Malaysians need to separate the true threat of Islamic State (IS) from its noise. Until the most recent wave of attacks, conventional wisdom went that IS focused almost exclusively on establishing a caliphate and expanding its boundaries in Syria, Iraq and surrounding regions. However, the IS ideology has reached far and wide and would not likely spare any Muslim country.
Despite the recent capture of IS inspired militants in Malaysia, there has been no IS-related attacks in this traditionally moderate Muslim majority country. Nevertheless, some officials continue to highlight that an attack is imminent and “just a matter of time”.
A report in Newsweek had claimed that it was not just the city of Mosul that IS conquered in June last year; it is the whole Western psyche. And, with Singapore joining the coalition airstrikes, this statement could not be any less true. After 9/11, al-Qaeda has won the battle by sensitising Western audiences to the threat of specifically Islamic terrorism in a way that any small, fragmented execution of attacks can throw the West into an anaphylactic shock.
Singapore promised to contribute a KC-135 tanker plane to the international coalition fighting against IS forces in the Middle East. However, Singapore’s inclusion is symbolic to involve yet another non-Muslim country in a war against Islamic militants.
The history of terrorism itself has been described in many forms since the beginning of the history of mankind. Adolf Hitler and Nazism could be described as terrorism which drew European and American military cooperation together. How do these Islamic militant attacks compare with the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC — Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia)? FARC is one of the world’s richest guerilla armies profiting from illegal drug trade, kidnappings, extortion schemes and an unofficial tax.
There are roughly 7,000 rebel fighters, and women and girls are thought to make up nearly a third of FARC ranks. Female fighters are expected to fight alongside men and are taught to handle AK-47 assault rifles. The 51-year-old conflict has killed more than 220,000 and displaced millions.
It has not been highlighted that since the 1980s, non-Muslims carried out more than 90 per cent of all terror threats in America. However, these threats have not thrown the West into a wave of panic in which even Donald Trump could earn a favourable reputation as a presidential candidate using the Islamic terrorism issue. Trump promised to advocate new restrictions such as enhancing surveillance activities, including in mosques.
Therefore, the important question is how seriously should we take the IS threat. And, how do we know that as there are more and more Muslim and non-Muslim countries like Singapore joining to counter Islamic terrorism, this is not making the situation worse by isolating Muslims, leading them to believe that this is truly a war against Islam?
Malaysia branded IS as a “new evil” that has blasphemed the religion. It is not purely religion and yet it is not unrelated to a certain warped view of the religion. Some people genuinely believe this is the way to heaven and so they pursue this path. Others know very little about religion or doctrine. Something has happened in the lives of many vulnerable Muslims and this is their way to hit out at the world or at society.
Some of them are young people who are just misled. They are at the soul-searching stage of their lives and they stumble across this and then get led deeper and deeper in.
It is not just “random individuals” who are being radicalised. There have been repeated incidents of even military personnel going to Syria. The authorities are most wary of these militants returning home. Reports about IS militants entering the country through Thailand are not greatly surprising. Southeast Asia’s long coastlines and porous borders make it difficult for the regional authorities to monitor or stop the movement of militants in and out of the region.
Despite being home to large Chinese Buddhist and Christian communities, and other ethnic and religious minorities, the lack of interfaith tolerance poses significant worries for Malaysia’s future cohesion. Violence is kept out of Malaysia. The security forces have enforced a zero-tolerance policy on civil unrest, which is to some extent maintaining a fragile peace. Jihadists can be detained preventively under the 2012 Security Offences Special Measures Act.
IS has so many Indonesian and Malaysian fighters that they have formed a unit by themselves — the Katibah Nusantara (Malay Archipelago Combat Unit). Katibah Nusantara is likely to gain importance in IS’ strategic goal of establishing a world-wide caliphate. Katibah Nusantara has been playing a part in connecting the local extremist networks, leading to the globalisation of the IS threat. In spite of that, various militant groups are planning to unite under the IS banner, including the most active and violent group, Abu Sayyaf. The current US-led fight against IS is largely limited to the Middle East. But, the jihadists’ approach to fighting the West has no geographic boundaries, unless the anti-IS coalition does more to cooperate with countries in the region and elsewhere.
A military solution, especially involving more non-Muslim countries alone, will not be enough to defeat terrorism. It is the ideology propagated by these extremists that is the cause of this sadistic violence. And, isolating Muslims, leading them to believe that this is a war against Islam, will only add fuel to fire.
The writer is a former lecturer of UiTM, Shah Alam and International Islamic
University Malaysia Gombak