Published with Zachary Abuza on Mar 06, 2015 in The Edge Review

Malaysia’s focus on stopping would-be fighters masks growing domestic support for Islamic extremists

When local papers reported last month that a 14-year old Malaysian girl had been stopped from heading to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State (IS) movement, the headlines quickly faded into the background.

Her thwarted departure was marked as another “success”, but there was little discussion of the factors shaping the IS movement within Malaysia. Are there domestic factors that contribute? Let’s take stock of what we know so far.

While Malaysia – in common with other Southeast Asian countries – does not rank among the top 20 countries involved in the fighting, its presence is large enough not to be dismissed.

So far 71 people have been detained in Malaysia for their alleged participation in IS, with 59 recorded as fighting. Six Malaysians have died, including its first suicide bomber. There have been enough volunteers from Malaysia and Indonesia that a Malay-speaking unit was formed. Two Malaysians were also identified in a grisly beheading video.

Most participants have been urban, concentrated in the west coast, and young. The group is a mix of professionals and unemployed, mostly recruited through social media, especially Facebook. Many are women, and media reports have vividly described Malaysian women who have joined as brides and taken out loans to fund their travel.

Numerically, Malaysia’s participation may yet appear small. But these numbers indicate only action, not the quiet support within the movement’s networks, including in the areas of fundraising and recruitment.

Malaysia, in fact Southeast Asia, is not part of the Islamic caliphate plotted by IS. This does not mean that there is no affinity with this millenarian movement: technology and social media have facilitated powerful, savvy messaging.

IS is seen to be successful in opposing immoral governments and the West. The images of the “modern” activists using violent medieval methods have served to inspire with its “success” rather than alienate through its “evil”.

The movement attracts the heavily devoted, those inspired by martyrdom. The idea of apocalypse propagated by IS resonates with followers’ deep-seated religious interpretation, as the vision of a perceived better world connects to those unhappy with today’s conditions.

IS globally stands out for its appeal to women, who have been given a place in the movement (even if a subservient and exploitative one). Gender inclusion – particularly targeted toward young girls – has made IS more attractive. Indeed the most recent arrest in Malaysia was a 29-year old housewife and recruiter for IS.

Malaysia has provided an enabling context for IS beyond these global trends. The government’s restrictive approach towards religion has pushed discussion among Muslims about the faith underground.

The latest Pew Research Center survey on religious freedom for Muslims ranks Malaysia seventh last, out of 198 countries, for its restrictions.

This narrow space is compounded by a narrow view of faith, an environment that encourages takfiri, or accusing other Muslims of apostasy. The Shia in Malaysia have been especially targeted for their beliefs, often openly by the government’s religious authorities.

This is central to the IS paradigm of war against Shia in Syria and Iraq.

It extends to demonisation by religious zealots of Malaysia’s Christians, who are also in IS’s firing line. The government has broadly encouraged religious extremist views by funding organisations that promote intolerance and exclusion and it has sent mixed signals in its interventions over religious hatred.

Further, the government has not implemented standards of good governance in areas such as corruption and job creation.

In a climate where trust of government institutions has declined, this has had a spillover by contributing to perceptions within society of immorality within government, further inspiring support for IS.

Many are uninformed. There is little in the way of civic education about IS beyond pictures of horror. Instead there is a tendency to glorify struggle in the core of the faith in the Middle East and give inadequate attention to the periphery with local dynamics and implications half a world away.

Among the public at large there is low appreciation of how different IS is from Jemaah Islamiyah or al Qaeda, as struggles for Islam are often equated rather than differentiated.

The government has focused on counter-terrorist initiatives, using the security forces for control. The attention has been on stopping would be fighters and to repudiate the violence. The government has taken this seriously and been proactive in these efforts.

This focus has been narrow, however, and has lacked follow-up, with those released often allowed to continue their networking and fundraising efforts and returnees not allowed to share their horror stories.

The approach is not a holistic one that recognises the underlying factors contributing to IS within Malaysia itself. The movement is portrayed as coming from outside, without an acknowledgment of the impact from inside.

The concern is for when the experience from outside comes back inside. Without a more holistic approach to reducing the appeal of IS in Malaysia, it may just be a matter of time before the fighting itself moves closer to home.