Extremism in the name of Islam and Malaysian Muslims

UMNO General Assembly

The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project recent report on Muslims values towards extremism which was based on its face-to-face interviews conducted in 11 countries makes for interesting analysis. 822 Malaysians participated in the survey. 522 of them identified themselves as Muslim. When asked whether violence such as suicide bombing is justified to defend Islam from its enemies, 5% of the Malaysian Muslims surveyed said it is ‘often justified’, 22% said ‘sometimes justified’, 12% said it is ‘rarely justified’, 58% said it is ‘never justified’, while 3% indicated that they did not know or refuse to answer.

In 2010 Malaysia had 28.3 million citizens of which 61.3% identified themselves as Muslim. This is 17,347,900 people. If the Pew Research Center’s sample was representative of Malaysian Muslims, then the survey results would be the general view of Malaysian Muslims. If we then extrapolate the survey results, the following propositions could be made:

  • 867,395 Malaysian Muslims think that violence such as suicide bombing is ‘often justified’ to defend Islam from its enemies.
  • 3,816,538 Malaysian Muslims think that violence such as suicide bombing is ‘sometimes justified’ to defend Islam from its enemies.
  • 2,081,748 Malaysian Muslims think that violence such as suicide bombing is ‘rarely justified’ to defend Islam from its enemies.
  • 10,061,782 Malaysian Muslims think that violence such as suicide bombing is ‘never justified’ to defend Islam from its enemies.
  • 520,437 Malaysian Muslims do not know or refuse to answer the question.

There are at least 3 important observations to be made from the above propositions.

First, about 6.7 million Malaysian Muslims, which is 39% of total Malaysian Muslims think that violence can be justified to defend Islam. If among the 520,437 who refused to answer the question because they were either afraid or embarrassed to reveal their inclination for the justification of violence to defend Islam, then the actual number would be higher. This suggests that close to half of Malaysian Muslims think that violence such as suicide bombing can be justified to defend Islam from its enemies. An important caveat, this does not mean that those who think so would actually participate in violent acts or sign-up for suicide bombing mission. As highlighted by sociologist Charles Kurzman,

“Sympathy for Islamist terrorism rarely translates into Islamist terrorist activities… This sort of symbolic endorsement does not translate into support for revolutionary goals or potential collaboration with terrorism.[i]

Kurzman likened this to the popular cultural icon of Che Guevara, “For decades, left-leaning American and European youths have taped Che posters to their dorm-room walls without lifting a finger to overthrow capitalism.” Likewise, Muslims’ inclination towards the justification of violence in defence of Islam does not necessarily lead them into extremist activity.

Second, this observation redirects our attention to the United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) [ii] relation with Islamic extremism since the 9/11 terrorist attack in America. Lest we forget, the planning of the 9/11 attack took place in what is now known as the ‘Kuala Lumpur al-Qaeda Summit’. In his study on Malaysia’s connection to international terrorism, Joseph Liow noted that ever since the 1990s, “There were already indicators that Malaysia was proving to be a reliable transit point, if not an actual haven, for international Islamic militants long before the September 11 attacks.”[iii] In a recent press statement, Datuk Mohamad Fuzi Harun, the director of Malaysian police’s counter-terrorism special task force, revealed that Malaysia “was used as transit to a third country, fund-raising as well as recruitment of new suicide bombers.” There were no less than 10 international terrorist groups operating in Malaysia since the 9/11 attack.[iv]

Malaysia being a fertile ground for Islamic extremism is partly caused by the Islamisation agenda of UMNO. As Liow has commented,

To be sure, the Malaysian government’s operational actions against Islamic “extremists” and “radicals” are but one dimension of a complex relationship between religion, the state, and Malaysian society today. At the same time that the government is identifying and clamping down on extremists and radicals… the regime has encouraged, facilitated, and enhanced the role of the Islamic religious establishment in Malaysian society, the judiciary, and public life in general… [T]he regime has permitted—indeed, facilitated—a remarkable degree of penetration by the conservative Muslim clergy of the institutions of the state.[v]

Gordon Means similarly observed,

For jihadi militants, Malaysia was a land of opportunity but not where militants could enjoy tacit government sponsorship or a safe sanctuary. What Malaysia had to offer the Al Qaeda network was its climate of politicised Islam within a Muslim-majority population, its visa-free immigration to citizens of Islamic countries, its excellent worldwide communication linkages, and its advanced banking system that included a well-developed sector of Islamic banks.[vi]

Both Liow and Means have shown that the UMNO-led government has played an important role in enabling, though not outright and formally encouraging, extremism in the country by way of sanctioning religious revivalism and Islamisation. Patricia Martinez has cautioned that such political dealing with Islam exposes the country to “the danger in playing catch-up with fundamentalists and militants” to be the authority that define Islam for local Muslims. The government will always be in the losing end as “Southeast Asian Muslim ummah in the periphery of the Islamic world, many (but certainly not all) Muslims perceive everything in the heartland of the Middle East as authentic and best, and thus receive fundamentalists and militants as more pious when they adopt the idiom, language and culture of the heartland.”[vii]

Third, this report highlights the urgency for Muslims to re-look into the rhetoric of “enemies of Islam” used arbitrarily by members belonging to right wing  ethno and religio centric groups such as UMNO and Perkasa. If violence is perceived as justifiable to defend Islam from its enemies, then there is a serious cause for Muslims to discern over the criteria required for one to be categorised as such.

The on-going controversy over the word ‘Allah’ is a good example; should Christians be categorised as ‘enemies of Islam’ simply because they use the word ‘Allah’ in their religious observation? The highest Islamic authority in Malaysia, the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), certainly thinks  so, as seen in their disseminated Friday sermon dated 30 August 2013 in which Christians are called ‘musuh Islam’ (Malay: ‘Enemy of Islam’). One of the reasons JAKIM persistently forbids Christians from using the word ‘Allah’ is due to the allegation that such usage places Allah as one of three gods.[viii] This is another manifestation of UMNO-linked organisations’ flirting with extremism and their lack of discernment when it comes to other religions such as the concept of Christian Trinity.

JAKIM’s view goes against more than 400 signatories comprising Grand Muftis, Islamic scholars, and Muslim leaders around the world who endorse the document ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’. To these signatories, Islam and Christianity are founded on the common ground of monotheism. As stated in the summary of the document provided by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan:

Whilst Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions—and whilst there is no minimising some of their formal differences—it is clear that the Two Greatest Commandments are an area of common ground and a link between the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament. What prefaces the Two Commandments in the Torah and the New Testament, and what they arise out of, is the Unity of God—that there is only one God. For the Shema in the Torah, starts: (Deuteronomy 6:4) Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! Likewise, Jesus ( عليه سلام ) said: (Mark 12:29) “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one”. Likewise, God says in the Holy Qur’an: Say: He, God, is One. / God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all. (Al-Ikhlas, 112:1-2). Thus the Unity of God, love of Him, and love of the neighbour form a common ground upon which Islam and Christianity (and Judaism) are founded. (Emphasis added)

Commenting on this document, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, wrote:

There are already those on the Christian side who assert that the Christian God is not the same as Allah, who is an Arabic lunar deity or something like that. Such people who usually combine sheer ignorance with bigotry should attend a Sunday mass in Arabic in Bethlehem, Beirut, Amman, or Cairo and hear what Arabic term the Christians of these cities use for the Christian God. Nor is God simply to be identified with one member of the Christian Trinity, one part of three divinities that some Muslims believe wrongly that Christians worship. Allah, or God, is none other than the One God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. (Emphasis added)[ix]

It is urgent for Malaysian Muslims to be circumspect over the criteria required to categorise one as enemy of Islam and not to be manipulated by antagonistic rhetoric thrown around in the public and cyber space by extremists and also for the international community to continue treating UMNO as a secular party. In any case, it is also not difficult for any discerning person to notice the racist and extremist-inclined policies administered by UMNO and its affiliated groups such as JAKIM as being itself anti-Islam. Although on occasions, a limited number of non-Muslims may have misconducted themselves before Islam; yet this is often due to their ignorance fed by local quasi-extremists who are allowed by UMNO to freely roam and roar around the country or merely exercising their rights within a democratic framework. Nonetheless non-Muslims’ misapprehension is categorically distinct from these quasi-extremist Muslims who advocate, propagate, and carry out fanatical activities in the name of Islam: the latter knowingly make use of Islam to promote anti-Islam values. It is the latter group that is against Islam. Perhaps they are the real enemies of Islam that the Ummah – both local and global needs to defend from.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is the co-editor (with Soo-Inn Tan) of ‘The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian Political Engagement in Malaysia today’ (Singapore: Graceworks, 2011) and ‘Christianity and Citizenship’ (Singapore: Graceworks, upcoming). 


[i] Charles Kurzman, The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (USA: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28, 30.

[ii] Although PAS has its own Islamisation agenda it however has very little role in establishing the structures (such as those pointed out by Liow and Means – sources provided below) that have been enabling Malaysia to provide the “climate” for extremist activities.

[iii] Joseph Chingyong Liow, Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia (USA: Oxford University Press, 2009), 155.

[iv] Farik Zolkepli, ‘More Malaysia-trained extremists now involved in conflicts abroad,’ in The Jakarta Post, 11 July 2013, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/07/11/more-malaysia-trained-extremists-now-involved-conflicts-abroad.html (accessed 17 September 2013).

[v] Joseph Chingyong Liow, Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia (USA: Oxford University Press, 2009), 160.

[vi] Gordon P. Means, Political Islam in Southeast Asia (Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2009), 179.

[vii] Patricia A. Martinez, ‘Deconstructing Jihad: Southeast Asian Contexts,’ in After Bali: The Threat of Terrorism in Southeast Asia, eds. Kumar Ramakrishna and See Seng An (Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and World Scientific Publishing, 2003), 74.

[viii]Persoalan besar timbul di sini adakah kita redha untuk menyatakan bahawa Allah SWT itu merupakan salah satu daripada tiga tuhan?” (JAKIM’s sermon, ‘Mempertahankan Akidah Ummah,’ dated 6 September 2013, http://www.islam.gov.my/sites/default/files/khutbahjakim/upload/rumi/doc/mempertahankan_akidah_ummah_rumi.doc [accessed 17 September 2013], 4.)

[ix] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘The Word of God: The Bridge Between Him, You, and Us,’ in A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, eds. Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington (USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), 115.