THE most convenient truth would be that it is religion that drives radicalisation, terrorism and violent extremism in Malaysia, as well as the rest of the world.
In the case of violent jihadism, that religion would be Islam, the faith that our majority Malay-Malaysians believe in.
Continuing on, it would be that the hardline, minimalist strain of Islam – Salafism and its cousin, Wahhabism – is the root cause of it all.
But is religion really the reason behind violent extremism?
In 2016, the research outfit I founded with friends, Iman Research, sought to explore Malay Muslim youths’ perceptions of being Malay and Muslim.
The study was inspired by two studies in 2015 – the Pew Research Centre that found that 11% of Malaysian Muslims were sympathetic to the Islamic State (IS) and Merdeka Centre discovered that 60% of Malay-Muslims identified as Muslims first and 71% of Malays said they supported hudud.
What we found in 2016 was that our youth lacked empowerment and a sense of identity; were experiencing political cynicism and ignorance of the “other”; and had a utopian view of the concept of an Islamic state.
While they did not condone the violence perpetrated by IS, they expressed that IS were their brothers and sisters in Islam.
This year, Iman released its latest findings, “Normative beliefs about violent extremism (NVBE): A Study on Malaysian Youths” and throughout the two-year study, we were constantly reminded that the main drivers behind violent extremism in Malaysia are our national politics that is tinged with racial undertones.
The study, which was commissioned by the government of the Netherlands in 2017, revealed the following findings:
1. An average of 10% of Malaysian youths agree with violent extremism or see violent extremism as justified.
2. Main factors that contribute to this belief are manipulativeness and ethnocentrism.
3. Contrary to popular beliefs, religiosity, economic and education factors do not contribute to Malaysian youths’ attitude towards violent extremism.
The study was based on the public health angle, to see how normative beliefs of Malaysian youth about violent extremism – which can be defined as Malaysian youths’ own cognition about the acceptability or unacceptability of violent extremism – could impact society at large.
In addition, the study looked into the association of these beliefs about violent extremism with demographic, psychosocial, as well as health characteristics of the Malaysian youths.
This approach was taken to identify at-risk groups, instead of focusing on perpetrators of violent extremism, as a preventive measure against violent extremism.
This is crucial in understanding and contextualising the sentiments of the cross-sectional population of Malaysian youths towards violent extremism as well as to analyse prevailing factors that might lead youth to commit violent extremist acts.
Such efforts are important as Malaysian recruits of IS were found to be neophytes of violent jihadism, and not alumni of established networks such as that of Jemaah Islamiyah or Darul Islam in Sabah.
Bear in mind that our findings differed from state to state – we conducted the study in urban and rural areas.
Two risk factors that stood out from the Selangor and Kuala Lumpur sample (which encompassed not just city areas, but also rural ones) were manipulativeness and ethnocentrism, which is one of the defining traits that may lead to xenophobia, fascism, and violence.
Cross-border militancy is a persistent problem for Sabah due to a long history of migration with the wider South-East Asian region, specifically the southern Philippines, which is known as a hotbed for militant movements such as the Abu Sayyaf Group.
Among the key factors fuelling such activity is the long-standing political sensitivities involving Philippines’ claim over Sabah, which was historically a part of the ‘Sultanate of Sulu’.
The issue remains a hotly contested topic among Sabahans, many of whom have retained a cultural affinity towards their Filipino counterparts.
Social capital was a key factor that informed the findings here, as youths with low levels of social capital were more prone to support violent extremism. What is evident and true is that the road to radicalisation is compounded by more than just religion.
In Malaysia, it is about ethnocentrism. It is about our national policies and institutionalised racism.
Of course, these findings have not been popular with a few segments of society for their belief is that religion is at the bottom of (violent extremism).
How could we understand the pathology of our youths’ mental and emotional state that made them vulnerable to violent extremist ideologies?
Understanding Malaysia Preventing Violent Extremism is complex.
Studies may reveal findings such as the above-mentioned, but they are not definitive either.
To understand radicalisation, religious dogma and nationalism is to study our country, Malaysia.
To comprehend her (Malaysia) is to take in and inspect her national policies and politics, as well as the hate and racism that were institutionalised.
We also need to study how the new Malay professional and elite class have embraced an Islam that may not be suitable for our social environment.
It will take more essays than just one opinion piece, such as this, to explain why a hardline ideology of Islam is attractive.
I am always asked why a Malaysian Muslim would go down that route – to be a radical.
Frankly, I don’t think any Malaysian Muslim wakes up and decides they want to be a terrorist.
While our studies have shown that national identity, social capital (or lack of), ethnocentrism, and sympathy for fellow Muslims in dire straits may be attributes that foster violent extremist thoughts, the push to support militant activities is emotional at most times.
One thing is for sure: terrorism is egalitarian and democratic. There are poor people and rich people who decide to take up arms and fight for an Islamic Caliphate.
There are equally educated people and uneducated Malaysians who decide to become extremists.
There were former party-goers, sympathetic orang kampung as well as pious ones.
It only takes one thing – that decision to walk down that path.
Being a practising, observant Muslim does not make one a radical.
For the average, praying Malaysian Muslim, their faith’s rituals, volunteerism, being part of their community and preparing for the afterworld – jannah – is more than enough.
Couple that with the financial and social cost of living in Malaysia – we Muslims have more than enough on our plate.
I was speaking to Nicholas, a PhD student in Cambridge over breakfast one day about how the violent extremism problem does not seemingly have an urban-rural divide.
In fact, the perplexing discovery is always that the less socio-economically vulnerable living urbane lifestyles that were the ones drawn by the call for violent extremism.
My theory is that guilt, seeking acknowledgement that their sins would be forgiven, and desperation in varying degrees, causes a person to jump into that rabbit hole.
I gave Nicholas the example of a person I knew, who, after a very Westernised lifestyle, fell onto hard times, and started following a religious icon who is known to our boys and girls in blue – the police – to be more than just a radical nut. But in this icon, this acquaintance found a community.
“We need a religious teacher to be strict. We Malays are weak. We need to be disciplined. We need to have that discipline in our lives. I chose him because most of our Malay ulamas are wishy-washy,” was the answer I got.
(On this note: I’m quite nationalistic when it comes to our Malay(sian) religious scholars. We have very good ones; what’s the deal with the foreign scholars who are so popular in Malaysia now? I also think in my private moments, that we Malay Muslims treat our faith in a transactional manner – I pray this, I will get this and God will forgive me – and we also are punitive in our approach to Islam.)
But back to the issue at hand. Acknowledgement is something we rarely discuss. Man is a social animal and approval, or at least recognition, fuels his or her life and actions.
And this is where militants do well. They provide a haven for their brothers and sisters who were seeking meaning and solidarity. Phil Gurski is a terrorism expert I follow on Linkedin.com, and I concur with him on this: “I have been saying for close to two decades that people become terrorists through their interactions with others ... We are social animals, even the most introverted of us. We learn from, rely on and copy the beliefs and behaviours of others.”
Why did young Malaysians who become radicalised turn to the Internet and Messaging Apps like Telegram?
Simply because these platforms not only provide them with a space to speak freely but also to gain religious knowledge. These platforms also provide a community for them.
This is something all of us will have to explore. What is not enough in our education and religious system, that encourages people to seek redemption and solace elsewhere?
Dina Zaman is one of the founders and partner of Iman Research, a small research organisation studying society, religion and perception.
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