Alarming Rise of Malaysian Religious Extremism

Please note that AS editors inadvertently used a picture of the wrong Aisyah Tajuddin. It has been corrected.

There are worrying signs that the sort of religious self-righteousness that fuels savage jihadi violence in the Middle East is infecting Malaysia, especially in the wake of efforts by the fundamentalist party PAS to implement a medieval criminal code in Kelantan.

On March 19, a Kuala Lumpur-based radio station, BFM, hurriedly took down a podcast about the law, called hudud, after the host, Aisyah Tajuddin, made what was called a “satirical commentary” on whether the Kelantan government should make religious law a priority when the state is still drying out from devastating floods in January and needs government aid to recover.

The podcast was greeted by hundreds of comments about Tajuddin’s remarks, including some that said the woman, a Muslim, had "gone against the faith" and must be raped or killed. The news portal Malaysian Insider quoted visitors to the site as delivering comments including “I really want to slaughter this pig.” Another wrote: “I want to meet her too… I haven’t punched anyone in a long time… Who cares if anyone calls me a cuckold for hitting a woman… she should die.” Another was quoted as writing, “Make her apologize openly. Or just cut off her head because she has renounced her faith.”

The station also took down the sign on its door so that would-be assailants would find it difficult to find. Tajuddin’s Facebook page was also taken down.

That followed a beating on Feb. 6 of Dzulkefly Ahmad, the PAS research director and a member of the moderate wing of the party, in his home by thugs who were believed to be members of the fundamentalist wing. Dzulkifly had criticized the fundamentalists. PAS is in the middle of a rancorous squabble between moderates and conservatives for primacy after the death of its supreme leader in February.

In December, a group of 25 leading Malaysian Muslims including former public service heads, judges, ambassadors and generals signed an open letter saying the country is “on a steady slide towards fundamentalism and even violence,” expressing deep dismay about the growing assertion of extremist Islam, with the government willing to tolerate it for political reasons.

Estimates of young Muslims who have departed to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, are also a growing cause for alarm, officials say. Unofficial guesses are that as many as 400 have left for the Middle East although some alarmists put the figure as high as 1,000. Authorities say the numbers are far lower, at “scores.” Zahid Hamidi, the home minister, told reporters in January that 67 were known to have gone to join the fighting and that at least five had been killed.

At home, however, according to Hamidi, detainees suspected of having pro-ISIS attitudes have been removed from general prison populations after they were caught preaching the ideology in the cell-blocks.

“They have been found to influence other criminals in joining the ideology," Zahid told reporters, saying the ISIS suspects were being housed in dedicated cell-blocks. “These are hardcore people who want to go and fight in Iraq and Syria. We want to neutralize them.”

This rising antipathy to moderate Islam may have worrying effects on the debate over hudud, which is expected to be taken to a national level in May. Having successfully overcome objections in Kelantan, PAS now intends to ask the Dewan Rakyat, the national parliament, for an amendment to the federal constitution, which currently guarantees freedom of religion although Muslims are subject to Shariah law.

Political analysts in Malaysia suspect that the United Malays National Organization has encouraged PAS behind the scenes to seek the implementation of hudud in Kelantan as a method of splitting the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, composed of the moderate urban Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat headed by the now-jailed Anwar Ibrahim and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party as well as PAS. The DAP is vehemently opposed to the law and is expected to meet on Monday to deliberate on whether to leave the coalition.

That accomplished, according to the theory, the law would be blocked at the federal level because it would drive the component ethnic parties – the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Chinese-dominated Gerakan and the Malaysian Indian Congress – out of the ruling coalition.

But, said an alarmed UMNO member who asked not to be named, given the rising temperature among Malays, UMNO members of parliament may be intimidated into voting to allow hudud in Kelantan. Several other northern, rural Malay states are expected to seek to implement their own version of hudud.

“I have a feeling some UMNO MPs will vote hudud in parliament, defying [Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak],” he said. “How can they vote against ‘God’s law’ and be good Muslims?”