SINCE April 2014, the local media has carried numerous stories of Malaysians who are directly or indirectly linked to terrorist groups operating in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.
We are told that they see themselves as “jihadis” who are fighting for an Islamic cause.
There are also unconfirmed reports that some of them have been killed in the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Police intelligence appears to have mined a lot of information about the activities of these individuals and groups. Their local training hideouts have been revealed and their regional and international links exposed. This has enabled the police to make several arrests.
Eliminating Muslim terrorist networks of this sort will not be a walk in the park.
The police, and indeed the majority of the Malaysian populace, share the same faith as the individuals associated with these terrorist operations.
A lot of Malaysian Muslims may also harbour some of the misconceptions and prejudices which impelled some of these jihadis to take the road to Damascus.
What would have motivated them to tread this perilous path?
What would have persuaded thousands of Muslims from some 80 countries – according to a certain estimate – to join the armed rebels against the Bashar Al-Assad government in Syria?
Why are they so determined to topple Bashar?
It must be remembered that this is not the first time in recent decades that Muslims from various parts of the world have come together to do battle on behalf of a common cause.
The global Muslim campaign against the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in the 1980s was, in a sense, even more extensive and sustained.
Muslims from Malaysia were also involved in that campaign which they saw rightly as the foreign occupation of a Muslim land. Repelling occupation is a Quranic imperative.
But Syria today is not occupied the way Afghanistan was in the 80s.
If there is any occupation in Syria, it is Israeli occupation of the strategic Golan Heights since 1967 which should concern Muslims and others who cherish justice and sovereignty.
And yet the jihadis from Malaysia and the rebels who are their comrades-in-arms do not seem to be bothered about the liberation of the Golan Heights.
On the contrary, it is an open secret that Israel has colluded with some of the rebels – by providing training and supplying intelligence – in the fight against Bashar since the middle of 2011.
Israel itself has conducted a series of military strikes within Syria over the last two years with the aim of sapping the strength of the Syrian army.
If the rebels are not fighting alien occupation, what is their mission?
It is obvious that the Malaysian jihadis, like their counterparts from other countries, see themselves as defending the Sunnis of Syria against alleged oppression by the Shia ruling elite.
There is a parallel perception of Shia suppression of Sunnis in Iraq. Both these perceptions are part of a wider view fostered by various influential groups in West Asia (including Israel) and in some parts of the West that an arc of Shia power is rising from Iran through Bahrain to Iraq and Lebanon, and this is a threat to the Sunni majority in the region.
Adding to this phobia of the Shias – Shiaphobia – especially in the case of Syria is the rebels’ opposition to secularism and the secular state.
It is a state which, in their reckoning, has to be replaced by a Caliphate – a Global Sunni Caliphate – which has now become the rallying cry of some of the rebels, specifically the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).
This narrative of Sunnis being suppressed, of Shia power, of the illegitimacy of the secular state, of a Sunni Caliphate, has reached a crescendo in the last few years in the midst of the Syrian conflict.
Leading religious personalities in West Asia, especially from the Gulf monarchies, have been vitriolic in their denunciation of the Shias.
In mosques and through the media, they have succeeded in fuelling hatred of this minority sect within and beyond the region while creating a sense of siege among the majority Sunni population. Consequently, the Sunni-Shia divide has become more pronounced than ever before.
Because some of these Islamic personalities are highly revered in Malaysia, their utterances command a substantial constituency. They have legitimised the already prevailing antipathy towards the Shias among the local ulama (religious scholars).
As a result, the anti-Shia campaign led by the ulama has gained much prominence among the populace. Some of the ulama are part of the religious establishment while others are freelance operators.
Academics and media practitioners have also reinforced the vile bigotry emanating from some of the ulama. So have politicians from both the government and the opposition. NGO activists have been equally vocal in conjuring an ominous Shia threat in a Sunni-Muslim majority nation where the sect is an insignificant minority.
Given how pervasive and intensive the targeting of this sect has been in recent months, propelled by the massive propaganda flowing from parts of the Arab world, it is not surprising that some impressionable youths in the country have been lured by the slogan of Sunnis facing the danger of extermination in Syria and now Iraq.
There are perhaps two additional factors that explain this fatal attraction. For a long time, Sunni Muslims in Malaysia, as in some other parts of the Muslim world, have been somewhat uneasy about Shias, which is why any negative imaging of the sect is so readily absorbed.
The videos on YouTube showing the alleged atrocities committed by the Syrian government in the last three years have also had a huge impact upon Muslims here, as elsewhere.
Indeed, cyber media as a whole has been a major tool in mobilising Sunnis globally to defend themselves.
While there is no denying that the Syrian Army and its affiliates have committed gross atrocities in trying to quell the armed rebellion, Muslims in Malaysia and other countries have unfortunately failed to subject the media blitz launched by the rebels, their supporters in West Asia and in Western capitals to critical analysis.
Independent investigations into a number of horrendous massacres for which the mainstream media had immediately blamed the Syrian authorities have now revealed that the rebels were actually culpable.
The Khalidiya and Karm Allouz massacres in March 2012 and the Houla massacre in May 2012 would be outstanding examples.
The most startling expose of all was the Ghouta sarin gas attack of August 2013, pinpointed upon the Bashar government, which the celebrated American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh showed through meticulous analysis was in fact the work of a rebel group carried out with the connivance of Turkey.
Young Malaysian Muslims should realise that half-truths, outright lies and wholesale fabrication in order to demonise an adversary and to camouflage the truth are part and parcel of the arsenal of the powerful as they seek to perpetuate their interests.
Indeed, even allegations about the suppression of Sunnis who are the majority in Syria should be examined with greater objectivity.
Sunnis constitute the bulk of the Syrian armed forces and are at the core of the top brass. The current defence minister is Sunni. His predecessor was a Christian assassinated by the rebels.
Some of the most influential positions in the dominant public sector are held by Sunnis while major businesses in the private sector are Sunni-owned.
The highest religious authority in Syria, the Grand Mufti, is a Sunni from the Shafie doctrinal school, the same mazhab as the Muslims of Malaysia.
It is because many Muslims trapped in the web of propaganda spun by certain elements in West Asia and the West refuse to come to grips with realities that they do not want to acknowledge that Syria is one of the few countries in the region that has succeeded in integrating the majority community with the minorities and has developed an inclusive Syrian citizenship that transcends religious boundaries.
This is also the reason why the Syrian leadership has always been opposed to any notion of an exclusive Muslim religious identity in politics as peddled by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Just as the question of an inclusive versus exclusive idea of citizenship is fundamental to Malaysia’s own quest for national identity, so is the other issue that appears to have attracted some Muslims to the Syrian rebellion – Syria’s fidelity to Islam.
For most of the armed rebels and the Malaysian Muslims who have joined them, one of the reasons why they regard the Bashar government as not “Islamic” is because it has not implemented the Islamic penal code, erroneously interpreted as Hudud.
They may not be aware that in the Syrian Constitution, Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation and the President of the Syrian Republic has to be a Muslim, the faith of the vast majority of the citizenry.
More than that, there are many aspects of governance – free education, universal healthcare, specific worker representation in public decision-making and so on – which would make Syria Islamic.
By the same token, there are other aspects of the Bashar administration which violate Islamic norms such as the ubiquitous role of its secret police, the curtailment of dissent, and the persistence of corruption.
However, Bashar’s Syrian opponents and their Malaysian friends do not adopt a balanced, rational approach when it comes to determining the credentials of a government.
They are more inclined towards labelling a government as “Islamic” or “secular” driven by their own shallow, superficial approach to religion and politics.
In this regard, they would view an absolute monarchy that denies basic rights to the people but implements hudud as “Islamic” while condemning a state that applies the rule of law to all its citizens and provides space to women and men to participate in politics but does not include hudud in its legal system, as “secular”.
This then is the nub of the issue. It’s a shallow, superficial understanding of what is happening in Syria that has pushed some Malaysian Muslims into the arms of the Syrian conflict.
Their ignorance has been exacerbated by distorted information and skewed analysis. There is hardly any appreciation among these jihadis of the underlying causes of the conflict and how they are linked to regional and global politics with long-term significance.
That the Syrian conflict epitomises the perennial US-Israeli goal of crushing resistance to their hegemony over West Asia is something that escapes our jihadis.
This is why there is an urgent need to develop a deeper, broader understanding of the conflict among religious elites, politicians, activists, youths, students, academics and the media.
This is as important as intelligence gathering and effective action against the culprits based upon law.
A more profound appreciation of conflicts such as Syria should be accompanied by a serious endeavour to impart an understanding of Islam that is inclusive, universal, progressive and enlightened through our educational institutions, religious bodies and the media.
The national leadership has a particularly important role to play in this. It should be clear in its total rejection of the sort of religious extremism that breeds terror and violence.
In both its domestic and foreign policies, it should demonstrate through deeds – not words – that it subscribes to a “justly balanced” outlook as prescribed in the Quran.
There can be no room for ambiguity or ambivalence in its approach to issues that hint of religious bigotry and dogmatism.
As a nation, we should not be under any illusion. Malaysians with a terrorist orientation, willing to exploit religion in pursuit of their agenda, are now operating in other countries.
There is no reason to believe that they and their kind will not turn their guns upon local targets one day. We should not let that happen, which is why we must act now.
> Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the author of the e-book “Whither WANA? Reflections on the Arab Uprisings” which is accessible through the JUST website,