Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Sound of Silence: Nuancing Religiopolitical Legitimacy and Conceptualizing the Appeal of ISIS in Malaysia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Sound of Silence: Nuancing Religiopolitical Legitimacy and Conceptualizing the Appeal of ISIS in Malaysia

Article excerpt

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the declaration of the formation of its "Caliphate" in 2014, reverberated across the world. Thousands flocked to Syria and Iraq from all corners of the globe to fight under ISIS's black standards, and to start new lives in their purported "authentic" Islamic state. Included among their numbers were Malaysians. Indeed, at its peak, more than a hundred Malaysians were believed to have relocated to Syria and Iraq with their families in tow. (1) Of course, not all who sympathized with ISIS managed to relocate to the Middle East. Many remained in Southeast Asia: some acted as "keyboard warriors" to lionize the terrorist organization, while others heeded the call to seek out opportunities to launch attacks in the region in the name of ISIS. (2)

The rapidly growing clout of ISIS, and the presence of Malaysians among the ranks of ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq and in pro-ISIS jihadi groups in the southern Philippines, was doubtless a cause of great concern for counter-terrorism forces in Malaysia. On the other hand, scholars have argued that in Malaysia, the expansion of a brand of Islamism that turned on exclusivist and sectarian religiopolitical narratives had inadvertently created conditions for a cast of mind that the propaganda of extremist groups such as ISIS could capitalize on. (3) Yet, while the ISIS phenomenon in Malaysia has become a subject of growing analytical interest, two intriguing questions remain to be addressed. First, why haven't more Malaysians rushed to heed the ISIS clarion call to either fight in Syria and Iraq or in Southeast Asia? Second, why hasn't the ISIS narrative garnered even greater sympathy and support in Malaysia especially given the environmental conditions highlighted above?

This article argues that while ISIS has doubtlessly managed to recruit supporters and sympathizers from Malaysia, its recruitment efforts have been hampered by a combination of effective counterterrorism operations, as well as ISIS's inability to tailor its narrative in ways that would have greater appeal to a larger pool of potential Malaysian recruits. While the first point is perhaps obvious, the second is, in a sense, counterintuitive. Specifically, the silence of ISIS narratives on issues of immediate consequence for the Malay-Muslim community is deafening when juxtaposed against the growing currency of conservative and exclusivist religiopolitical narratives in Malaysia propagated by Malaysian Islamists. In fact, it is precisely the prevalence of such narratives, cast by Malaysian Islamists in terms that speak to the historical and cultural context and milieu in Malaysia, which have ironically eroded the self-proclaimed authenticity of the Syria and Iraq-based terrorist organization. Behind this argument lies a larger point. The study of ISIS in Malaysia has to extend beyond empirical discussions of networks and linkages--an all too familiar theme (and limitation) in the cottage industry of terrorism "expert" commentary--to consider deeper socio-political and religious trends and patterns that inform these phenomena, and the implications they portend. To make its case, this article begins by looking briefly at how ISIS has attempted to extend its ideology and clout to Southeast Asia and Malaysia before examining aspects of Malaysian counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS support in the country. The rest of the article analyses how the conservative and exclusivist religiopolitical discourse associated with Malaysia's increasingly influential Islamists closely parallels the narrative of ISIS, but have been articulated in and referenced to a distinctly Malaysian context, thereby eroding the potency of ISIS's narrative.

ISIS and Malaysia

On 29 June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the new caliph of the Islamic State, a violent extremist organization whose origins hark back to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. …

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