Politics, Religion and ISIS in Malaysia


Politics, Religion and ISIS in Malaysia

Elliot Brennan

12 May 2015

As the global threat from ISIS continues to grow, Malaysia and other South East Asian countries face the challenge of how to deal with extremist voices, both nationally and regionally, writes Elliot Brennan.

Ahead of the 26th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, held in Malaysia in April 2015, authorities in the country seized explosives and arrested 12 men who were allegedly planning to attack Western targets in and around Kuala Lumpur. The group reportedly had links to ISIS.

That marked the latest in a series of arrests in the country. So far approximately 100 Malaysians with suspected links to ISIS have been detained – supported by the introduction of a Prevention of Terrorism Bill in April 2015 by the Malaysian government. Several plots have been foiled in the past year, including several aimed at Western targets such as the Carlsberg brewery and nightclubs.

Estimates place between 60-150 Malaysians fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Estimates vary on how many Malaysians are fighting in Syria and Iraq. The Malaysian Home Minister said there are 61 Malaysians in Syria and Iraq, other estimates suggest up to 150. Additionally, in April, the Malaysian parliament was told that 70 army personnel were involved with ISIS, supporting assessments that " a serious effort" was underway to radicalise members of the armed forces. At least ten Malaysians fighting in Syria and Iraq have been killed.

Earlier this year, Malaysia broke-up a 17-man terror cell, led by Murad Halimuddin bin Hasan. His cell had planned attacks on western targets, a Westgate Mall-style shooting and assassinations of government officials (which may have also included American and Iranian diplomatic staff). The planned attacks were reported by the ISIS Study Group to be "the Malaysian terror network's 'gift' to ISIS leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, as a demonstration of their allegiance to him and his ' Caliphate'."

What is striking is that Hasan is a returnee, having fought from August to December 2014 for ISIS in Syria. Hasan found his funding from similar sources as the high-profile known terrorist Zulfiki Bin Hir (known as 'Marwan'), who was killed in a botched anti-terrorism raid in the southern Philippines in January 2015. The key concern is that other returning fighters will bring similar ambitions to Hasan. Some may already have returned. As the country's chief counter-terrorism official noted earlier this year, an ISIS-inspired attack in Malaysia was " just a matter of time."

Understanding these individuals' attraction to ISIS and promoting an environment that diminishes the group's attractiveness are key to disrupting both recruitment and possible attacks. ISIS' propaganda push toward South East Asians has no doubt appealed to some in the country, while Malaysia's lingering political and demographic problems cultivate a permissive environment for radicalisation.

ISIS' redemptive narrative has been increasingly targeted towards South East Asia.

ISIS' slick media production and redemptive narrative has been increasingly targeted towards South East Asia. Issue 4 of the group's glossy magazine Dabiq featured an advertisement-style back-page spread of South East Asian men, a Malay-speaking unit has been set up in ISIS to welcome in new recruits, while recruitment videos in Malay-language (also comprehensible to Indonesians) have been widely circulated. Tackling this recruitment drive with strong counter-narratives is key to disrupting the group's influence in Malaysia. Despite many arrests, that effort seems to be at odds with the increasing politicisation of Islam at the highest levels of government.

Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, a professor at the Northern University of Malaysia argues in an Institute of Southeast Asian Studies ( ISEAS) paper, that the long ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) government has manufactured an "official Islam which enables the state to monopolise the interpretation [of] Islam." Since the 1980s successive UMNO governments have embarked on a program of bringing Islam closer to the heart of the state. This was promoted through the establishment in the 1980s of the dakwah (Islamic mission) that set to propagate Islam in the country. Seats of religious authority were populated by those of political might.

Joseph Chinyong Liow writing for the Brookings Institution argues that in Malaysia's current environment of the politicisation of Islam, Malaysia's Islamist parties are trying to 'out-Islam' each other. Indeed, that assessment holds a lot of water. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and his UMNO party has thrown its lot into the ring. One reason is that Najib's position as prime minister is precarious. Najib is under fire from powerful former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who successfully deposed Najib's predecessor.

Najib's support base is reeling from the introduction of an unpopular tax and a scandal in a debt-laden state fund. With his back against the wall he has played to populism and tried to appease noisy conservatives. It's a battle he is losing. This was marked most poignantly in March 2015 when Kelantan State, a stronghold of the rival Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), introduced Hudud (Islamic penal law). That came after Najib introduced a Shariah Index in February 2015, which assesses government compliance with Shariah principles.

The broad ethno-religious make-up of Malaysia calls for a pluralist, secular state.

Politics aside, there are also deep demographic challenges in the country. Some 48 per cent of the population are under the age of 24. That means job creation is crucial to keep half the population from the breadline and out of trouble. Similarly, the broad ethno-religious make-up of the country calls for a pluralist and secular state, some 40 per cent of Malaysia's 30 million people are non-Muslim. That produces challenges for a ruling elite run by one ethno-religious group that looks after its own first. A government that governs for only half its population will struggle to maintain stability.

Lastly, a Muslim population of which 79 per cent (according to a Pew Research Centre survey) believes religious conversion is a religious duty, will create problems for any pluralistic, secular or two-track (secular and Islamic) system. Any government would struggle to reconcile these demographics, but appeasing extremism isn't the solution.

Perhaps this is why Najib is looking outside Malaysia for a regional response to the ISIS threat. As chair of ASEAN, at last month's summit, combatting the threat posed by ISIS was top of Malaysia's agenda. Part and parcel of these efforts are improving deradicalisation programs in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. These initiatives were highlighted in its ASEAN Chairman's Statement, which noted the April Symposium in Singapore on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration, and the anticipated ministerial meeting on the Rise of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism to be held in Kuala Lumpur.

The Najib government has done a lot right on the harder side of counter-terrorism, including effective monitoring of threats and the introduction of strong anti-terror laws. Yet it has lost its voice of Wasatiyyah (moderation in Islam) by appeasing conservative Islamist parties. In playing to conservatives Najib will face even greater difficulties moderating Islam in his country and fighting extremist voices. With a demographic powder keg and noisy religious conservatism, that's bad news not just for Malaysia but for the region at large.


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