Amid growing popularity, Malaysia fights back against Islamic State

Photo: Day Donaldson/CC BY 2.0

By Claire Heffron

Malaysia has set up a counter-messaging centre that will use social media channels to dissuade the view that the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group is connected to Islam. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak explains this is needed as modern communications are now mainly digital, but what can be done to tackle the growing threat?

Najib hopes the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communications Centre initiative will help stem the growing outreach and recruitment efforts of the IS and other militant groups in the region. A senior official in Malaysia’s police force added, “If a country is not stable politically or economically, IS will come in”. He named Syria and Iraq as cases of two politically and economically unbalanced countries where IS teachings had spread, resulting in large-scale conflict.

New laws, new powers

Just last month, Malaysia experienced its first IS attack in a nightclub in Puchong, a town just south of Kuala Lumpur. This seemed to have spurred the government to action. A contentious new security law just came into effect, granting Najib sweeping powers to tackle anything the government considers a national security threat.

This new National Security Council Act allows the prime minister to declare any area of the country a “security zone” in the face of a situation that’s considered a threat to national security. In that zone, security forces and police would not need permits to carry out searches and seizures. Government officials would be granted immunity for any and all actions.

To provide some context on the threat, Malaysian authorities have arrested over 200 people with alleged links to IS since 2013, most of which lived along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia including Kedah, Perak and Kuala Lumpur. And according to reports this is due to their shrinking successes in Iraq and Syria. They have to go to the second time of struggle, that is their neighbouring countries, or the third ring of conflict, that is Southeast Asia.

Malaysian police have experience combating Communist insurgents and would be able to cope with the new security threats, says one senior police officer. According to him, “Malaysia is still able to control the situation. We have had dealt with threats since 1948.” The key to success in this effort will be people working with the police to combat terrorism and other threats.

Popular support

Despite these efforts, fears of a menacing IS presence in Malaysia were recently confirmed when it was revealed that several Malaysian leaders were on a terrorist hit list. Also revealed were details of a meeting between Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State and the Moro National Liberation Front. In the meeting attendees passed several resolutions, including mounting attacks in Kuala Lumpur and Sabah.

The ostensible level of public support for IS in Malaysia is also of concern. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre 64% of Malaysian respondents expressed an unfavourable view of IS, but 11% expressed a positive view of the group. That is one in ten people.
The factors behind this support could be the politicisation of Islam. The term “Arabisation” is used by moderate Muslims in Malaysia to describe the rapid spread of Islamic conservatism , while there are growing concerns about efforts by political parties to try and ‘out-Islam’ each other, says Joseph Chinyong, professor of Comparative and International Politics.

Alongside efforts to tackle extremist messaging online Dr Emile Nakhleh suggests the religious chronicle used by killers to validate their actions in the name of their religion must be delegitimised. To do this, credible moderate voices within Islam must be identified and authorised to speak up against those who are hijacking their faith. This must be the new path; alongside social media war or new security laws the influence of extremist groups must be tackled through counter-narrative.