Malaysia, with or without IS

To date, we have an estimate of 140-150 Malaysians who have joined the war in Syria; around 90 returnees; and more than 30 individuals arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Quite recently, our very own Amin Baco, the 31 year old Sabahan was announced as the new “emir” or leader of Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, replacing 51 year old Isnilon Hapilon who was killed during the long conflict in Marawi City. There is no doubt that IS has had an impact in the country and we are faced with the rise of violent extremism among Malaysians.Before we go further into the rise of violent extremism and the impact of IS, let’s have a recap of an overview of the country.

Malaysia has a 31.7 million multi-ethnic population, in which the dominant group is the Malay/Bumiputra (68.6%). It is a relatively stable country, which has enjoyed uninterrupted elections since its independence from the British. It is relatively secular (although this may be arguable), with positive economic growth over its history. In 1958, one year after independence, 60 percent of the country’s population lived below poverty line, and in 2016, only 0.6 percent population remained below poverty line, which is quite an extraordinary achievement. On top of that, Malaysia provides universal access to basic education and healthcare, and it does relatively well in gender equality – female students are the majority in higher learning institutions, and 32.3 percent of decision-making positions in public service are held by women. Looking at all this, one would wonder why would Malaysia have a violent extremist problem?

Extremism in Malaysia

In case it has slipped from our memory, Malaysia has had quite a long history with violent extremism. More specifically, Malay-Muslim Malaysians have been involved in violent extremist groups for quite some time. For example, a few local groups that have popped up since the 1960s: there were Tentera Sabilullah (1967), Gerakan Rohaniah (1971), Koperasi Angkatan Revolusi Islam Malaysia (1974), Kumpulan Mohd Nasir Islam (1980), Kumpulan Jundullah (1987), Kumpulan Mujahidin Kedah (1988) and Perjuangan Islam Perak (1988). Then there were Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM), a network of Malaysian and Indonesian alumni from Afghanistan and Bosnian war. Both of these groups were linked directly to Al-Qaeda, and after coming back to this region, they continued their fight first by aiding insurgencies and getting involved in sectarian conflicts in the region, in places like Mindanao, Ambon and Poso. Later, they started carrying out attacks in public places, such as the bombing in Bali and JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. These groups and networks were eventually cracked down by our authorities. After the 9/11 tragedy, efforts to crackdown violent groups were heightened, and ultimately, the local network of JI and KMM were crushed and pushed out of the country. As a result, for about a decade since the mid 2000s, there was a quiet period in violent extremism in the country, other than a few Malaysians getting involved in operations outside Malaysia, such as Yazid Sufaat, Azahari Husin, and Noordin Mat Top.

However, things started to change after war broke out in Syria, where a new player emerged. The emergence of DAESH (alternatively known as ISIL, ISIS or IS) out of Iraq was a result of the US invasion and the widespread instability post-Saddam. The organisation later exploited the conflict in Syria to expand its movement, and asserted itself as a new force to be reckoned with. Its massive propaganda effort gave new life to Muslim violent extremism, and many regional groups and individuals pledged their allegiance to IS, including many Malaysians. Meanwhile regional groups such as JI in Indonesia as well as Abu Sayaf, Ansar Khalifah Philippines, and the Maute Brothers in Philippines have pledged their allegiance to IS, and many Malaysians have joined these groups too. The most high profile Malaysian who joined the conflict in Mindanao was Dr Mahmud Ahmad, a former lecturer at Universiti Malaya.

There are also other concerning data that could have indicated the rise of extremism in the country. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center found that in Malaysia, 11% Muslims are sympathetic to IS, 18% found suicide bombing justifiable, 86% believe that Sharia should be the official law of the country, and 39% believe that violence is justified against so called “enemies of Islam.” Meanwhile, a local polling agency Merdeka Center have found that 60% Malay Muslim identified themselves as Muslim first, 71% support Hudud law, while 30% believe that the country is ready for its implementation. If we are to consider the outcomes of these surveys, the experience of increased religiosity among Muslims in Malaysia is not without its nuances. While overwhelming support is voiced for ideas that conform to orthodox Muslim belief, there is a lot of disagreement when it comes to its actual implementation. However, the idea of a struggle against “enemies of Islam” has some appeal.

Profile of Recruits

Looking at the above, IMAN Research went on to investigate to understand the driving factors towards the apparent support of violent groups. Since Malaysians who were recruited or involved with violent extremist groups were overwhelmingly young Malay-Muslims, the study was focused on members of that community of both genders, living in both urban and rural areas in Peninsular Malaysia, and coming from middle to working class backgrounds with a mixture of those who had religious education and those who didn’t. The findings of the discussions can be summarized as follows:

  1. Perceptions of disempowerment – Youths feel that they lack ability to make any changes in the society, and perceive the  problems the society is facing are so monumental that nothing can change.
  2. Political cynicism – There was much hope after the 2008 General Elections that a new kind of politics would emerge, but trust towards the political process dropped after the 2013 General Election.
  3. Identity – Participants agreed that their identity is an important component, but yet at the same time feel that it is a very complex issue. When asked to define what was Malay, many if not all were stumped by the question. Irrespective of the respondents’ religiosity, all answered that their main identity was being Muslim.
  4. Ignorance of The “Other” – A worrying finding was the fact many do not have interaction with non-Muslims. They acknowledge that this limits their understanding of issues and concerns faced by non-Muslims but nevertheless find it difficult to overcome.
  5. Ideal or utopian view of the concept of Islamic State – All agreed that the belief in the concept of an Islamic state was an integral part of being a Muslim. While most had different interpretations of how to achieve an Islamic state, what they agreed most on is that if Islamic State did exist then the current problems faced by the country would be solved such as corruption, unscrupulous leaders.

Fathali M. Moghaddam, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, in his study on the spectrum of extremism, have listed out indicators to an extremist mindset, which is as follows:

  1. Perceived deprivation is a broader dissatisfaction with the world
  2. Perception that one has no voice in decisions and no way to improve the deprived, dissatisfying, and unjust situation
  3. An aggressive attitude toward an external enemy (in Moghaddam’s view, displaced aggression) with the belief that a certain external enemy is the source of all big problems
  4. A belief that the ends justify the means, which means doing anything to destroy or weaken the enemy, including killing civilians
  5. A ‘‘We must kill or we will be killed’’ style of thinking, as well as an ‘‘us versus them’’ style of thinking
  6. A belief that the cause is all that is worth living for
  7. A felt obligation to conform to all norms set by one’s group or cause and
  8. A conviction that one heroic act will improve the world

The indicators stated by Moghaddam’s do not necessarily only occur in a minority group. It can also be experienced by a majority community who through consistent “teaching” and/or sudden change in social and political stability feel that they are under threat. This is compounded further with the influence of external factors that are deemed as threats, pushed to a corner with no alternative in sight – group mentality (how people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors) will start to manifest. And in the context of Malaysia, the group in reference is the Malay-Muslim population which also happens to be the majority.

And Then Came IS

Different from other violent extremist groups that came before it, IS designed their recruitment campaign for the general public. Following the trend of the occupy movement, IS propagated a structure-less and non-hierarchical movement that attracted disenfranchised Muslim youths all around the world. There were no Ustaz or usrahs that you needed to follow first, before pledging your allegiance. There was no need to prove your religiosity and faith or Iman before doing work for the organization. By doing this, IS repainted the landscape of Islamic militancy. This very public campaign, utilizing the internet and mass communication strategy, brought their form of narrative into every Muslim household without any filters and caught the imagination of the Muslim public. As a result, hundreds of Malaysian youths have joined their war in Syria, and more recently, in Mindanao.

But the real impact of IS, particularly in Malaysia, is beyond that. What they have truly succeeded, other than misleading disenfranchised young Malay-Muslims into joining their violent movement, is that they were able to put their agenda and values in the mainstream, within the larger Malay-Muslim community.

In Malaysia, extremist values no longer stay in the fringes, underground cells, but have jumped into everyday Malay-Muslim lives. IS have also “democratized” violent extremism, providing accessibility to those in the spatial periphery into and independent of strict membership. They opened a pandora’s box by taking the ownership of violent Jihad from the hands of a selected few and put it in the hands of Muslim youths all over the country (if not the world), no matter what background they come from. The result of the continued growth of extremist discourse in Malaysia has given birth to two types of extremist groups; violent and nonviolent. Consequently, what we also see now is the rise in the assertion of identity politics, where many Malay-Muslims are no longer willing to compromise and tolerate so-called un-Islamic worldview and lifestyle. Unfortunately, this is a situation that is difficult to reverse. And it will come to a point where it will no longer matter if IS itself is still around or not. Any other group, new or old, that upholds the same values and agenda will be supported, which is something that we can already see happening in Mindanao during the Battle of Marawi.

So What Now?

Based on the evidence it is without doubt that extremism is taking hold of the Malay-Muslim community. This is not to say that all is lost and the future of the country is bleak. There are steps and measures that can be taken to curb and mitigate the rise of extremism.
First and foremost, there is a strong and urgent need to shift the trends by winning back the Malay-Muslim community, especially the youths. Malay-Muslim youths are losing their faith and confidence in the country’s leadership – from both sides of the political spectrum – and it is important to gain them back by truly allowing our youths to take part in the political process. Second, there is a great need to challenge pro-IS narratives, not only through promoting counter narratives, but also by taking out and eliminating opportunities for extremist groups to organize and exploit vulnerable communities. This means that members of the society need to be able to address their grievances, either personal, economic or political, and are given the support needed to mend them. Besides that, the country also needs to address its lack of social cohesion. Policies that can nurture social interactions need to be promoted and implemented. This can be done not only through education and interfaith dialogues, but also through arts and culture, and urban design.

In conclusion, while there is a rise in extremism in Malaysia, there is still a large middle ground that can still be swayed from drifting further to the right. There is significant room for independent community leaders, scholars and civil society in general to fill in, and a large number of youths who are willing to engage in dialogues and community building. However, the window to address this demographic is closing fast.

This is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of IMAN Research.