Islam, politics and violence in Malaysia

Najib and Pekida

In Kuala Kedah, the Chinese community burned a Qur’an piece by piece during their religious ceremony

Dr Mashitah Ibrahim at the 2014 UMNO General Assembly meeting

The recent United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) meeting was full of contradictions. While Prime Minister Najib Razak exhorts the need for the government to be more inclusive of non-Muslims while others such as Dr Mashitah, a famous preacher and former junior minister, called for Islam to be protected from the threat of secularism, liberalism and Christianity. From the debate over the usage of the term Allah to describe God in the Malay translation of the bible to the discrimination of the minority Shiite community in the country, the Malaysian government has taken a conservative stance depicting a shift in its own Islamic orientation.  Recent revelations that about thirty Malaysians are fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has further underscored the more conservative turn that is taking place within the Muslim community in Malaysia.

Playing with the fire of Islamism

Since the 1990s, the Malaysian government has attempted to use its own brand of Islamist politics to counter the political threat from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The Islamisation race between PAS and UMNO led to a series of Islamic policies to be introduced. This race subsided in the mid-2000s mainly due to the strategy of moderation undertaken by PAS. Following the 2008 elections which saw a strengthened Pakatan Rakyat (PR), UMNO has once again focused its rhetoric on the need for the position of Islam to be defended in the country. The debate over the usage of the word Allah in the Malay language bible was portrayed as UMNO’s defence of Islam from the threat of Christianisation in Malaysia. During the 2013 elections, the threat of Christianisation was used as a bogeyman to coax Malay voters to support UMNO.

More recently, UMNO in the state of Kelantan, has openly supported PAS’s plan to implement hudud laws in Kelantan. On its part, PAS today sees the hudud issue as an integral part of its struggle. Since the 2013 elections, many PAS leaders feel that the party’s move away from its Islamist agenda has reduced support for the party. The failure of Anwar Ibrahim to be more consultative in making key decisions for the coalition such as the recent Kajang Move has convinced some in PAS that the party’s future lies in being an opposition party outside the fold of the PR. Interestingly, the conservative turn in both UMNO and PAS have brought their agendas closer. While some observers have argued that this will inevitably lead to a future coalition between PAS and UMNO, sources within PAS noted that a vast majority of PAS members do not support this alliance. As such, both PAS and UMNO will once again engage in an Islamisation race to prove that their respective party is indeed the true champion of Islam in Malaysia.

Normalising intolerance: The chicken has come home to roost

Another manifestation of this conservative turn in Malaysia is the recent discovery that a number of Malaysians were fighting and recruiting for ISIS in the country. ISIS fighters have been adept in using modern technology to spread their message. This could be seen in the case of Mohd Lotfi Ariffin, a former PAS member from Kedah who was fighting in Syria, who regularly posts pictures and videos of himself and other militants, seeking to inspire other Malaysian youths to fight there. Lofti had in July 20 been killed during fighting in Syria. Beyond the power of the social media, a number of Malaysian government policies have been instrumental in creating mind-sets that are fertile for recruitment by extremist groups like ISIS.

Since June 2013, the Malaysian religious authorities and government have been on an anti-Shiite frenzy. The Shiites, which represent the minority sect of Islam, were deemed as deviant and was banned. A number of Shiite religious scholars were detained and their places of worship were shut down. The Syrian conflict further exacerbated this anti-Shiite sentiment. The struggle against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is portrayed as a holy war against the Shiite “infidels”.

Numerous television programmes, newspaper articles and ceramahs throughout Malaysia were filled with anti-Shiite rhetoric. The anti-Shiite fervour has led to a number of Muslim scholars in the country to declare that it is permissible for Sunni Muslims to wage a holy struggle against the Shiites. While Malaysian government leaders have never themselves called for a violent struggle against Shiites, the anti-Shiite rhetoric provided important religious justifications for some Malaysian youths to fight for groups like ISIS against Shiites in Iraq and Syria.

Likewise, the growth of Salafism in Malaysia is another important factor that has an impact on the strong support that ISIS has received from some Malaysian Muslims. Salafism is a religious orientation denoted by puritan and legalistic interpretation of the Qur’an. Salafis reject interpretations of classical Muslim scholars and seek to rid Islam of any cultural practices that are deemed as innovations. The Salafis are particularly notorious for their fervent rejection of Sufi and Shiite Muslims whom they deem as deviant. While most Salafis belong to the non-violent strand of Salafism, ISIS subscribe to the Salafi-jihadi strand which legitimise the use of violence in the name of Islam. The Salafi-jihadi doctrine argues that given the fact that most of the regimes in the Muslim World are in the state of jahiliyyah (idolatrous condition), it is the duty of all Muslims to rebel using violence to uphold hakimiyyah (God’s sovereignty). It must be added that the boundaries between the two Salafi ideologies are porous and Salafis can easily slide from one group to another. This could be seen from the example of the Salafi movement in Indonesia led by the preacher Jaafar Umar Thalib, which was a politically quietist movement that quickly transformed itself into a Salafi-jihadist movement (Lashkar Jihad) following the collapse of the Suharto government.

The vast majority of Salafis in Malaysia do not subscribe to the ISIS ideology. Nonetheless, the mindset created by Salafism is susceptible for recruitment by groups like ISIS. In more recent times, UMNO itself has promoted the Salafi doctrine through their recruitment of a number of prominent Salafi scholars including Ustaz Fathul Bari, as part of its young ulama wing. These scholars have also formed an organisation, Pertubuhan Ilmuwan Malaysia (ILMU) which has been in the forefront in defending the government’s Islamic credentials. The Salafi ulama are also fervent enemies of the Shiite community in Malaysia. They have gone out of their way to portray the Shiites not only as deviant but a group that seeks the destruction of Islam and the Muslim community. While the ILMU ulama have categorically rejected the ISIS ideology and discouraged Malaysian Muslims from joining the group, the similarities in the mind-set and religious doctrine between ISIS and the Salafi ulama are making some Malaysian Muslims more susceptible to ISIS’ recruitment strategy.

The future of Islam in Malaysia

It is clear that there has been a conservative turn in Malaysia. Nonetheless, there are voices within Malaysia that are now opposed to this conservatism. 25 prominent Malays comprising a number of retired high level civil servants cautioned Malaysian Muslims about the implementation of Islamic laws, and the way Islam is being used to shape public policies in this country. This came shortly after the Selangor Islamic Religious Department issued a fatwa declaring the Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim feminist group as deviant. Indeed, it will take more than just 25 prominent Malays to ensure that this conservative turn will not alter Malaysia’s social fabric. As long as Islam is politicised and puritan understanding of the religion is promoted, Malaysia will see the radicalisation of more Muslims in the country.

Dr Mohd Nawab Mohd Osman is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Malaysia Programme (IDSS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.