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Rising Up To The Challenges Of Islamic Extremism And Militancy In Malaysia

Ruhanas Harun


Malaysia is a secular democracy. Even so, Islam occupies a significant position in its politics and has been able to influence political discourses and practices. For the Malay-Muslim majority, Islam is more than just a system of beliefs and an ethnic identity marker in a multi-ethnic society. It is also a cultural resource from which concepts, principles, rules, norms and laws are drawn to provide basis for government and to argue for political and social reforms. This being the case, it is not surprising to find Islam being entrenched in the Malaysian Constitution as the official religion of the Federation and its constituent states. Political parties, non-governmental organisations, loosely structured congregational groups (jemaah) and militant or radical groups also draw on the Islamic idiom appearing on the country’s political landscape in the last four decades and engaging the state in conflict over the latter’s domination and control of Islamic symbols, leadership and institutions. Some of these Islamist groups operate within the national boundary and some develop extensive networks that transcend national borders.


Irrespective of their goals, organisational structure and the extent of networking, the activities of Islamic political party, politically-engaged Islamic NGOs, jemaah and militant groups are of great concern to the Malaysian authority in case they cause political instability, disrupt racial harmony, hamper economic development, endanger regime survival and threaten national security. Furthermore, in the post-conditions 9/11 and especially with the global war on terror, evidence of Islamic militancy in the country can easily cause the international community to regard Malaysia as a ‘hotbed of terrorism’, a label that it can do without if it wants to avoid external political pressures or military intervention and to attract foreign investment into the country. To date and consistent with the current policy of controlling and monitoring religious groups, the Malaysian government has at its disposal two laws which can be invoked to weaken or suppress those Islamist groups whose activities are deemed to disrupt civil order.  They are the provision in the Administration of Islamic law concerning ‘deviationist teachings’ in Islam (ajaran sesat) and the Internal Security Act (ISA). While it is normal to expect the Malaysian government to use these mechanisms to suppress undesirable Islamist groups, however, the action, if and when taken, could also be construed as a violation of civil liberties. Not only that, it can also invite criticisms from the Malay-Muslim populace as being anti-Islamic. Such criticisms can easily reduce the state’s credibility as the key transmitter of Islamic doctrines, policies and programmes in the country. Worse, it would put the government in a bad light vis-à-vis PAS, its main rival in politics.


Since the 1970s, Malaysia has identified Islamic extremism and militancy as one of the threats to its national security. Although relatively small in number and strength, groups operating under this tendency caused serious security concern to the state, which in turn adopted the twin strategies of suppression and engagement to respond to these challenges. The state has openly declared that it will not tolerate any group or activity that can create disunity and disturb racial harmony in a country whose survival is highly dependent on internal peace and stability. While the state considers it important to eliminate threats and challenges from Islamic extremism and militancy, it is also mindful of the fact that antagonistic policies towards Islamic groups might result in a backlash that will endanger regime security and national unity. It must be said that in reality, in Malaysia, the influence of Islamic extremists and their activities is limited due to certain factors, of which some are unique to Malaysia, as well as the effectiveness of measures taken to eliminate this influence.


The Development of Islamic Groups in Malaysia

Islamic organisations and movements in Malaysia have been in existence even before the rise of the phenomenon of Islamic revivalism of the 1970s. The oldest and the most established of these groups is the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), a political party that has become the main rival of the current ruling component party in the Malaysian government, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). PAS has been in existence since 1951 and advocated an Islamic state goal, an objective that it has not renounced until today. Although currently it is able to lead the government in only two states (Kelantan and Kedah), following the general election of 2008, as a form of political Islam, the party is a force to reckon with having gained strong support from rural-based Malays in the states of Kelantan, Kedah, Perlis and Terengganu in several general elections. The support for PAS has also broadened to include many urbanbased followers in other states such as Perak, Selangor and in Kuala Lumpur.


Aside from PAS, there are now a number of Islam-oriented nongovernmental organisations and institutions occupying the civil society space in Malaysia. These organisations grew out of the need and desire to provide social and economic facilities to Muslims while some are devoted to raising the level of Islamic consciousness in the community. Among them are the Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah (Islamic Dakwah Foundation), Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Muslim Welfare Organisation, or PERKIM), the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement, (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or ABIM), Malaysian Muslim Students Association, Sisters in Islam and others. Institutions set up by the government or supported by it include the Institute of Islamic Understanding (IKIM), the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) and the Department of Islamic Advancement (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam or JAKIM). The establishment of these organisations were not politically-motivated, but to support social and religious activities of its members and target groups. PERKIM for example, is an organisation which was set up to look into the welfare of new converts to Islam, while others emerged out of practical considerations and the need to promote greater consciousness about Islam. These groups and many others continue to exist and have not developed into militant groups.


A growing challenge for the authorities since the 1970s had been the activities of dakwah songsang (deviant dakwah) groups with some propagating activities that were considered as extremist in nature and thus posed a serious threat to public order and racial harmony. Two violent incidents in 1978 and 1980 served to highlight the seriousness of potential extremism and militancy in Malaysia if they were not contained. In 1978, a group of Muslim fundamentalists, caught desecrating all statues in a Hindu temple except one, were beaten to death by a vigilante group of Indian temple guardians. In October 1980, another incident occurred, that confirmed the fears of the authorities about the violent potential of certain deviant groups, when a group of Muslims attacked a police station in Batu Pahat in Johore. Although both incidents appeared to be ‘minor’ by international standards, in Malaysia, they were looked upon as worrying trend and therefore needed to be ‘nipped in the bud’. It served to discourage other potential extremist groups from developing and propagating terrorist acts.


This early period also witnessed the surfacing of groups associated with dakwah songsang and Islamic radicalism. In 1977, a Penang-based Crypto cult emerged to claim that the Malaysian government was not giving Islam its proper due and aimed to set up a theocratic order by means of violent jihad. The government took action to clamp down the movement only in 1992 as it did not think that the group’s activities then were serious enough to threaten public order and national security. Another group, whose interpretation of Islam was in opposition to the government, was the Koperasi Angkatan Revolusi Islam Malaysia (KARIM, or Malaysian Islamic Revolutionary Front). Formed in 1974 in Kuala Lumpur, KARIM preached the overthrow of government through violence. It was later banned and its leaders detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). In 1980, riots by farmers in Kedah demonstrating against the government’s move to introduce a forced-savings scheme were traced to a militant organisation Pertubuhan Angkatan Sabilullah, which according to the government had numbered among its associates, members of the opposition party, PAS. These groups were relatively unknown to the public and their influence did not spread beyond the confinement of their groups. One of the reasons for their inability to expand their influence was the small membership and effective action by the government through the use of strong measures to control and suppress their activities, often in the name of national security.


State Response: Rationale and Mechanisms

Realising that religious extremism, if not checked may endanger domestic harmony, public security and in the worst scenario, regime survival, the Malaysian government formulated and implemented two approaches to counter and contain the danger. These can be summed up as suppression and engagement which have proven to be effective in combating religious extremism. In the words of former Minister of Home Affairs, Tun Musa Hitam, Malaysia’s comprehensive strategy for combating extremism consists of a “complex process of accommodation (when this is fully justified), co-optation (when this is required) and confrontation (when it is necessary)”. Since the 1970s, contestations emerged from Islamic groups whose aim was the eventual replacement of the regime in power with a ‘more’ Islamic one, if not with one that is completely Islamic. Such groups include Arqam, an organisation which became radicalised and manifested its violent opposition to the authority since 1988. It is said to have an extensive network in Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia and even in Central Asia.5 The government feared that the group might subvert established Islam, create disunity among Muslims and eventually take over power. In responding to this challenge, the government used both repressive and dissuasive methods. Throughout the 1990s, the Malaysian public witnessed a systematic campaign against Arqam, launched through the mass media and the distribution of pamphlets, Friday sermons and public lectures in mosques and offices. Investigations were conducted to ascertain whether or not the activities of Arqam were dangerous and threatening to the national security and racial harmony. In 1994, Arqam was accused of harbouring extreme political ambitions and that its leaders had plans “to capture political power through magic and violence”. In August 1994, the National Fatwa Council issued a ruling which declared the teachings of Arqam as “deviationists” (ajaran sesat), resulting in the banning of the organisation by the government. Arqam’s leader, Ashaari Muhammad fled to Thailand, but was later arrested in September the same year and brought back to be detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). He was subsequently released in 2004. Deprived of its leadership and subjected to constant surveillance from the Malaysian authorities, Arqam never got back to its former ‘glory’.


Not all government’s policy of using force in tackling challenges to regime security from Islamist groups have been successful. The Memali incident of November 1985 illustrates the limits to the use of force to suppress what was perceived as extremism. The police raid on the villagers, ordered by the then acting Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Musa Hitam, resulted in the death of 17 people (14 civilians and 4 policemen). The government White Paper, published after the incident blamed the confrontation on the extremists who were trying to spread deviationist teachings and disrupt public order. As for the Minister, the affair dented his political credibility and wisdom in his ability to handle sensitive issues such as responding to challenges coming from Islamic groups. Although the affair happened more than two decades ago, it is neither forgotten nor forgiven, for its memory is still being kept alive by relatives of survivors. The Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS, commemorates this incident, a source of embarrassment for the government, as proof of the government’s injustice in dealing with opposing Islamic groups.


The beginning of the new millennium witnessed a growing threat to the government from Islamic extremist and militant groups in Malaysia. An incident related to militant Islamic activities surfaced in June 2000 when a group which called itself as ‘Al Maunah’ managed to successfully pull off an arms heist at a Malaysian Army Reserve Camp in Perak, stealing weapons from the armoury. It proved to be a huge embarrassment for the government given the manner in which the group managed to penetrate the camp’s security structure by dressing up in military uniforms and driving jeeps painted in camouflaged green. Their leader, Mohamad Amin Razali, confessed that they were on a mission to overthrow the Malaysian government by force. The siege by the Malaysian security forces resulted in the surrender of the group’s members. Its leader was tried for waging war against the King, convicted, and was hanged in August 2004. Other members received various degrees of sentences, including life sentence and detention under the ISA. The government did not take any action against the group prior to this as there was no proof that their activities were disrupting public security or detrimental to national security.


The dismantling of the Al Maunah group was followed by other operations to suppress several other militant Islamic organisations and groups whose activities were considered threatening to public security. They include a militant Islamic group, the ‘Jihad Gang’, a group that was connected to a range of crimes over a period of two years, including the bombing of a church, an Indian temple, the murder of a politician and several other criminal activities.12 Their criminal activities made it easier for the government to justify their elimination. Another militant group, the KMM — Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (the Malaysian Militant Group) founded in 1995 by a Malaysian, Zainon Ismail, also advocated the overthrow of the Malaysian government and subsequently, the establishment of an Islamic regime. Like the Al Maunah group, KMM’s operational strategy was a combination of criminal activities and political militancy. It was believed to have a wide networking with external militant groups in the region, including Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), Jemaah Islamiah Singapura (JIS) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). KMM also dispatched its members to take part in the conflict in Ambon, Indonesia between Christians and Muslims. The Malaysian government launched a nationwide operation to capture KMM members between December 2001 and January 2002, resulting in the arrest of more than 70 members, including one of its leaders, Nik Adli Nik Aziz, and detained them under the ISA.


In many of these security operations (police and military) against Islamic extremist groups, the Malaysian government resorted to the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to detain those arrested in the operations. While the general public in Malaysia on the whole seemed not to mind the use of the ISA on militants and extremist elements, there were segments of society which viewed this with concern. In August 2001, the Malaysian Bar Council released a statement viewing “with concern the alleged threat to national peace and security posed by members of the KMM”. At the same time, it noted “with equal concern the use of the ISA in the arrest of such persons”. The Council suggested that these arrests can be affected through other available statutory provisions such as the Penal Code, Arms Act or Firearms Act. It also urged the government to allow detainees access to their constitutional rights and to trial in a court of law. However, such dissenting opinion did not affect the efficacy or the continued usage of ISA as a mechanism to control extremism and militancy in the country. 


Putting Them Back on the Right Track: De-Radicalisation Programme

As indicated above, suppression is only one of the means available to the state in its campaign against Islamic militancy. A more subtle method is engaging groups or individuals into renouncing their activities regarded as prejudicial to national security. Engagement constitutes policies and programmes designed to win the hearts and minds of the target groups with the aim to neutralise or to win them over. In Malaysia, this has been successfully employed earlier during the war against communist insurgents. Later use of the ‘soft’ method is based on the refinement, adaptation and elaboration of the methods used during this period.


Malaysia’s engagement policy of Islamic extremists includes a programme designed at “de-radicalisation”, targeting those detained under the ISA. The government has formulated a structured programme designed to rehabilitate those individuals or groups who have been involved in activities considered as jeopardising national security. The Malaysian deradicalisation programme is a concerted effort between the police (Special Branch) and various government agencies. The role of the police/Special Branch in this programme is focussed on the issue of national security, although in principle the Special Branch remains as the main architect of the rehabilitation programme. The Malaysian de-radicalisation programme is different from that of many other countries in that it separates those detained under the ISA from the common criminals because they need a different type of rehabilitation. De-radicalisation programme for religious extremists for example, requires the role of religious institutions such as JAKIM to take care of the spiritual aspect of the treatment.


The programme consists of three stages, namely the early detainment period, the detainment period and the post-detainment period. In the first stage, the individual who commits an offence prejudicial to national security can be detained for a maximum period of 60 days for investigation purposes. The main aim at this stage of detention is to “win over” the detainee through various methods. If the authorities are satisfied that the detainee no longer poses a threat, then he may be released. If not, he will be sent to the Kamunting Detention Centre for two years, and may be further extended if an extension is necessary.


The second stage of de-radicalisation process begins once the detainee is placed at the Kamunting Detention Centre, which is under the purview of the Prisons Department of Malaysia. While undergoing the rehabilitation programme, a detainee has access to the rights of reassessment and opportunity to appeal to the Advisory Board which meets to review the case every six month. The rehabilitation programme, known as “Human Development Programme” (HDP) covers three areas of discipline development, personality enhancement and social skills and training programme. The main objective of the HDP is to enable a detainee to return to the fold of society without much disjuncture since the modules in the programme are designed to gradually ‘mould’ them to the values and practices of the society that they have deviated from. At the Detention Centre, a detainee will undergo rehabilitation programme to ‘disengage’ himself from his past activities. Relevant agencies and individuals are asked to collaborate in this programme in teaching and facilitating modules tailored to the purpose of rehabilitation of detainees. There are three main issues of contention among Muslim detainees that the deradicalisation programme aims to correct. The first is the association of jihad among detainees with violent means and act of martyrdom. The second is the contention that Malaysia is not an Islamic country since it does not implement the Hudud law, and that its political system is Western oriented. The third is the detainees’ hatred against the West, especially the United States and its policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The modules taught during the detention period seek to provide detainees with a correct understanding of Islam, expose them to various issues in the Muslim world through open intellectual discussions with experts. The third stage in the rehabilitation programme is the post-detainment period which begins immediately after the release of the detainee. Even after his release, an ISA detainee will need to keep in ‘close contact’ with the police by way of regular reporting to the police station nearest to his domicile.


Although there is no survey available to determine the success of this programme, it is believed that the Malaysian de-radicalisation programme has been successful in rehabilitating extremists and eliminating their activities. Despite its unpopularity, the ISA has been effective as a mechanism to contain the spread of extremism and militancy in Malaysia. It has unwittingly created and instilled fear into the minds of the public of the consequences of jeopardising the nation’s political stability and national security. While there are those who opposed the ISA even if employed with good intention, there are others who view it as a ‘necessary evil’ to prevent the nation from descending into chaos. Some argued that this is preferable to inviting external powers to safeguard the nation’s security and handle delicate issues of religious extremism. 


Future Challenges and Conclusion

The success of countering extremism and militancy in Malaysia is due to a host of factors. Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country, a situation born out of several circumstances and factors. The majority population of the country, the Malays, have a peace-loving culture, a culture of tolerance and willingness to help. While the Malays are known to be religious, they are not fanatics. Their understanding of ‘jihad’ is not translated as armed struggle, but that of a moral struggle. The idea of ‘jihad’ as an armed struggle is an alien culture being introduced from outside. Until today, the idea of ‘violent jihad’ has not caught up with Muslims in Malaysia. There is no group important enough to propagate such jihad. In addition, there is no concrete issue that can be turned into a common cause that can be exploited to galvanize the population’s support for a violent jihad. This is in contrast to other Muslim societies such as in the Middle East or Pakistan where a culture of political violence seem to be continually perpetuated.


A recent survey indicated that among the Malay-Muslims in Malaysia, there is preference for a gradual change in society, as opposed to violent change. This attitude is in tandem with the culture and character of the Malays who would normally consider every aspect of a subject before making changes in society, even when these changes are to be made in the name of Islam. Another contributing factor in facilitating the efforts at combating religious extremism in Malaysia is the streamlining of religious education through the Ministry of Education and religious authorities. The Ministry provides guidelines on ‘standardised’ religious education made available to students. The monitoring of religious schools and pondok schools reduced the potential of these institutions into becoming a ‘hotbed’ of extremism and militancy or a ‘factory’ for producing jihadis as in the case of Pakistan. Contrary to some foreign media reports of the support for Osama bin Laden among Malaysian youths because they were found to be selling and wearing Osama T-shirts, in reality, there is no real excitement for Osama or Taleban among youths in the country. Malaysian youths have become savvy about generating income from an unlikely source and a phenomenon, for these same guys would be selling and wearing Michael Jackson or Che Guevara T-shirts. Such action would indicate an entrepreneurial prowess rather than a commitment to an ideology or a political cause.


In general, Malaysia enjoys political and social stability, peace and economic development that most citizens do not want to relinquish because they have a stake and interest to keep it going. The monarchy, an important pillar of Malay society has always acted as a ‘pacifier’, provider of moral guidance and a symbol of mediation in an adverse situation. As the head of Islam, the monarchy in Malaysia has the authority, both at the formal and informal levels, to guide religious activities and orientations. Radicalisation to the Malays would be contrary to the culture of peace and harmony of their society and its ‘adab’ (civility). The monarchy, as a respected institution, and one that is seen as above politics, serves as a moderating influence that restrains radical attitude and activities among Malay-Muslims in the country. The multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multireligious character that Malaysia is, are factors that act as a deterrent to religious extremism in the country. The state is fully aware that it has to develop and cultivate a policy of moderation so as not to antagonise the various groups and to stop them from falling into extremist groups of different religions and cultures. Malaysia’s uniqueness lies in its ability to balance and accommodate different demands specific to different ethnic and religious groups with the necessity of oneness of the nation. With a small population and a fairly controlled and disciplined society, the prospect of an over-excited militant galvanizing the population towards the path of violence has a much smaller chance of success in comparison to a country easily consumed by mob passion such as Pakistan or Indonesia. The success of Malaysia’s containment of religious extremism and deradicalisation policy must be seen in the light of these factors that are unique to Malaysia.


By any standard, especially in the Muslim world, violence resulting from religious extremism and militancy in Malaysia is an exception rather than the rule. Unlike Pakistan, which is going through a period of intense terrorist activities, Malaysia does not have the dynamics of militancy, poverty and political instability that can precipitate upheavals to the country. Malaysia’s Islamic radicals do not have the strength or the grounds to galvanise the support of the masses. Despite being politically divided between two major political parties, the majority Malay-Muslim population of Malaysia share a common aim and an equal opportunity to promote the interest of their group. Such situation is not found some Muslim countries with a politico-sectarian divide. In retrospective, it can be said that the Malaysian authorities’ denial of the growth of Shiism in the country is a form of pre-emptive measure to stem out potential sectarian violence. In addition, Muslims in Malaysia do not feel aggrieved by any denial of fundamental rights unlike the case of Malay-Muslims in Thailand, or that of the Muslim minority in the Philippines. But it remains vulnerable because of the country’s proximity to troubled areas and the exposure to transnational linkages of terrorist network in an age of globalisation. Malaysia also has open borders and fairly liberal immigration rules that could lead to intrusion by persons who may be prejudicial to the nation’s security.


There is a growing consciousness in Malaysia about democratic space and the role of civil society among citizens and rulers alike, although at the moment it is still restrained. Media in Malaysian is not entirely free, unlike that in Pakistan or Indonesia where it can fuel passion and violence through reporting and description of sensitive events and issues. The Malaysian media accept this limitation of its role through a kind of selfcensorship to avoid instigating pandemonium or creating violence. The state takes a pre-emptive measure to ensure the delicate balance and vulnerable peaceful co-existence between groups of different and opposing intentions through control of the media, a measure that can be described at best, as out of necessity, but hopefully a temporary one.


It is common to make a correlation between the level and condition of socio-economic development with the rise of religious extremism and militancy. In Malaysia, the socio-economic development can be seen as a two-edged sword. It reduced the situation of poverty and deprivation that pushed many, out of frustration, into seeking solace in violent jihad, a fact occurring in many Muslim societies. Malaysia has been able to remove this root of discontent and grievances in society. However, on the other hand, it is also noted that many cases of violence and forms of religious extremism and the push for change among Muslim groups come from the middle class, who after having achieved some measure of economic and social comfort; they now claim political rights due to them. Some do this out of dissatisfaction over the current system and want a change. Their dilemma is that economically they benefit from the system while their ideological inclination is not fulfilled. At this juncture, these groups cannot afford to destroy the foundation of their economic and social well-being, since the future is unpredictable. The challenge for the Malaysian state is how to balance the inevitable demand for democratic rights with that of keeping the situation under control. 


In conclusion, it is observed that confrontations between Islamic extremist groups and the government in Malaysia is an exception rather than the rule. They do not take place on a large scale or nation-wide, but are confined to certain groups with demands ranging from reforms within existing socio-political framework to a regime change by force. The state introduced laws, some of them controversial, to deal with the challenges and threats to its national security. Among these laws, the most prominent is the ISA, which, the criticisms and opposition levelled at it, is still in use. With the event of September 11, 2001, criticisms of ISA became slightly muted, enabling the government to justify its use without causing too much embarrassment. It lends credibility to what the government has been doing all along: that it was necessary to use repressive measures to eliminate the dangers that militancy pose to national security. The success of Malaysia’s de-radicalisation programme can be attributed to several factors, of which the most important are its societal values. The Malaysian political system and societal values allow little room for religious extremism and militancy. The state and society find consensus on the value of moderation, the understanding of Islam as a religion of peace and the appropriate strategies to deal with contestations coming from extremist groups and individuals.

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