With the recent revelations that a youth was picked up and arrested on the way to a suicide bombing, hundreds of arrests of suspected terrorists have been made, and security is being drastically tightened across the country, what is happening?
In the aftermath of the recent suicide bombing, blamed on ISIS in Jakarta last week, Malaysia is in a panic. Reports are coming out in the media that hundreds of Malaysians are joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq, and the elaborate means through social media young people are being recruited to the cause of Islamic State.
According to a report by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, there are about 450 Indonesians and Malaysians, including women and children in Iraq and Syria today. Islamic State has a special unit in Syria called Katibah Nusantara which is made up of Indonesian and Malay speaking fighters and their families. There are great fears that members of this group will return to Malaysia to carry out jihadist activities at home within the near future.
This should not be a surprise, as the Islamic narrative within Malaysia has been edging towards a more fundamentalist stance over the last two decades, since UMNO and PAS began competing against each other to show the Malay heartland that they are more Islamic than the other.
According to a recent Pew Research Centre study on attitudes towards ISIS, 12% of Malaysia’s Muslims are supportive of the group.
Islamic State formed out of the remnants of Al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq during the Maliki regime as a consequence of his persecution of the Sunni population. Baathists quickly joined the ranks of ISIS, along with a number of local tribes. Sunnis within Iraq saw ISIS as the lesser of two evils and reluctantly supported them. The leader is ISIS Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi last September gave a sermon in the Great mosque in Mosul declaring a Caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria, which has been inspiring to many Muslims around the world.
Malaysia had experience with a group with similar aspirations to develop a caliphate back in the 1980s. Al-Arqam was founded by the charismatic Ashaari Mohammad with a vision of developing small village economy and trade. Ashaari advocated a strict but simple sustainable community lifestyle, following the Syariah codes. Instead of blood and warfare Al-Arqam saw trade and Daqwah (spreading the message), as the future of Islam, where the group started a conglomerate of enterprises all over Malaysia, the region, and even in Europe, US, and Australia.
At the time, the Al-Arqam movement had the sympathy and respect of many Malays within the community, including civil servants, members of the armed forces, police, professional people, academics, and even politicians.
However in the early 1990s, Al-Arqam ran afoul of the authorities when Ashaari was rumoured to claim that he could mystically communicate with the Prophet. There was also a rumour that Al-Arqam was planning to topple the Malaysian Government and replace it with a Caliphate, with Ashaari as the Caliph. Rumours also existed that Al-Arqam had a commando training camp in Thailand, although this was denied by the Thai Government at the time.
In September 1994, the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir banned Al-Arqam and arrested many of the leading group, putting them under ISA. Most went underground and kept their sympathies to themselves. Even up to the Badawi era, there have been attempts by Al-Arqam to make a re-emergence.
In the absence of Al-Arqam, there has been a vacuum in ‘revolutionary’ Islam, to topple existing governments and establish a utopian Islamic state. Al-Arqam had a vision of an Islamic life under a caliphate and now Islamic State has filled this vacuum.
The moderate Malay Muslim demeanour that Malaysia once grounded Malays into the social status quo has long disappeared. There is now outcry about how Malaysian Airlines stewardesses are dressed. The slapstick comical P Ramlee films of yesteryear that reflected Malay society at the time would probably not even pass the Censorship Board today.
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