The Sound of Silence: Nuancing Religiopolitical Legitimacy and Conceptualizing the Appeal of ISIS in Malaysia.

AuthorLiow, Joseph Chinyong

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the declaration of the formation of its "Caliphate" in 2014, reverberated across the world. Thousands flocked to Syria and Iraq from all corners of the globe to fight under ISIS's black standards, and to start new lives in their purported "authentic" Islamic state. Included among their numbers were Malaysians. Indeed, at its peak, more than a hundred Malaysians were believed to have relocated to Syria and Iraq with their families in tow. (1) Of course, not all who sympathized with ISIS managed to relocate to the Middle East. Many remained in Southeast Asia: some acted as "keyboard warriors" to lionize the terrorist organization, while others heeded the call to seek out opportunities to launch attacks in the region in the name of ISIS. (2)

The rapidly growing clout of ISIS, and the presence of Malaysians among the ranks of ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq and in pro-ISIS jihadi groups in the southern Philippines, was doubtless a cause of great concern for counter-terrorism forces in Malaysia. On the other hand, scholars have argued that in Malaysia, the expansion of a brand of Islamism that turned on exclusivist and sectarian religiopolitical narratives had inadvertently created conditions for a cast of mind that the propaganda of extremist groups such as ISIS could capitalize on. (3) Yet, while the ISIS phenomenon in Malaysia has become a subject of growing analytical interest, two intriguing questions remain to be addressed. First, why haven't more Malaysians rushed to heed the ISIS clarion call to either fight in Syria and Iraq or in Southeast Asia? Second, why hasn't the ISIS narrative garnered even greater sympathy and support in Malaysia especially given the environmental conditions highlighted above?

This article argues that while ISIS has doubtlessly managed to recruit supporters and sympathizers from Malaysia, its recruitment efforts have been hampered by a combination of effective counterterrorism operations, as well as ISIS's inability to tailor its narrative in ways that would have greater appeal to a larger pool of potential Malaysian recruits. While the first point is perhaps obvious, the second is, in a sense, counterintuitive. Specifically, the silence of ISIS narratives on issues of immediate consequence for the Malay-Muslim community is deafening when juxtaposed against the growing currency of conservative and exclusivist religiopolitical narratives in Malaysia propagated by Malaysian Islamists. In fact, it is precisely the prevalence of such narratives, cast by Malaysian Islamists in terms that speak to the historical and cultural context and milieu in Malaysia, which have ironically eroded the self-proclaimed authenticity of the Syria and Iraq-based terrorist organization. Behind this argument lies a larger point. The study of ISIS in Malaysia has to extend beyond empirical discussions of networks and linkages--an all too familiar theme (and limitation) in the cottage industry of terrorism "expert" commentary--to consider deeper socio-political and religious trends and patterns that inform these phenomena, and the implications they portend. To make its case, this article begins by looking briefly at how ISIS has attempted to extend its ideology and clout to Southeast Asia and Malaysia before examining aspects of Malaysian counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS support in the country. The rest of the article analyses how the conservative and exclusivist religiopolitical discourse associated with Malaysia's increasingly influential Islamists closely parallels the narrative of ISIS, but have been articulated in and referenced to a distinctly Malaysian context, thereby eroding the potency of ISIS's narrative.

ISIS and Malaysia

On 29 June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the new caliph of the Islamic State, a violent extremist organization whose origins hark back to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In an act of defiance against colonial cartography that brought into being the modern nation-states of Iraq and Syria, ISIS moved to merge the vast swathes of territories they had captured in these two countries into a presumed Islamic "Caliphate". (4) This "Caliphate" would be predicated on a version of Islamic norms and conceptions of righteousness that, though harsh and controversial from the standpoint of both the principle of human rights and traditional Islamic law, nevertheless managed to draw members, supporters and sympathizers from all over the world. Through the innovative use of social media platforms that drew on prophetic tradition, ISIS cast the journey to the "Caliphate" in religious imaginaries, understood as the totality of meanings and their respective symbols and signifiers--namely the hijrah (Prophet Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina). (5) At the heart of all this was an ambitious, radical claim to authenticity: ISIS and the Caliphate it spawned represented, together with its host of ultraconservative norms and laws that would later be introduced in its name, the epitome of "genuine" Islamic rule.

Within a year of its establishment, ISIS began explicitly targeting its recruitment efforts at Southeast Asian Muslims, including Malaysians. As part of its propaganda effort in the region, ISIS launched a Malay media division, and its official media agencies such as Al-Azzam Media, Furat Media, Al-Hayat and Wilayat Al-Barakah started releasing videos in Indonesian, which is cognate to Malay. It also published a newsletter in the Malay vernacular, titled Al-Fatihin. To augment its public relations effort, the media division of ISIS also produced videos that depicted what appeared to be Malay or Indonesian children training with AK-47 rifles and eloquently citing the Qur'an; while its publication featured articles on the significance of Ramadan, extoling jihad and martyrdom, and providing reports on developments in the "Caliphate". (6)

Given the impressive mobilization and creative use of propaganda, it is not surprising that ISIS managed to draw some recruits from Malaysia. By early 2017, which was probably the height of its Southeast Asian recruitment drive, the Malaysian authorities reported that about 95 Malaysians had travelled to Syria and Iraq, including around ten families. (7) Of these, 30 individuals are believed to have been killed in action. ISIS accommodated its Southeast Asian members in a special unit called Katibah Nusantara located in al-Shadadi, al-Hasakah province of northeast Syria. There, Southeast Asians were provided lessons in Arabic, military training, as well as religious instruction meant to legitimize the ongoing ISIS jihad. From there, the men would be deployed to the front line as soldiers, suicide bombers or guards. (8) ISIS subsidiaries in Southeast Asia also claimed to have established a wilayat (province] in the Southern Philippines, initially under the regional leadership of the Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon (who was killed in the 2017 Marawi conflict), although it was never proven to have been formally endorsed by the central ISIS leadership in Syria. In the event, Malaysians, including those from the eastern state of Sabah which has traditionally been linked to Filipino militants, joined these pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines. (9)

ISIS supporters and sympathizers in Malaysia were mainly recruited online through social media and came from diverse socioeconomic and professional backgrounds, such as teachers, security guards, university lecturers, traders and doctors, as well as from the Malaysian bureaucracy and armed forces. (10) Notably, many of the recruits from Malaysia did not have any, or much, formal religious training. Experts cited the desire to wage jihad, the re-establishment of the so-called Caliphate, and ISIS's success and legitimacy as factors that contributed to the recruitment of Malaysian fighters into ISIS. (11) Indeed, a notorious Malaysian member of ISIS, Muhammad Wanndy Jedi, justified his pledge of allegiance in an interview, stating: "I will not turn away from my duty to fight for the establishment of the Islamic State's Caliph leadership in preparing for the al-Mahdi's rule." (12)

Though the numbers of Malaysian recruits and sympathizers are an important data point on the seriousness of the threat, on their own these figures reveal very little about deeper questions regarding the extent of popular appeal that ISIS commands in Malaysia, or the conditions that might affect or feed it. Indeed, the figures could be interpreted as high or low, depending on whether the reference point is the proportion of recruits to the overall population of the country (low), or the number of ISIS supporters or sympathizers compared to those affiliated with other terrorist groups such as Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) or Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) (high). Similarly, one could argue that the existence of a robust counterterrorism security infrastructure has kept the numbers of recruits and sympathizers low. The point to stress is that even when the critical success of counter-terrorism operations is duly acknowledged, a sole focus on it sheds insufficient light on the overall problem because it reveals little about the wider appeal of ISIS.

The Imperative of Counter-terrorism

Intuitively, the most obvious explanation for the seemingly low numbers of Malaysians who have joined or expressed support for ISIS is perhaps the strong security apparatus of the Malaysian state. Indeed, with a robust and well-developed national security-centric system dating back to the colonial era, Malaysia has been recognized for the efficiency of its preventive measures in relation to terrorism. (13) Hence, before discussing the role of legitimacy in understanding the appeal of ISIS in Malaysia, it is useful to first consider how counter-terrorism policies in Malaysia help curtail the seeding and spread of extremist ideas.

Confronted with a communist insurgency that broke...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT