THERE is nothing Islamic about the so-called “Islamic State militant group” – how many times have we heard this from terror experts, religious scholars and enforcement authorities?
Even Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has noted that the perverted ideology of IS has no place in Islam.
Unfortunately in Malaysia, we cannot escape from religion in discussions about radicalisation and violent extremism, said Nicholas Chan, research director with Iman Research.
As Chan pointed out at the recent Civil Society Conference on National Security in Kuala Lumpur, this is because Islam is entrenched in our security framework.
“National security in Malaysia has been defined largely in religious terms since the early 1980s (especially with the ulama takeover of PAS after party president Tan Sri Mohamad Asri Muda stepped down).
“And since our security is invariably linked to Islam, any discussion of security threats also goes back to the religion, despite our leaders, like the PM, trying very hard to disassociate Islam from groups like IS,” he said.
Tracing the history of Malaysia’s security framework to the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), he highlighted that the country’s security apparatus operates on two modes: coercive and ideological.
“The Communism era is the most definitive period in the conceptualisation and institution of Malaysia’s security framework.
“During that period, the police became a major defence instrument and an ethnic dimension was instilled into Malaysia’s security outlook,” Chan argued.
Another historical milestone was PAS’ exit from Barisan Nasional in 1978 and its adoption of Islamist revivalist politics.
This fragmented Malaysian politics further, which not only made the national security scenario more complex but also gave the country’s security policies and considerations a strong ethno-religious overtone.
And as PAS became an electoral force to be reckoned with, he asserted, the then Government began to revamp its security policies and make maintaining “Muslim unity” a priority.
“The contest of ‘right and wrong Islam’ leaked to the security domain, as seen in the crackdown on many purportedly deviant groups. So in a way, the situation is that if a group is seen as not conforming to the state-sanctioned form of Islam or religious teachings, it can be deemed a national security threat,” he said, citing the Government’s White Paper on Muslim Unity And National Security and crackdown on groups like Al-Arqam for deviancy as examples.
Describing the development as an Islamisation of security, Chan added, “The increasing Islamisation of security causes the securitisation of Islam too. This is why now there is so much effort placed on saying IS is ‘not Islamic’.
“The predominant message we get from the Government is that these people went into IS because their learning of Islam is contorted. You also see how lately there are clashes between different factions in our bureaucracy basically arguing about which school of thought in Islam pushes people towards violence.”
Chan believes this inability to escape from talking about IS in religious terms may have stopped us from discussing other possible, or even bigger, root causes of radicalisation.
“For example, we need to ask: is radicalisation an issue of socio-economic depravities? Is it because of the highly politicised nature of religion? Is it because modernity as we understand it today create voids so much that people need to find new (and worse, violent) avenues of seeking meaning?
“How do we reconcile this with the rise of ultra-right sentiments in America and Europe? Is our youth bulge (when a society has a high number of young people) a contributing factor to this? How does the rise of sectarianism and other Middle Eastern influences affect our people?
“Personally, I would love to see the horizons of discourse about radicalisation reach such depth rather than just stopping at religion. I think it’s healthier that way,” he said.
This is echoed by Umno Youth exco Datuk Dr Fathul Bari Mat Jahya, who highlighted that 11 suspects charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) – out of the 236 terror suspects detained from 2013 to 2016 – do not have any religious background.
“Contrary to the common perception that links terrorism to religious ideology and certain religious leaders, those charged under Pota are ordinary Joes; some work as restaurant assistant, hotel housekeeping staff ...,” the Pota Board member told the conference.
Dr Fathul also warned of the terrorists’ influence from behind bars, especially on prison wardens: “Some are able to influence the wardens with their ‘pious conviction’, such as through their prayers and religious mannerisms. So it is important that wardens are given spiritual, mental and physical training as well as a better understanding of the IS issue to protect them from the terror suspects’ influence.”
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflicts, also stressed the importance of thwarting IS prison links, especially with the emergence of terror “role models”.
“In Indonesia, for one, whoever can spark an incident of terror in South-East Asia is revered. Some of these Indonesian terror role models have cross-border history.
“We should also not forget old militant groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and the KMM – their long dormant networks seem to be re-emerging. Some of the key relationships among the region’s IS leaders now were forged a decade ago in prisons where the old militant group members were detained, from Indonesian prisons to Camp Crame in Manila and Kamunting Detention Centre in Malaysia.
“After coming out of prisons, some of them re-established their links in Basilan, southern Philippines,” she said, pointing to the new video that came out in June showing Indonesian and Malaysian IS members in Basilan swearing allegiance to Isnilon Hapilon, a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf group.
The Abu Sayyaf group swore allegiance to the IS in 2014.
Jones believes one way to stop terrorists establishing links in prison is to stop corruption among officers in the prison.
“This will help stop documents or handphones finding their way into the hands of prisoners who communicate with other terrorists.”
Jones also warned of possible terror links among immigrant workers in the region.
“The immigrant worker communities can be a fertile ground for IS networks and recruitment, as reported in East Asia and the Middle East where tiny IS cells were discovered among immigrant workers there.
“A majority of them are hardworking people who want a better future for their children but some, for various reasons, might be drawn to IS propaganda.”
Another worrying trend, she added, is the increasing number of women and children from the region being lured to act as IS operatives, especially through marriages.
“Women whose husbands were killed fighting for militant groups rose in social status, with a lot of men wanting to marry a martyr’s wife. With more women and children being recruited, it is paramount to stop the threat,” she said.
The IS threat is real, she conceded, but the response to it needs to be balanced.
“Going overboard can contribute to more radicalisation. What we need is an ‘individualised and ongoing’ assessment of risk as recommended by the International Committee of the Red Cross in its recent guidelines for anti-terrorism legislation and prison-based programmes.
“Having checks and balances in the political system and review processes built into any anti-terrorism legislation remains essential,” Jones stressed.
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