people.
Islam in Malaysia no longer carries the moderation and tolerance it once was. This encourages serious consideration of the Islamic State message.
Malaysia has become institutionally hard-line as well.
This is reflected at an international level as well. Just recently two Israeli participants were banned from competing in an international sporting competition because they were Jews. Hate for the Jewish state Israel has been built up over the Palestinian issue for the last few years. Socially it has been considered a noble thing to go to Gaza and assist the situation by giving humanitarian assistance there. However Hamas is a group that still uses militancy to pursue its ends.
The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s trip to the Gaza strip in 2013 was denounced by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who said that it “enhances division and does not serve the Palestinian interests”.
The implicit support for Hamas, doesn’t seem any different to supporting Islamic State at the domestic audience level. Young Muslims had been led to believe through Malaysian Government actions and dogma that it is noble to fight for such causes.
So are there any solutions?
Unfortunately for non-Muslim liberals, the solution to the problem is not about advocating a moderate Islam. The remedy can only be seen through Muslim eyes. Non-Muslim concepts of progressive or moderate Islam will be seen as an attempt to ‘Christianize’ Islam, and fall on death ears. Such an approach may even encourage more sympathy for Islamic State. US President Barak Obama himself, with a Muslim father may be seen as an apostate, with no moral authority to talk about Islam.
Malay society needs to follow the expectations that Islam has created within the youth of the country. The authoritarian, feudalistic, corruption, gangsterism, and elite’s hypocrisy to Islam need to be eradicated from Malaysian society. This environment, where the youth are being grounded in Islam is turning them towards other alternatives.
With a weak and unappealing opposition in Malaysia, many have become apathetic of politics and are looking for religious solutions.
There needs to be a national vision for a virtuous society based upon Tawhidic principles, something inclusive for all.
This has to happen for the youth of Malaysia to respect the government and institutions of the country, making the appeal of undertaking jihad to serve Islam less appealing, especially if there are duties of jihad at home to be undertaken.
This doesn’t need any reinterpretation of the Qur’an. The concept of a peaceful Islamic society already exists within the Qur’an and needs to come out without changing the meaning, only the methods. Lectures to school children and university students won’t work if respect for authority is not there. Instead the orthodox Islam that Malaysians are taking up, the message of Islam needs to be framed inward upon the self and then onto what type of society that Malaysians can create here at home.
This is the challenge to the Ulama of today to take up.
It would be easy to speculate here, that the situation should any terrorist acts occur, will lead to the activation of the National Security Council (NSC). This would greatly advantage Prime Minister Najib’s grip on power. False flag operations are a possibility here.
However the situation may be evidently more serious. Anymore overt repression by the government could open a “Pandora’s box” of jihad within Malaysia. These jihadist actions don’t need direction from the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. They will be domestically inspired and generated.
Until today, most terrorism within the South East Asian Region has been domestically generated, sometimes inspired by movements far away. From this point of view Islamic State is a big wake up call to Malaysia.