Malaysia: Playing with Religious Extremism Fire

July 5, 2016

Malaysia: Playing with Religious Extremism Fire

by Michael Vatikiotis

People attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the July 1 terrorist attack in Dhaka. © Reuters

The holy month of Ramadan saw terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic State take almost 400 lives around the world. The targeting of Bangladesh and Malaysia in particular has revived fears that with IS under military pressure in Syria and Iraq, its shadowy planners are looking at resorting to the old al-Qaida model of networked terrorist cells operating in Muslim-majority Asia.

This means that in addition to the many thousands of foreign fighters who made their way into the ranks of IS in Syria and Iraq returning home with the motivation and the skills to carry out terrorism, it is possible that IS has begun helping them recruit and organize spectacular attacks.

 Although evidence of a formal shift in IS strategy toward Asia remains sketchy, there is no shortage of conducive social factors and permissible environments for the incubation of a new wave of Islamic extremism. For the first time, even Singapore has posted official warnings that an attack may be imminent.

Islamic militancy is a strong undercurrent in the Muslim-majority states of the region, fueled by social and economic injustice and well-financed Wahhabi and Salafist teachings. The recent surge in tension between religious communities — Buddhist against Muslim in Myanmar, Sunni against Shia in Indonesia — has helped highlight perceived threats to Muslims that lend impetus to militant teachings.

A club in Puchong, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, was the target of a grenade attack on June 28. © Reuters

Ethno-nationalist struggles in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines remain unresolved and offer permissible environments for Islamic extremist thinking and ideology. The failure to establish a productive dialogue process in southern Thailand or to make progress on implementing a comprehensive peace agreement in Muslim Mindanao is fast alienating a generation of youth who are open to extremist views.

There is also a resurgence of archipelagic regionalism gaining prominence in mostly Muslim maritime Southeast Asia. Since last year, a specific Malay-speaking unit within IS, known as Katibah Nusantara, has amassed a force of 500-plus fighters hailing from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. Katibah Nusantara’s social media presence is conducted in Malay, and its messaging openly solicits the “Nusantara” region — an old term for the Malay world. This group is an embryonic terrorist network that will become a conflict driver when it returns to the region.

Balancing Act

Inevitably, there are calls for harsher security measures. A new anti-terrorist law in Indonesia seeks to increase the period of detention of suspects without trial from one week to six months. However, this plays into the hands of conservative political forces that would use the terrorist threat to roll back democratic space and legal certainty in the region.

A far more effective, but admittedly challenging approach would be for governments and societies in the region to address the underlying factors generating the potential appeal of transnational Islamic extremism.

The first priority is for states to accept responsibility for the careful management of relations between religious communities. Growing tensions between religious minority and majority groups have accompanied the general trend toward more open, democratic politics. In Indonesia, political parties have sought to exploit these tensions, rather than tamp them down, in the quest for votes. In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalism was exploited in the run up to last year’s democratic election, resulting in violence against Muslim communities.

A protester wears a “Jihad The Only Solution” T-shirt in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 23. © Reuters

In Malaysia, the government has carelessly allowed conservative Islamic views to upset the country’s delicate ethnic and religious balance. Just a week or so before the first IS attack in Malaysia, a leading member of the Islamic clergy declared that non-Muslim members of a leading opposition party could be slain because they opposed the imposition of the Islamic criminal code.

Second, greater attention must be paid to the external sponsorship of religious education. The virtually unfettered access to funding from Wahhabi foundations in Saudi Arabia has cultivated less tolerant conceptions of Islamic faith in the region. This in turn exposes young Muslims to an austere, exclusivist version of Islam at odds with the traditionally moderate and open-minded brand of mostly Hanafi-school Islam practiced in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years.

This is not simply about promoting moderation or balancing religious and secular curricula, but speaks to the need to actively recover the region’s distinctive adaptation of Islamic dogma and teaching, which over centuries has enabled Muslims and non-Muslims to coexist harmoniously. In the 1980s, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs considered adapting Islamic law to the specific Indonesian context; today, Islamic scholars in Indonesia and Malaysia are arguing for the replication of laws and conventions that governed society in 7th century Arabia.

It is too late to simply make rhetorical appeals for moderation. There is an urgent need to control or shut off the foreign funding and preaching that, even in prisons where extremists are held, conducts the poisonous message of hatred toward nonbelievers and the isolation of Muslim communities.

Thirdly, for Muslim areas of southern Thailand and the Philippines, the absence of a credible political dialogue and meaningful political empowerment for the populations in question creates a real risk that difficult (but ultimately resolvable) ethno-nationalist conflicts will be displaced by barbaric terrorism dominated by groups with whom dialogue is far more problematic.

Growing Impatient

Unfortunately, the approach taken by central governments in Bangkok and Manila to date has prioritized the safeguarding of territorial sovereignty at the expense of either meaningful dialogue or sincere commitments to autonomy.

They reap what they sow: The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has negotiated in good faith with successive Manila governments for almost 20 years, is awaiting passage of an implementing law through Congress so that a mutually agreed model of special autonomy can be implemented in Muslim Mindanao. Meanwhile, according to the group, thousands of young Muslim Moros grow impatient with the absence of a peace dividend and are susceptible to extremist ideology streaming through their smartphones and tablets.

On the nearby islands of Sulu and Basilan, a network of well-armed criminal gangs inspired by al-Qaida 15 years earlier use IS propaganda and alleged affiliation to inspire a new generation of militants — though mainly in the interests of making money by kidnapping innocent sailors and tourists. The alleged complicity of local government and security forces in this lucrative business makes it hard to imagine an effective campaign to prevent IS from establishing a beachhead in the area.

Taken altogether, smarter approaches to social and education policy, as well as the political management of marginalized people, can make it more difficult for IS to recruit or sponsor its violent messengers of hatred.


The biggest obstacle to making the rapid adjustments needed is that Southeast Asia, where more than 300 million Muslims reside, is still very much a sum of its parts. No Malaysian government will take kindly to being told about the dangers of giving conservative mullahs free rein; no Myanmar official appreciates being told how to treat Muslims better; no Thai government wants to be pushed into a sincere political dialogue to end the conflict in southern Thailand.

Until the region takes a truly collective view of its own security and starts to put aside selfish concerns of sovereignty in the interests of the common good, it seems only a matter of time before Southeast Asia once again becomes a significant target of terror.

Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

10 thoughts on “Malaysia: Playing with Religious Extremism Fire

  1. Perhaps the biggest problem is that virtually all Muslims believe Islam must advance until all the world submits to Allah. And the sword is called for in the Quran if dialogue stalls. The only option then, is to outlaw Islam.

  2. Christ Centred Teaching

    You sound just as fanatical as the the clergy mentioned in the article above.I am sure Isis/Isil will thank you for helping their new recruitement campaigns.

  3. How come Islam has become such a great problem for the World or is it the other way around?

    The World is coming to a re-balancing tipping point where adjustments have to be made to re-align the historical competing forces which have been building up from the moment WWII ended, got a push when the State of Israel was founded, 911 gave it a boost, the founding of ISIS gives it a tangible rallying point.

    I can understand why the Muslim silent majority remains silent. I think they see it as Allah’s answer to the World’s ills or rather the sufferings of the followers of the One True Religion at the unkind hands of the Satanic Infidels, who, against all their teachings, appear to dominate rather than be dominated by Allah’s servants, which ought to be the case.

    The Muslims therefore should welcome what is going on, isn’t it? It cannot be anything else be Allah’s Will?

  4. How Hadi’s PAS can get away with obvious lies and glaring hypocrisy is perfect testament why Islamic statism just seemly is a fallacy along with communism, fascism and socialism. These people have no business holding the reigns modern day govt.

  5. I might be way off, but i see Abu Sayaff and it’s spin-offs are basically criminal enterprises. Jolo, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi in the Suluk Archipelago are populated by Hokkien-Native hybrids who have been marginalized for centuries. Poor and ignorant. They use Islam, albeit the Rabid form, as an excuse and a crutch to ‘legitimize’ their nefarious activities. Their actual god is the US dollar and their altar – the assault rifle (with the machete a close second).

    It’s too simplistic to cast all fanatics and zealots into a single mould – as their motives differ exceedingly. The gross atrocities perpetuated by the European Arab-Sunnis are certainly different from the criminal acts of the ‘terrorists’ (some call themselves Freedom Fighters) in the Nusantara (a very Hindu Sanskrit term). These mainly concerned with mafia-triad protection rackets, smuggling, kidnap-ransom and occasional genocidal activities (land grabs).

    Daesh may be the inspiration of a regenerated Caliphate, but it certainly is nothing more than a fancy born in the political and military chaos of MENA. As long as the Westphalian model of nations prevail, such demented anarchy is difficult to sustain.

    Islam like any religion (perhaps more prone, due to the lack of a central stabilizing authority), has not been able to extinguish Tribalism and Ethnocentrism, no matter what many want to believe. Even the organization of the Haj speaks volumes of the impracticality of such a ‘World Religion’.

    So, in its varied forms have reached it’s maximum extent and will be confined within it’s present geographical ecosystem. It is certainly not the fastest growing Organized Religion and with each atrocity carried out in a bloodthirsty Deity’s aspect, ever fewer will be willing converts.

    An old Pastor once wryly remarked – ‘You can anoint in Oil, but you certainly can’t drink it’.

  6. >Perhaps the biggest problem is that virtually all Muslims believe Islam must advance until all the world submits to Allah.
    Just a genuine inquiry ..

    @CCT: Being Christ Centered, how do you think the world would advance?
    @all: Is the above assumption mostly correct? My personal thought is that “outlawing” another religion simply is not what any religion could do. It is like one nation “outlawing” another nation.

  7. What is behind Michael Vatikiotis’s article above is a mushy brain. The mushy brain could dance around with generality and sterilized morality, but fail to learn from history and assert what matter and eventually give the world up for the most ignorant zealots.

  8. From what I know, Muslims believe that the Koran is the unaltered word of Allah, revealed to Mohamad (apparently in Arabic by the angel Jibrel). So, the Koran must be adhered to – to the word and not open to interpretation or questioning by those who read it. Otherwise, like the poor chap in Perak, you can be charged with blasphemy.

    Although there are translations of the Koran into other languages, it is based on a singular, original Arabic script – preserved in its original text.
    This is why for example, the shahadaa is said exactly the same way in Arabic — regardless whether you are in China or in India or in France. On the other hand, the Lord’s prayer can be said in every language imaginable and there can even be several versions of it in the same language.

    So imagine, as a Muslim if you have recited and internalized the Koran from a young age, you will believe in your heart and soul that you have internalized God’s own words. In addition, Muslims also believe that the Koran is a way of life and source of guidance.

    Now, I don’t read Arabic but I have read most of the Koran (and the Hadith) in its translated form. If you would do the same, it may give you some perspective and clarity with regards to what is happening around the world.

    The solution is therefore NOT the outlaw of Islam, but for more Muslims (to the assured resistance of Islamic authorities everywhere) to interpret the Koran in a kinder, gentler way and make it mainstream. Surely Muslims can choose to reject labeling people they consider infidels derogatorily as the way to demonstrate the primacy of Islam (it really demonstrates something else) or accept that wife-beating is a matter of drawing guidance from the holy book — this is what naturally flows from human decency.

  9. In the name of holier than thou, take my money and goods without really working for it, be dependent on all my handouts, believe what I tell you, and you are holy and will deserve the nine virgins of the figments of your imagination that I have instilled. You must hold all infidels for the ills of the country, and that no infidel are allowed to lead the country, and what ever they transact must be corrupted. That is the souls of the voter we have – a majority of the country, where anything good cannot originate outside the benefactor UMNO, and ignorance is paramount and a fundamental character for fellowship. That is the sickness that we will never be able to cure nor overcome. Islam is the tool of UMNO, when it is supported by religious groups such as PAS it speaks volumes. On the other hand, there exists groups such as Sisters In Islam; a beacon and shining light not well exposed to the people, one that deserves attention by the people in this blog who are muslims, to educate the non believers that Islam is truly a religion worthy of respect and adulation. No one seems to have the inclination for that. All you got is jerk offs such as Hussain who thinks that his belief should be respected just because he is a believer, and for that I have still vision him and those of PAS foraging the dung of the camel. That is what muslims do well, a majority anyway, until you see the shining beauty of the sisters doing all opposite in their beliefs. The practitioners of Islam are obviously those defecating on their religion, so if you think I believe the religion is problematic, you obviously misunderstood the message.

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