A missing journalist, terrorists and... us

OCTOBER 14 — THE disappearance of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi last week has shaken the media community worldwide and United States-Middle East relations pundits to the core.

Khashoggi was seen entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to get documents needed for his wedding, only to never come out.

While the Saudi government has claimed that he left the consulate via another entrance at the back, Turkish authorities are adamant that he is still inside, and missing.

Khashoggi has been a vocal critic of King Salman, and the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman who had in recent times tried to reinvent himself and the kingdom as a proponent of progressive values.

This incident involving such a high-profile journalist — he was a former editor of Saudi paper Al Watan, editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel, and even wrote for the Washington Post — could put a stop to that ambition.

In the grisliest version of events, the Turkish police believe that a 15-man team was brought in from Saudi Arabia to brutally torture and kill Khashoggi, before chopping his body into pieces and quietly removed from the consulate.

Any concrete evidence has yet to surface though. Yasin Aktay, the adviser to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has changed his tack from believing a murder took place in the consulate, to proclaiming that “the Saudi state is not blamed here” — perhaps in an attempt to preserve trade relations and the balance of powers between the two and Iran.

To put things into context, this was hardly the first enforced disappearance involving Saudi, nor is it even the first involving autocratic regimes in the region.

And we should never forget that enforced disappearances have also happened on our soil.

Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaking at an event in London on September 29, 2018. — Picture by Reuters
Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaking at an event in London on September 29, 2018. — Picture by Reuters

We have changed governments, with a new home minister and ministry, and yet we have not solved the ominous vanishing of Pastor Raymond Koh, Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu, and activist Amri Che Mat.

It has been almost two years.

Although there have been claims that their disappearances involved the police, both pastors and Amri have had run-ins with state Islamic authorities.

Amri, for example, founded a social welfare organisation named Perlis Hope. He is believed to have been monitored by authorities who alleged that the non-profit was spreading Shiah teachings.

In 2015, Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin and officers from his office raided Amri’s house and the group’s office. The mufti has been public with his accusation that Amri and the group had Shiah leanings, and reportedly said he was concerned Amri was working towards a “Mullah country.”

Asri has not exactly been timid with his anti-Shiah stance under the pretense of modernity. As recently as January this year, he labelled Shiites as a threat to national security and democracy for their adherence to a mullah — completely ignoring that pan-Islam Caliphate advocates tend to be Sunnis.

Last week, Perlis fell into the media spotlight again. Seven foreigners and one local were arrested by the Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division for their involvement in a so-called tahfiz centre in Perlis, either as former students or teacher.

Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun said the police believed that a Yemen-based terrorist group was planning to set up a Salafi Jihadi learning centre in South-east Asia, and the suspects were connected to a religious school in Yemen set up by a Salafist scholar.

Before we go any further, let us be clear that Perlis has not been the only place where Salafists and jihadist suspects have been detained. As of the most recent data in 2016, the police have arrested the most suspects in Kedah and Perak, followed by Kuala Lumpur.

Raja Muda of Perlis Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra Jamalullail, Perlis Islamic authorities, and the mufti himself have all denied any links between Perlis and terrorism.

But if anything, it was the reactions after the arrests were made that posed more questions.

An anonymous source on the topic quoted by Malay daily Utusan Malaysia claimed that the terror suspects may have had the support of “several influential individuals” in Perlis, resulting in their boldness.

Meanwhile, mufti Asri was quoted personally requesting the police to exclude Counter-Terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay from any terrorism probe in Perlis. The request has earned a rebuke from Fuzi, who said the mufti has no business dictating how the police carry out their duties.

Why indeed? Asri did not elaborate, but the two have in the past clashed over designating the teachings of controversial medieval Sunni Muslim theologian ibn Taymiyyah as a barometer of terrorism.

In the past weeks, Asri has several times brought up the issue of defining “terrorism”, including inviting Ayob to a dialogue on the topic. Ayob, predictably, declined.

But it is certainly worrying when “terrorism” itself can deliberately be made malleable — either to include critics of Islam, or to exclude inflammatory Muslims.

Asri is no stranger to the re-definition of “terrorism.” In July, he had proposed a debate between fugitive televangelist Zakir Naik and Penang Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy.

He said the debate should be titled “Who is the real terrorist?”, and whoever lost the debate “may be sent back to India” — a suggestion that not only downplayed the gravitas of the subject, but is also racist considering Ramasamy is a born-and-bred Malaysian unlike Zakir.

Another report by Utusan on the Perlis arrests, quoting another source, also suggested that jihadists are looking to set up a new base in Malaysia since they feel the country “easily accepts terrorists.”

Looking at how Zakir, who is not a terrorist himself but still wanted in India over several links to terrorism, happily found refuge here — that sentiment may not be too far off.