Malaysia's terrorist recruits

Many Malaysians were stunned to learn that one of their own killed himself in a suicide bombing in Iraq last month and that 15 others died fighting in Syria.

Worse was to come, with news that some Malaysians consider themselves "freelance" jihadists in their war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

They bear no allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or to any Islamist militant group in Malaysia. Their cause, they say, is simply to fight against "injustice to Muslims".

How did it come to this? Malaysia has long had a reputation as a moderate Muslim country, not a hotbed of young religious extremists who think nothing of bearing arms in a far-away conflict.

Unlike some jihadist fighters from the West, the Malaysians face none of that sense of alienation that comes from being a religious minority.

So what is it that propels young Malaysians to leave the comfort of home for Middle East battle zones?

There is no definitive answer but the problem has at least three root causes.

The first has to do with the radicalising influence of Wahhabism, the puritan brand of Sunni Islam that has been blamed for encouraging greater intolerance among Malaysian Muslims.

Dr Faizal Musa of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia believes that what we are seeing now is the result of the influence Wahhabism has gained over the years as its adherents gradually take control of religious affairs departments, mosques and other religious institutions and right-wing groups.

Writing in the Malay Mail Online news site recently, he said that many of these hardline preachers were first influenced by Wahhabi teachings taught by Saudi-funded charities and had gone on to propagate those views as they provided religious guidance to the masses.

Apart from demanding greater rigour in keeping to religious injunctions, Wahhabists also preach a message of internal purity of the Muslim community, one that excludes Shi'ites.

"The Wahhabist movement has been exporting hatred towards Shi'ism," wrote Dr Faizal in the commentary on Theofascism And The Myths Of Moderate Malaysia.

The anti-Shi'ite teachings are reinforced by the war waging in Iraq and Syria, which pits Sunni militants against Syria's President Assad and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi leader is a Shi'ite and Mr Assad is an Alawite, a Shi'ite offshoot.

Other analysts point to a second root cause: a growing religiosity among young Malays who aspire to become better Muslims. In their zeal to do good deeds in the name of Islam, they are drawn to its call to struggle against injustice.

And the vivid videos available on social media on the plight of Muslims in war-torn Syria find ready volunteers among them.

Former Perlis Mufti and now university academic, Dr Asri Zainal Abidin, said that he had been approached "many times" by young Malays expressing an interest in taking part in the Syrian conflict.

"There is unhappiness over what is happening, a sense of injustice... many of these youths have good intentions because they see Muslims in Syria being bombed and killed so they feel that they want to help out whatever way they can," he told the Malay Mail Online last month.

Dr Asri said he would attempt to dissuade these misguided young men but feared they were prime targets for jihadi recruiters.

For some, no active recruitment is required. In self-radicalisation, the glamorisation of war, as portrayed in "selfies" posted by jihadists posing with their weapons, combined with an inchoate need to fight for justice and fulfil a religious duty can be just enough to push one over the edge.

A third factor behind the growing number of young Malaysian men joining the fight in the Levant is the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; these help militant groups to spread their message and to win recruits.

It is telling that while there was international outrage over the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Bosnian war in the mid-90s, there was none of the large-scale surge of foreign fighters as is happening now in Syria and Iraq.

YouTube came into existence 10 years after the Bosnian conflict ended. It has since allowed ISIS to post its triumphant war videos and for assorted extremist Sunni clerics to justify war on Shi'ites based on their own interpretation of the Apocalypse. Al-Qaeda's Anwar al-Awlaki is dead but the American-born militant still sings praises of jihad in videos on YouTube to recruit fighters.

What's to be done to counter their messages?

Sadly, the response so far from Malaysian Islamic scholars has been largely confined to relatively tame expressions of disapproval about misguided thinking and the lack of proper religious education.

Far punchier were recent cutting comments by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on his blog: "If the opinion revolves around killing others and oneself to go to heaven, perhaps more Malays will wrap themselves in bombs and detonate them in order to kill other Muslims who are not known and are not hostile to them."

Islamic scholars need to take a leaf from Tun Dr Mahathir's book, at least in terms of making an attention-grabbing statement.

Polite entreaties to pay closer attention to what is in the holy book will cut no ice with confused young men who get bombarded with images of strutting jihadists brandishing firearms and calling on others to join them in the name of religion.

Some plain speaking is needed, aided by equally vivid video images of destroyed neighbourhoods, shell-shocked refugees, orphaned children and grieving parents of bombing victims.

The message to be driven home is that being a terrorist fighter is not "cool" and it is naive to think that jihad in its proper sense of a religious struggle amounts to simply shooting off some bullets and even blowing up oneself.

More needs to be done to point to the consequences of their actions.

It may not work with the hardcore militants but just might be enough to save those who want to do right but fail to see the dangerous path on which they are about to embark. 

This article was first published on July 10, 2014.
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