Terrorism: The new Cabinet must acknowledge risk

Dina Zaman
Pakatan Harapan supporters gather in Petaling Jaya May 9, 2018. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, June 14 — Congratulations, Malaysia. You have voted for a new government, and you have received it.

IMAN Research (IMAN) is now hard at work analysing and finalising a report on the recent general elections, which we will share once it is completed. However, we would like to share some concerns.

While Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s appointment of Maszlee Malik, Mohamad Sabu, Dzulkefly Ahmad, and Salahuddin Ayub can be considered strategic — the appointments of these men from religious-based political parties or backgrounds should allay the fears of Islamists and conservatives — this does not mean that we can rest.

In an opinion piece by Matthew Hays and Daniel Twin, published in the Nikkei Asian Review on May 24, 2018, “Malaysia’s triumph of democracy remains precarious. The new coalition government faces the daunting challenge of reforming a political system founded on majoritarian rule, cronyism and corruption. The previous ruling party manipulated political Islamism for electoral advantage, compounding risks posed by returning Malaysian extremists who fought with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. More broadly, it is unclear whether a democratic transformation can be delivered by a prime minister who previously ruled Malaysia with an iron fist for 22 years.”

“Malaysia’s new leaders must be on guard for the potential of interethnic and political tensions to erupt into conflict, undermining the country’s democratic path. To build a stable government capable of delivering promised reforms, PH will have to overcome its long history of infighting, reject traditional personality-based politics, and bridge racial and religious divides within Malaysian society. This includes promoting values of pluralism to reinforce community cohesion; supporting initiatives that build trust between citizens of different backgrounds is one way of fostering these principles.”

“The new government must tackle the threat posed by Islamist extremist elements who have seized upon Malaysia’s drift toward intolerance. Malaysia is being used as a logistical and financial hub by extremist groups, including the Islamic State, operating across South-east Asia. The politicization of religion has created fertile ground for IS recruiters to actively target young Malaysians (the country’s average age is 28) through social media and at local universities.”

Dear Pakatan Harapan, allow us to give you a quick low down on recent events:

Regional terrorism

During the time of the Malaysian general elections, a series of bombings struck three churches in Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia. The bombings took place at Gereja Katolik Santa Maria, Gereja Kristen Indonesia, and Gereja Pantekosta Pusat Surabaya. The bombings did not end there; a fourth bomb detonated at an apartment complex in Sidoarjo and another one at the Surabaya Police Headquarters. This is the biggest incident of terrorist attacks in Indonesia since the Bali bombing in 2002. Prior to this incident, a deadly riot took place at the Mako Brimob facility in Depok, outside of Jakarta. The inmates, who were identified as violent extremist offenders, took hostage and killed five of Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism squad Densus 88. This series of incidents must be taken seriously by Malaysia not only due to our proximity to our Indonesian neighbour, but also due to the possibility of a shared network among the Indonesian militants and militants here. The perpetrators in Surabaya were allegedly returning fighters from Syria. Since the fall of IS in Syria, the issue of returnees has been one of the major concerns in CT and CVE, especially so in Malaysia as we have porous borders and an open-door policy.

The gubernatorial elections in Jakarta last year, is another signpost we need to look out for. Indonesia is becoming a hardline Muslim country, contrary to its previous moderate and progressive image. From our conversations with militant groups and hardliners in Indonesia, Malaysia is seen as an example of a purer Muslim state that practises a more conservative Islam that Indonesia sorely needs.

In the Marawi siege which happened last year, hundreds of soldiers, civilians and Islamist militants have been killed and more than 200,000 families were displaced by the clashes. These attacks and many more in other countries in South-east Asia have shown an increasing presence of IS. An estimated of 1,000 Indonesians travelled to join IS. In 2017, 240 Indonesians were detained and deported in transit countries en-route to join IS — 70 per cent were women and children. IPAC reported 45 Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong engaged by IS. These women and the recent handful arrests of female terrorist suspects, have confirmed that violent extremism is no longer the field of masculinity. The shift of radicalization trend has led women to become both perpetrators and victims of violent extremism organization. There is robust discussion as to how Marawi fell to IS’ ‘charms’ — the marginalisation of the Muslim minority in Marawi had led to this siege.

Islam in Malaysia

A survey commissioned by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute last year on the role of Islam and its governance in Johor has shown Malays in the state are becoming more religiously conservative, the Straits Times (ST) reported. It said most Johorean Malays preferred Muslims in key leadership positions, while three in four were supportive of hudud, the Islamic criminal punishment that includes stoning for adultery and amputation for theft.

Malays are increasingly identifying themselves by their religion first over their ethnicity or nationality, Merdeka Center said in 2015. 60 per cent of Malay respondents identify as Muslims, while 27 per cent of them identify as Malaysians. In comparison, only 3 per cent of the ethnic Chinese identify themselves by religious identity, while 16 per cent of ethnic Indians do so. Also, Merdeka Centre in 2014 found the highest level of support for hudud among Malay voters under the age of 30, consistent with Merdeka Center’s findings in its 2011 study of Muslim youth sentiments. However, While Malay Malaysians show high support for the hudud — or Islamic penal law — the majority of citizens feel the country is not ready to implement it.

IMAN in their ongoing nationwide focus group discussion with youths aged 18 to 30 found that participants agreed that their identity is an important component, but yet at the same time feel that it is a very complex issue. Irrespective of the respondents’ religiosity, all answered that their main identity was being Muslim. A worrying finding was the fact many do not have interaction with non-Muslims. They acknowledge that this limits their understanding of issues and concerns faced by non-Muslims but nevertheless find it difficult to overcome. Lastly, participants agreed that the belief in the concept of an Islamic state was an integral part of being a Muslim. While most had different interpretations of how to achieve an Islamic state, what they agreed most on is that if Islamic State did exist then the current problems faced by the country would be solved such as corruption, unscrupulous leaders.

The Islamist Party of Malaysia (PAS) in 2016 has sought to amend the act RU 355. The amendment seeks to replace section 2 of the act with new sections 2 and 2A. The (proposed) new Section 2 provides: “2. The Syariah Court shall have jurisdiction over persons professing the religion of Islam in respect of offences regarding matters listed in Item 1 of the State List of the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution.” The (proposed) new section 2A provides: “2A. In the exercise of the criminal law under Section 2, the Syariah Court is entitled to impose penalties allowed by Syariah in relation to offences listed under the section mentioned above, other than the death penalty.” What is more important is the proposed new section 2A. The most noticeable difference between the proposed section 2A and the existing law is that the latter contains a proviso as follows: “Provided that such jurisdiction shall not be exercised in respect of any offence punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding three years or with any fine exceeding five thousand ringgit or with whipping exceeding six strokes or with any combination thereof.” The State Legislative Assembly may make laws empowering the Syariah Court to impose punishments permitted by Islamic law (Syariah and fiqh) including hudud and qisas, except the death penalty. That is the effect. But, how far the State Legislative Assembly may create offences punishable with such penalties is another matter.

In 2016, a Muslim human rights group called for evangelical Christianity to be ‘banned’, while the Selangor State Assembly speaker Hannah Yeoh was accused of using her biography to proselytise Muslims — a legal offence in Malaysia. In Sabah and Sarawak, native Christian parents have repeatedly complained that Islamic religious teachers attempt to convert their children to Islam. Such distrust is evidenced in the public outcry seen after a Muslim religious teacher was appointed as principal of a mission school in Sarawak. 60 years of racist and racial indoctrination have become part and parcel of Malaysia’s DNA. Inter-faith and intra-faith dialogues are still much needed. Engagement with grassroot communities are important, but one community that has yet to be tapped would be the community religious leaders and preachers.

With all due respect to the current prime minister who has been away from ruling a country for 15 years, he will have his hands full with the current regional and national security threats. The mentioned events are close to home, and it will need an empathetic, holistic approach to countering violent extremism (CVE) in the region. Malaysia’s role in Asean is more than just trade and forging ties with other countries; Malaysia will need to step up on her role as a serious CVE player, and realising her role as a leader of a Muslim country, and that much of the CVE work in the region involves Muslims, Malaysia will have to take charge of regional and global security, and Muslim matters in the region.

Selamat Hari Raya, Tun. And welcome back. We are in for a wild ride.

*Dina Zaman is a founding member and director of IMAN Research.