When I joined Malaysia’s foreign ministry in 1972, a major foreign policy concern in the region was that Southeast Asian nations would soon fall like dominoes to militant communism supported and abetted by the People’s Republic of China. Fortunately, the dominoes held.
Today, the old domino theory may well be applicable to a new danger – Islamic extremism.
The New Frontier of Islamic Extremism
Violent jihadi groups drawing inspiration and support from Al-Qaeda and ISIS have sprouted in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Armed attacks, suicide bombers, beheadings and violence against innocent civilians have made the news.
Young Southeast Asian Muslims are also gravitating to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to join some of the most violent and extremist jihadi groups. The Jakarta Globe, for example, recently reported that more than 500 Indonesians have joined the ranks of ISIS. Militants from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting in Syria have reportedly even formed a military unit for Malay-speaking ISIS fighters – Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah (Malay Archipelago Unit for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and have participated in suicide missions.
According to some analysts, jihadi groups in the region are using the Syrian war to create a pool of combat-trained and indoctrinated recruits for eventual deployment at home. Local security forces have responded by rounding up ISIS militants and sympathizers.
Just as worrying, religious extremism is now reaching alarming levels within Muslim societies with profound political and security implications for the entire region.
Once-moderate Malaysia, for example, is awash in an acrimonious and polarizing debate about the imposition of shariah law that could drive the country to the brink of chaos. Muslims and others who speak out against shariah are threatened, intimidated and harassed. The inspector-general of police, no less, has warned that even questioning sharia law might provoke an ISIS attack.
The very fact that a constitutionally secular and democratic nation like Malaysia is even having a discussion about amputating limbs, beheading, stoning, and even crucifixion is mind-boggling, and telling.
While militant groups and hot-button issues like s\Sharia law have understandably drawn significant attention, more fundamental questions about the causes of Islamic extremism in the region have not been adequately examined. Why is the culture of intolerance, hate and violence that permeates so much of the Middle East now being manifested in Southeast Asia? What has caused this rising tide of Islamic extremism that is now threatening to overwhelm the region’s fragile democracies, stymieing nation-building agendas and fraying already tenuous inter-communal relationships?
The Wahhabi Factor
Clearly, this growing extremism is not happening in a vacuum and neither are its roots entirely home grown. Security experts increasingly point to the Wahhabi ideology that is being aggressively exported by Saudi Arabia as the single biggest cause of extremism in the region.
Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, is an exceptionally virulent, narrow and militant interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of an austere 18th-century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792). Over time, it has morphd into an all-encompassing politico-religious theology that considers all other faith groups deviant, has no tolerance for other cultures, no respect for human rights, no love for democracy and an abiding distaste of Western values. It is harsh, puritanical, unforgiving and violent.
The ultimate goal of Wahhabism is one global community with one creed (Wahhabism) ruled by one Khalifah (ruler), presumably the House of Saud. It makes for a grand strategy not just for hegemony in the Middle East but for global domination.
Over the last few decades, Saudi Arabia has spent more than US$100 billion exporting Wahhabism to all corners of the globe. Thousands of mosques, seminaries, universities, schools and community centres have been built, while thousands of preachers, teachers and activists have been educated, trained and dispatched across the world along with Wahhabi-approved textbooks and other literature.
The Saudi-Wahhabi nexus has such a stranglehold on Sunni religious discourse that its views now predominate. The House of Saud has also deftly used its unique position within Islam as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to leverage strategic influence, respect and power over the global Islamic community.
The Saudi-based, Saudi-funded Muslim World League, founded in 1962, is one of the principal channels of Wahhabi infiltration, influence and control. It actively promotes Wahhabi doctrines, theology and practices on a global scale. The MWL has more than 56 offices and centres on five continents. It is no surprise, therefore, that Wahhabism has emerged as a major, if entirely negative, force in the world today.
Wahhabism also provides the theological underpinning for almost every violent jihadi group, is behind much of the impetus to replace secular democratic institutions with fundamentalist Islamic ones and is the main driving force behind the radicalization of young Muslims in the world today.
Clearly, the Saudi-Wahhabi nexus has become the greatest single threat to peace and stability in the world today.
And it is now casting a long shadow over Southeast Asia as decades of Wahhabi infiltration, indoctrination and influence come to boil.
Southeast Asia: The Next Battleground?
Most of Southeast Asia’s radical groups – certainly groups like Jemmah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, Laskar Jihad, Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia and Jemmah Salafiyah – have ties to the Saudi-Wahhabi nexus, as did the 9/11 terrorists. Saudi organizations like the International Islamic Relief Organization (once headed by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law) have been implicated in funding a number of these jihadi groups as well, prompting the US Treasury to declare some of its branches terrorist entities.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has also built up a significant cadre of Wahhabi trained academics, preachers and teachers across the region. Many of them are now in the forefront of movements and lobby groups agitating for greater Islamization, demanding the imposition of Sharia law, pushing for stricter controls on other faiths, and working behind the scenes to influence official policy and shape public opinion. What is unfolding is nothing less than the gradual “Saudization” of Southeast Asia.
Urgent and Decisive Responses Needed
Southeast Asian governments have clearly been far too complacent and have failed to adequately respond to the mushrooming Wahhabi threat both from without and from within. They appear to be in a state of denial about the magnitude of the problem, responding with half-hearted measures to address the more immediate threat posed by militant groups while leaving the Saudi-Wahhabi infrastructure of extremism intact. They are too intimidated by Saudi Arabia’s religious credentials and too mesmerized by its wealth for their own good.
Worse still, negligence has often been compounded by complicity with some political leaders exploiting religion for their own purposes. It is no secret, for example, that in Malaysia a dangerous political game is being played with the Sharia issue despite the enormous damage it is doing. And in Brunei, the Sultan has sought to outmaneuver the Islamists, as well as consolidate his own position, by pre-emptively declaring an Islamic state replete with Sharia law and restrictions on other religious groups. Only time will tell whether such a strategy will assuage the extremists or merely feed their appetite.
There is now a real danger that unless Southeast Asian governments act quickly and decisively, the region could end up a zone of violence, instability and stagnation instead of the vibrant and stable community they have spent many years developing.
Here are some urgent steps that should be considered in addition to security measures against jihadi groups:
1. Begin an honest conversation with the Saudis about the damage that Wahhabism is doing to their societies.
2. Work with the international community to identify and dismantle the entire infrastructure of extremism (the institutions, the organizations and groups, the schools and madrasas, the funding, the dissemination of extremist literature).
3. Reaffirm commitment to pluralism and democracy and aggressively incorporate its values into the political, educational, social and legal fabric of society.
Urgent action now might just give the many Muslim moderates in the region – like the Group of 25, Sisters in Islam and the Islamic Renaissance Front in Malaysia – the space and the time they need to reclaim the middle ground and reassert the essentially moderate, peaceful and tolerant nature of their faith before the dominoes fall to the extremists.
Dennis Ignatius is a Malaysian former senior diplomat and ambassador to Canada