Islamist politics and authorities fuelling Malaysia’s IS appetite, scholar says

Malaysia continues to experience tense interfaith relations as the country’s minorities chafe at rules that curb their worship, such as the restrictions on the non-Muslim use of 'Allah', the Arabic word for God. — Reuters pic
Malaysia continues to experience tense interfaith relations as the country’s minorities chafe at rules that curb their worship, such as the restrictions on the non-Muslim use of 'Allah', the Arabic word for God. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, April 27 — The rise of Islamist politics and the growing power of religious authorities over a Malaysian populace with a penchant for violence are helping militancy take root in “moderate” Malaysia, according to a socio-political scholar specialising on the region.

In an analysis for the Brookings Institution this month, Joseph Chinyong Liow examined the growing support for the extremism of the Islamic State (IS, and previously ISIS) despite Malaysia’s professed image of religious moderation and tolerance that was the polar opposite.

According to the senior fellow of Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings, a 2013 Pew Research survey found that up to 39 per cent of Malaysians were either supportive or open to violence as a means of conflict resolution, nearly twice as many as Indonesians who responded similarly.

This was compounded by the growing use of religion by Umno that dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in its bid to remain in power following two damaging general elections, including one that saw it lose the popular vote.

“Let me be clear: Islam casts a pale shadow over Malaysia today not because it is Islam, or even Islamism, per se, but because its proponents (and ‘defenders’) are articulating a particularly exclusive brand of Islam that is divorced from the religion’s historically enlightened traditions, and which has no intention to encourage pluralism or compromise.

“The net effect of this is that non-Muslims Malaysian are marginalised by as Islamist parties try to ‘out-Islam’ each other. As Umno struggles to cling to power by focusing on its religious credentials above all else, religion has become heavily politicised and is viewed as a zero sum game,” wrote the academic from the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington.

The Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies further noted that Malay-Muslim politicians were far from reluctant to ride the Islamist wave, polarising Malaysian society by highlighting differences between the different races rather than appealing to shared values.

Such politicians were ever-ready to attack the “enemies of Islam”, often the country’s non-Muslim communities, in a bid to shore up support among the dominant Malay electorate.

Further exacerbating the creeping Islamisation of Malaysian politics was the rise of religious enforcers that shut down discourse on matters relating to Islam, Liow said, pointing to Malaysia’s outlawing of non-approved schools of the religion, including the second-largest Shiah sect.

As with the politicians, Malaysia’s religious authorities also display a similar tendency to denounce non-Muslims both at home and abroad in sanctioned messages, he added.

Liow warned that the four factors he noted made Malaysia ripe for the spread of militant ideologies such as that of the IS, saying that simply boosting security measures will do little to stop it permeating into local society unless addressed by the country’s top leaders.

He said failure to do so meant the country could not assume that the spread of support for the IS was rooted in sympathy for events in Iraq or Syria.

“It could well start at home, where the political and social climate that allows exclusivist right-wing groups and politicians to speak and act with impunity is the same one that will provide recruits and sympathisers for insidious organizations such as ISIS,” he said.

Since the so-called political tsunami of Election 2008, race-based politics has gradually waned but found a new lease on life — or so critics contend — under the auspices of Islamism.

This has coincided with the growing prominence of Islamic authorities in the administration of the country, spreading beyond religious matters and into the everyday life of all Malaysians, including recent guidelines on entertainment that include gender segregation and a prohibition against “excessive laughter”.

Malaysia also continues to experience tense interfaith relations as the country’s minorities chafe at rules that curb their worship, such as the restrictions on the non-Muslim use of “Allah”, the Arabic word for God.

The spread of IS support among Malaysians has also forced Putrajaya to backpedal from its once-expressed admiration for the militant group’s “courage” to condemning it and enacting powerful security laws in a bid to prevent its spread.

Local authorities now make regular arrests of IS supporters allegedly plotting attacks on home soil, with the police announcing yesterday that it nabbed a dozen such aspiring militants who were planning attacks during the Asean Summit that starts here today.

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