By: Murray Hunter

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.