Malaysia's Daesh problem: extremism in the shadow of moderation

By Munira Mustaffa:

Malaysians participating in a rally to express their desire for change. (Photo: Obtained via a Flickr account. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Malaysians participating in a rally to express their desire for change. (Photo: Hitoribocchi, CC 2.0)

Regional analysts and Western pundits may be inclined to wonder why Daesh’s[1] influence still persists in Malaysia, despite concerted efforts to combat the group.[2] The answer lies in the fact that with a population of approximately 240 million Muslims in the region, Southeast Asia is an ideal ground for Daesh’s radicalisation ventures. Its geostrategic position in energy and commercial trade routes and maritime affairs could prove to be of value, and may even allow Daesh more latitude to expand their influence.

This much is evident from Daesh’s newly formed Bahasa-speaking unit known as Majmu’ah al-Arkhabiliy (aka Katibah Nusantara).[3] Recent developments have shown that Malaysia could potentially shift from its current status as a terrorist transit point to becoming a target state. Reports are rife that Daesh is encouraging their supporters through the organisation’s online magazine, Dabiq, to carry out attacks in Malaysia, as well as Singapore and Indonesia.[4] If such attacks materialise, the consequences could potentially destabilise the country’s politics and socioeconomy.

With the intention of narrowing “the divide between the moderates and the extremists”, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, boasts of being the pioneer of the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMOMF).[5] But he is also embroiled in a grand corruption scandal[6] that even managed to grab the attention of the international media, and warranted an FBI investigation.[7] His rapidly deteriorating reputation as a state leader triggered nationwide outrage that prompted calls for his resignation.[8] The serious loss of confidence in Najib, both personally and as leader of the UMNO party, has intensified the bellowing from restless conservatives who fervently believe that it is time for the country to be governed by “a pure Islamic leader” who is willing to introduce hudud (lit: “limit” or “prohibition”) law[9] as the ultimate answer to crime and corruption.

The clamour for a more orthodox Islamic Malaysia is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it one that has occurred in a vacuum. One might argue that as much as moderation is a counter-reaction to fundamentalism, religious extremism can be seen as a reaction to modernity. While religious conservatives do not resist harnessing technology for their own purposes, the goals they espouse and the rejection of other modern values such as pluralism is a clear separation of religion, state and democracy that points back to a “simpler time”. This is even more apparent from their use of modern processes (like guerrilla warfare), technology (like encryption and social media), and ideologies, like modified forms of Marxism.

Communism and socialism have anti-clerical and anti-religious undertones, possibly resulting from their criticism of religion from a Western background. Both the anti-clerical and anti-religious elements of modern Western ideologies came from the desire to reduce something to its purest and truest form, eliminating superstition. The same is true of fundamentalist ideology, which is hostile to innovations and ‘corruption’ of tradition and culture. A lot of the doctrine of Daesh came from earlier writings and the influence of the first modern Muslim revival in the late 19th and 20th century.[10] It has been argued that the Daesh movement is rooted in the Wahhabism[11] doctrine, which demanded that all Muslims pledge their allegiance to a single Islamic authority. Those who refused would be denounced as takfiri (infidel), and would thereby deserve the punishment of death.[12]

This is why it is essential to recall Malaysia’s past association with Communism prior to Independence. As a former colony of Britain and a strategic partner of the US, multi-ethnic Malaysia is frequently described as a moderate and progressive nation. Grassroots militant jihadism in the country emerged in the late 1960’s after the insurgency era, and gained momentum during the Islamic revivalism period of the 1980’s. Anxious to detach themselves from the country’s left-wing anti-religious communist past, a number of eager young Malay Muslims took off for Afghanistan to join the mujahideen (guerrilla fighters)[13] during the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979 as an expression of solidarity and Muslim camaraderie, much like those who ventured into Syria to participate in Daesh today. There, these recruits received their training in the art of militant war, and this educational package included extreme interpretations of Islam.

Upon their return, not only did they bring back knowledge of military combat to share with fellow sympathisers, but also their radical ideology. More homegrown militant groups have surfaced since then, such as Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) and al-Mau’nah. By the late 1990’s, a number of these sympathisers enlisted with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), after being moved by the plight of oppressed Muslims around the world.[14] Two of them gained infamy in their own right, the now-deceased Noordin Md. Top and Azahari Husin. One study identified 13 homegrown radical militant groups, and they all share one common goal: to create a Daulah Islamiyah (Islamic State) out of Malaysia.[15]

Since its Independence on 31st August 1957, much of Malaysia’s national security and nation building has centred on race relations, given the country’s diverse population. Those who believe that the iron-fisted Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) – recently enforced in September 2015 – will be an effective countermeasure to terrorism will be disappointed if policymakers continue to reject and dismiss reality. Enabling racist and polarising views, fanning paranoia of the Jewish/Chinese conspiracy purportedly seeking to dismantle Muslim faith[16], and legitimising and empowering Malay supremacist sentiments are all reasons why extremism exists in the first place. There is no doubt that the incumbent Malaysian government is very keen on promoting fundamentalist and austere elements of religion only when it suits their purposes and benefits the state.

Moreover, the model of Malaysia’s religious authority is similar to models of how religious authorities in the Muslim world are treated as extensions of the state, which finds its origins in the relationship between the Egyptian state, the al-Azhar University, and Egypt’s religious leaders. Malaysia’s religious authorities are appointed by the state, therefore it is in their best interests to collude with state authority and legitimise the state’s policies. Despite government reassurances that POTA is employed only to tackle radicalisation and mitigate terror activities, it could possibly be misused and abused to subdue critics of the incumbent leadership. In fact, a dissident critic of Najib Razak was recently detained under SOSMA (Security Offences (Special Measures) Act) for having the audacity to demand government accountability over the corruption allegations.[17]

In the face of extremism, a more active state effort in addressing bigotry and dissociating itself from racial chauvinism and religious supremacy is pivotal for reformation. This is a necessary step in strengthening nation building and community resilience. Much of this must come from a demonstrably positive leadership, one that requires accountability and transparency.

There is no denying that the root of Malaysia’s growing extremism lies not just related to the global spread of fundamentalist religious ideologies, but is also ingrained in the attitude of the country’s irresponsible policymakers, community leaders and politicians – all of whom refuse to be held accountable for their actions. This much is evident from UMNO Supreme Council member Tan Sri Annuar Musa, who proudly and wrongfully proclaimed that racism is acceptable in Islam, knowing full well that his peers in power would never castigate him.[18] Nevertheless, such statements feed and validate Islamophobic rhetoric that marginalises Muslim minorities across the globe, which in turn is a reactive co-radicalisation factor in the formation of reactionary extremism.[19]

Two wrongs will never make a right. When one recognises Malaysia’s history of religious policing, and the way that its authoritative ruling power breaches even the most personal boundaries[20] of its people and infringes the space of both Muslims and non-Muslims[21] alike, is it any wonder that Malaysia is suffering from a problem of extremism?

Munira Mustaffa completed her MSc in Countering Organised Crime and Terrorism at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, University College of London, and her dissertation was on mapping and analysing terrorism in Malaysia. She is also an intelligence analysis consultant for several corporate intelligence and security firms based in London and New York. She tweets at @FleetStGir1.


[1]        Throughout this entire essay, ISIS/ISIL will be referred to as Daesh.

[2]        John Hudson, ‘Why does Malaysia have an Islamic State problem?’, Foreign Policy. September 9, 2015,

[3]        TRAC. ‘Kuala Lumpur Cell / Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah / Malay archipelago unit for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria / Majmu’ah al Arkhabiliy / Katibah Nusantara’, Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium,

[4]        The Malay Mail Online. ‘Police counter-terrorism unit says beefing up security after IS threatens attack on Malaysia’, September 11, 2015,

[5]        The Global Movement of Moderates,

[6]        Jennifer Pak, ‘1MDB: the case that’s riveting Malaysia’, BBC News, August 28, 2015,

[7]        Oliver Holmes, ‘US investigators launched probe into scandal-hit Malaysian PM Najib Razak,’ The Guardian, September 22, 2015,

[8]        Ansuya Harjani, ‘Malaysia’s anti-government protests: what’s next?’, CNBC, August 31, 2015,

[9]        Islamic penal law for severe crimes considered being against the rights of God as outlined in the Holy Quran and hadith. See Oxford Islamic Studies,

[10]        Karen Armstrong, ‘Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism’, Newstatesman, November 27, 2014,

[11]        A Sunni movement founded by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, described to be radical and extremely orthodox. See Crooke (2014) and Armstrong (2014).

[12]        Alastaire Crooke, ‘You can’t understand ISIS if you don’t know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia’, The Huffington Post, October 27, 2014,

[13]        “Mujahideen” is translated as “one who engages in jihad (struggle)”, but in contemporary conflicts the term has become synonymous with Muslim guerilla fighters.

[14]        Sidney Jones, 2005, ‘The changing nature of Jemaah Islamiyah’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 59:2, p.169-178.

[15]        Mohd. Mizan Aslam, 2009, ‘The thirteen radical groups: Preliminary research in understanding the evolution of militancy in Malaysia’, Jati, 14, p.145-161.

[16]        Ian Buruma, ‘The ‘Jewish conspiracy’ in Asia’, The Guardian, February 9, 2009,

[17]        The Malay Mail Online, ‘Khairuddin rearrested under Sosma moments after court orders his release’, 23 September, 2015,

[18]        Sheridan Mahavera, ‘I am racist and my racism based on Islam, says Umno’s Annuar Musa’, The Malaysian Insider, September 16, 2015,

[19]        Douglas Pratt, ‘Islamophobia as reactive co-radicalization’, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 26:2, p.205-218, January 28, 2015,

[20]        Kamles Kumar, ‘Cover up to “respect” Muslims, mufti tells non-Muslims in dress code rows’, The Malay Mail Online, June 28, 2015,

[21]        The Malaysian Insider, ‘What more do you want from me, Borders manager asks JAWI’, 25 March, 2015,

1 thought on “Malaysia's Daesh problem: extremism in the shadow of moderation”

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan