Two weeks ago, an internal Malaysian police memo was leaked to the media. The leak came after Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said he and several other Malaysian leaders were on the IS hit list. The memo gave details of a November 15 meeting between the militant groups Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State (IS), and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in Sulu, the southern Muslim majority part of the Philippines. Attendees passed several resolutions at the meeting, including regarding mounting attacks in Malaysia, in particular Kuala Lumpur and Sabah in eastern Malaysia.
The report mentioned that eight Abu Sayyaf and IS suicide bombers were already on the ground in Sabah, while another ten were in Kuala Lumpur.
While the news shocked many Malaysians and foreigners living in Malaysia, for Malaysia watchers, it was nothing new. There is general consensus in Malaysian security and intelligence circles that IS and home-grown Islamic radicals are planning a terrorist attack in Malaysia. For the past two years, in fact, Malaysia’s security services managed to disrupt at least four major bombing attempts. Their targets are mainly symbolic, such as beer factories and government buildings. Others were senior political figures and tycoons to be held for ransom and propaganda. IS regards the Malaysian government (and neighboring Indonesia) as un-Islamic and a pawn of the West.
While the Malaysian government is lucky that its intelligence services are on top of the situation, there are recent signs that they may be overwhelmed by the scale of the threat and the number of operatives involved.
Malaysia has a population of about 31 million, and 60 percent are Sunni Muslims. There are approximately 200-250 IS fighters from Malaysia in the Middle East. Contrast this with Indonesia, with a Muslim population of 300 million, and yet there are less than 400 IS fighters from Indonesia. This imbalance alone gives a clear indication of the scale of the problem Malaysia faces.
Even so, at the top of the Malaysian government, other than occasional statements condemning IS terrorism, officials do not seem to be able or willing to confront the root causes of the rise of IS in Malaysia.
In an influential essay published in April this year, Brookings scholar Joseph Liow laid out clearly the reasons for the rise of IS in Malaysia: the politicization of Islam by the state. In particular, both the ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party and its main opponent, PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) use political Islam as their weapon of choice.
The use of political Islam is a deliberate move by a group of committed Islamists hidden in the highest level of the Malaysian state and bureaucracy to create a Malay Islamic state, not a mere theocratic state. This ideology is unique and separate from the caliphate project pursued by IS.
In the Malaysian version of the Malay Islamic state, Sunni Islam’s supremacy is indivisible from ethnicity, i.e. the Malay race. In other words, the unique Malaysian brand of Sunni Islamic supremacy is fused with intolerant Malay nationalism. This highly committed group is trying to build the world’s only Islamic state where Islam and one particular ethnic group are one and the same.
Outsiders, including Muslims from other parts of the Sunni world, will find this development hard to understand as orthodox Islam rejects the notion of race or racism. In Malaysia, according to the proponents of ethno-religious nationalism, the Malaysian brand of Sunni Islam is unique. An example of these exclusion tactics is the issue over the usage of ‘Allah’. Despite clear and unequivocal evidence that the word ‘Allah’ can be used freely by all, the Malaysian religious establishment has claimed exclusive copyright over the word ‘Allah’ and codified into law a proscription that only Muslims can use ‘Allah’ and another half-a-dozen words.
Who are members of this group pushing for the Malay-Islamic state? The obvious candidates are JAKIM (Malaysian Islamic Development Department), a department under the prime minister’s office, and its state-level version. JAKIM is a government department tasked with defining, to the minuscule detail, what being a Sunni Muslim means in Malaysia, not only in theological terms but also in practical terms, like how to dress and what types of behavior are halal (permissible) or haram.
JAKIM, established during the era of Mahathir, prime minister from 1981 to 2003, is so powerful now that even senior UMNO leaders do not dare to confront it. Anyone who questions JAKIM is threatened with sedition. JAKIM threatened a former MP from UMNO with sedition. The son of a deputy prime minister, he had called for the departmental group to be disbanded. Police investigated a well-known lawyer for sedition after he tweeted, “Jakim is promoting extremism every Friday. Govt needs to address that if serious about extremism in Malaysia.” JAKIM writes all Friday sermons for delivery nationwide, and in recent years these sermons have tried to demonize Shiites, Christians and Jews.
JAKIM’s annual budget is about RM 1 billion, paid for by Muslim and non-Muslim taxpayers. Yet JAKIM is largely unaccountable to anyone. Progressive Malaysian Muslims fear the label of being branded anti-Islamic for questioning the work of JAKIM. Others shy away from criticizing JAKIM for fear of being charged with sedition.
Another government department promoting ethno-religious hate and intolerance is Biro Tata Negara (National Civics Bureau, or simply BTN). Like JAKIM, BTN is also under the authority of the PM’s office. Officially, BTN is supposed to nurture the spirit of patriotism. While many of its programs do promote patriotism among Malaysian youth, others promote racism toward non-Malays and filter their message to selected groups of Malay participants. The BTN teaches these Malay participants that the Malaysian Chinese (and non-Malays generally) are like “Jews” and that Malays must be politically supreme at all times. A recent exposé of internal BTN documents showed that BTN trainers were told to teach that racism is “good” if it promotes Malay unity. It even suggested that racism originated from the Islamic concept of asabiyyah, a positive idea that centered on brotherhood and formed social solidarity in historical Muslim civilizations.
While it is obvious that JAKIM, BTN, and similar bodies, do not officially support IS’s caliphate project or its murderous ideology, their promotion of a uniquely narrow Malay-Islamic worldview indirectly supports and complements the IS brand of intolerance. Many young Malays at the primary and high school level in the Malaysian school system are steeped in a view of Malay Islam that resonates with the IS worldview that there is an “us-versus-them” world order. Malaysian Muslims find IS’s ideology easy to accept, having grown up with a state-sanctioned view of intolerance towards non-Malay Muslims.
Is it any wonder that in a recent PEW poll, 11 percent of Malaysian Muslims had a “favorable” view of IS? What is even more interesting is that in Southeast Asia, Malaysian Muslims are more likely than Indonesian Muslims to consider suicide bombing justifiable (18 percent versus 7 percent). If we make inferences from this context, there are two clear conclusions. First, there is going to be an IS attack in Malaysia – not if, but when. The number of IS supporters in Malaysia has reached a critical mass: a Malaysian minister revealed a few days ago there are approximately 50,000 IS supporters in Malaysia. Coupled with returning IS fighters from Syria and Iraq, this broad-based support means that one of their attacks will succeed.
Second, support for IS and intolerant Islam is growing in Malaysia due to the deliberate policies of government bodies such as JAKIM and BTN, whose worldview is increasingly becoming even more influential than that promulgated by elected political leaders. The situation can only get worse until the top UMNO leaders rein in JAKIM and similar bodies. If the government waits for a successful attack before undertaking any serious action, it will simply be too late.