Islamic State’s appeal in Malaysia

In the aftermath of the recent suicide bombing blamed on ISIS in Jakarta last week, Malaysia is in a panic. Reports are coming out that hundreds of Malaysians are joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq, and that young people are being recruited through social media to the cause of Islamic State.

According to a report by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, about 450 Indonesians and Malayasians, including women and children are in Iraq and Syria today. Islamic State has a special unit in Syria called Katibah Nusantara which is made up of Indonesian and Malay-speaking fighters and their families. There are great fears that members of this group will return to carry out jihadist activities at home in the near future. That fear has been exacerbated by the jihadist attacks attributed to ISIS in Jakarta earlier this month.

That should not be a surprise, as the Islamic narrative within Malaysia has been edging towards a more fundamentalist stance over the past two decades, much of it driven by politics, since UMNO and Parti Islam se-Malayaia, or PAS began competing against each other to show the Malay heartland that each is more Islamic than the other. A recent Pew Research Centre study on attitudes towards ISIS found 12% of Malaysia’s Muslims support the group. In particular, UMNO has been using its embrace of Islam not only as a foil against PAS but to steam up the Malay heartland against the ethnic Chinese, who comprise 22 percent of the population, and presumed enemies from the west who have pointed out the deep corruption within UMNO and on the part of the prime minister.

Using religion as a cudgel began with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The moderate Muslim demeanor that once grounded Malays into the social status quo has long disappeared. There is now outcry about over the dress of Malaysian Airlines flight attendants. The slapstick P Ramlee films of yesteryear that reflected Malay society at the time would probably not even pass the Censorship Board today. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Anglophile Malay prince known as Bapak Malaysia – the father of the country – enjoyed good scotch, horse racing and a good time.

Malaysia has become a religiously compliant society, very ritualistic in which non-adherence is frowned upon. “Arabness,” however, is increasingly replacing easygoing Malay culture under the assumption that it makes better Muslims. With the end of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s regime, a fundamentalist Islam emanating from Malaysia itself had been replaced with a look-alike Taliban blend of Islam on the part of PAS – and abetted by UMNO cadres who see it as their continuing hold on power in the heartland – that wants to implement hudud, or brutal 7th-Century Islamic law.

Driven by these political forces, ;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, (Malays first) which assumes Muslim and non-Muslim are adversaries.

Consequently, Muslims now mix much less with non-Muslims, with joint celebration of non-Muslim festivals like Christmas frowned upon. 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 are proposed in national supermarkets.

We have seen protests against Hindus where cows’ heads have been displayed at their temples, and churches burnt, without authorities taking much action. Authorities have ordered the demolition of a resort complex’s surau, or prayer room, because it was used for purposes other than prayer. Authorities try to remove anything that may look like a cross, even though ones without religious connotations. 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 Malaysia’s Muslim youth.

The strengths of Islamic State lie at multiple levels. First there is the Caliphate, the first in centuries, something that many Muslims aspire to. The Caliphate is about living a life within Islam, extremely important to many Muslims. Then there is the political Islamic State which is repelling the evil of the world, 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, who 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. Its 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. 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 from 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 would fall on deaf ears. Such an approach may even encourage more sympathy for Islamic State. US President Barack 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 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 – the oneness of God – something inclusive for all. A deeply corrupt government, a prime minister believed to have stolen millions, a rent-seeking party that has dominated politics since Merdeka – all have to be cleaned up.

This has to happen for the youth of Malaysia to respect the government and institutions of the country, making the appeal of jihad to serve Islam less appealing, especially if there are duties of jihad at home that have nothing to do with holy war 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, would 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.

However the situation may be evidently more serious. Any more overt repression by the government could open a Pandora’s box of jihad that doesn’t need direction from the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. They will be domestically inspired and generated.

Until today, most terrorism within Southeast Asia has been domestically generated, sometimes inspired by movements far away. From this point of view Islamic State is a big wake up call.