IT exasperates Umno Youth exco Datuk Dr Fathul Bari Mat Jahya that the IS extremists and militants who are butchering and beheading people, have the audacity to proclaim themselves Salafists.
He says salaf in Islam is a respectable term which refers to the first three generations of Muslims from the time of the Holy Prophet and his Companions; and this period is one steeped in virtue, righteousness and piety.
In today’s context, Dr Fathul Bari says the word salaf is used to refer to method and manhaj (the method receiving, analysing and applying knowledge).
“So salaf is actually a very positive and noble term. Which is the reason the word is coveted and much sought-after.”
So he takes offence to IS extremists and terrorists usurping the word to use on themselves.
“These people are not Salafists! We should never call them that!
“Let’s say a group of Christian extremists commit heinous acts, claiming they do it in the name of Christianity; would you see a church acknowledging it as a branch of Christianity? Definitely not!
“They would disassociate that group from the Christian faith and say those people do not understand the religion.
“So why are we Muslims not doing this with IS? Why are we accepting and using the term Salafist on these terrorists and extremists just because they label themselves that?
“It is not fair. So let’s just stop. Let’s describe them as Khawarij instead. That would be the correct term to use on them,” he said.
Khawarij is a sect in the first century of Islam, which broke ranks with Caliph Ali (the fourth Caliph for Sunnis and the first for Syiah) because Ali agreed to resolve his differences with his rival, Muawiyah 1, through arbitration, rather than engage in combat.
The Khawarij oppose arbitration and adopt a takfiri approach which is to label and declare Muslims who do not agree with their brand of Islam as “non-Muslims” and apostates.
Dr Fathul Bari says the Khawarij are extremists who use Islam and its teachings without understanding the content, context and meaning.
He says the Holy Prophet had spoken about the Khawarij as people who frequent mosques, perform prayers and religious obligations and recite the Al Quran “but it doesn’t pass beyond their throat” and he (the Holy Prophet) described them as the “worst of creation” who must be opposed.
The 35-year-old Dr Fathul Bari holds a bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies from a university in Saudi Arabia; his master’s degree is from a university in Jordan and PhD from the International Islamic University (UIA) in Malaysia.
He finds it “very serious” that there are Muslims in the country who have joined or who are supporting IS because this confuses people and tarnishes the name of Islam.
Some Muslims find it so hard to conceive that these militants are Muslims and believe in a conspiracy theory such as the West or Israel’s Mossad as being the hidden hand behind IS.
“But let’s be fair. There might be some truth to this but there might not. We have to remember that in any religion, there is always a group that is extreme or radical.
“It is not the religion that created it. It has come about from the distortion or manipulation of verses of the religious text and from a lack of understanding of its content and meaning.” he said.
Dr Fathul Bari says it is dangerous and “serious business” because you never know what the extremist is thinking.
“He could be praying at the mosque regularly. Then one day, he just goes in there and blows it up because in his mind, this country is not implementing Islamic law, is anti-IS and kufur (unwilling to comply with the principles of Islam),” he says.
What makes it more potent, he says, is when there is a clash between conservatism and pluralism and liberalism.
For Dr Fathul Bari, youths join IS for a number of reasons.
“Being young, they are easily influenced. They like things which are different. And Gen Y gets a lot of their information from the Internet and social media.
“And sometimes they are in a rush. They don’t check the facts and they don’t ask either.
“So they are easily influenced by emotive words such as ‘defending Islam’ even if the slant and interpretation of what is being said on social media actually goes against the true teachings of Islam,” he says.
And in the age of the Internet, Dr Fathul Bari points out that information is difficult to control.
“If we block all these radical websites, extremists’ Twitter and Facebook accounts, new ones will just keep popping up and they will create new fake Twitter and Facebook accounts every day.
“So it goes back to individual responsibility and that of the family,” he says.
In May, USM lecturer Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid published a research paper for the ISEAS’ Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore on the “Extensive Salafisation of Malaysian Islam”.
Dr Fauzi says there has been a worrying rise of extremist tendencies in South-East Asia and that the internalisation of Saudi’s Wahhabi brand of Salafism since the 1970s is the major reason for the shift.
Saudi, which is oil-rich, has pumped in copious amounts of petrodollars to build schools, institutions of higher learning in other Muslim countries and donated to various Islamic bodies, institutions and NGOs, thereby gaining considerable influence in these countries.
Dr Fauzi says that under the guise of “ummatic unity”, Saudi organisations such as Muslim World League and World Assembly of Muslim Youth have served as “conduits for exporting Wahhabi dogma worldwide”.
He believes countering the Wahhabi Salafisation in Malaysia is difficult because there are “influential Muslim personalities and elements” within the Muslim-majority states who have themselves embraced aspects of Wahhabism.
“Between Wahhabism and ISIS (also known as IS or Daesh), which is but its violent manifestation, lies a short and slippery slope,” he warns.
Dr Fathul Bari, who has met Dr Fauzi, disagrees with his analysis.
He says Malaysia and Saudi Arabia have different constitutional and legal systems and cultures.
“So not everything from Saudi Arabia can be absorbed and practised in Malaysia because a lot of what they have there has to do with their culture and traditions.
“But there are certain points that we can share. And why is it that in the past, when we took so much from the West for our system and the country’s constitution, no one questioned or talked about the Western influence on our country and system?
“But now, when we lean towards becoming a more Islamic country, people talk about Saudi influence!
“In Saudi, women cannot drive and have to be veiled (niqab) and this is mandated by law. Come on, lah. Do you think we are going to do that?
“Over there, if a man wants to get married, he has to already own a house and car, he has to host a huge wedding dinner, and give RM100,000 as mahar (dowry to the bride). There is no such thing in Malaysia,” he says.
On the bilateral front, he says the relationship between Malaysia and Saudi is very positive, closer than ever in the past.
“Previously, we mainly focused ties on trade and economy, but now we are co-operating with Saudi even militarily.
“When we have military ties with another country on issues of security, the relationship is bound to get even closer because there would be sharing of intelligence and inside information,” he says.
For Dr Fathul Bari, this should not be a problem because Malaysia also enjoys similar close ties with other countries, including the West.
On Saudi’s (which is Sunni) military operation against the (Syiah) Houthis in Yemen, Dr Fathul Bari says despite its close ties with Saudi, Malaysia will not get embroiled in the Sunni-Syiah conflict in the Middle East.
As for Malaysian troops who went over to Saudi last year for a joint military exercise, he says the Malaysian troops were there for only training and never set foot in Yemen to fight the Houthis.
“We didn’t deploy troops to Yemen,” he says.
(There was some concern when Malaysia sent troops to Saudi last year at a time when the Saudis were conducting an operation against the Houthis in Yemen.
(But Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein cleared this up back then when he said Malaysian troops had nothing to do with Saudi’s military campaign in Yemen and that the military training exercise was in the north. Saudi’s border with Yemen is in the south.)
On views that Wahhabism and “Salafisation” is creeping in and radicalising Malaysian Muslims towards extremism, Dr Fathul Bari says that does not quite add up.
“If Wahhabism is what is radicalising people, why then aren’t most Saudis terrorists and militants?” he asks.
Sure, he says, Osama bin Laden was from Saudi and so were a number of the 9/11 hijackers who crashed the planes into the World Trade Center twin towers in the United States, but these are just a handful and do not represent the Saudi government or their thinking.
“Saudi has a population of 30 million. In schools, they study religion using the syllabus of Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism).
“If that syllabus promotes terrorism and extremism, then surely there would be millions of Saudi terrorists,” he says.
He says Wahhabism is not another mazhab (School of Thought) for the Sunnis.
(There are four Schools of Thought among Sunnis. Syafie, Hanbali, Hanafi and Malik. Malaysia adopts and practises the Syafie School of Thought).
Dr Fathul Bari says the Saudis however follow the Hanbali School and Muhammad Abd Al Wahhab was a Hanbali.
“Wahhabism isn’t an ideology or a mazhab. It is just a method for the Saudis to practise the religion and it has to do with the Saudi culture and their socio-culture. They are still Hanbali,” he says.
(One of the scholars that Wahhabism draws extensively from is Ibn Tammiyah from the 14th century. IS has been using Ibn Tamiyyah’s teachings to justify their brutal murders.)
Dr Fathul Bari says that while he is not a Wahhabi himself, he has read and benefited from books written by Muhammad Abd Al Wahhab.
“His books are beautiful and very simple and easy to understand. The reason he is very popular in Saudi is because he is a reformist for the Saudis.
“So one shouldn’t generalise and accuse people who read Ibn Tamiyyah or Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab’s books as radicals and extremists.
“There are IS militants and extremists who read books from the Syafie school of thought. Can we then generalise and make that link with terrorism? It is not fair to do such ‘branding’ and labelling,” he says.
As for the growing fervour and fascination in Malaysia for anything Arabic including food, mode of dressing, Arabic phrases and terms, Dr Fathul Bari says this is not an Arabisation of Malaysia.
He says it is fine to follow things from the Middle East which are in line with the religion.
“But sometimes our people misunderstand and want to be more Arab than the Arabs themselves!
“I am proud to be a Malay and I will always be a Malay. I will retain my culture as long as it is consistent with Islamic values. I am not Arab. And I don’t want to bring Arab influence in because we have our own values and culture which is gentle and refined. Let’s stick with that,” he adds.