The recent report on Malaysia in the international news magazine Newsweek has left many Malaysians perplexed and somewhat angry. The report suggested that Malaysia was one of the ‘launching pads’ for the attack on the United States on 11 September last year, and that the country has become a convenient stop for transnational militant networks bent on a war against the West. Similar reports have been appearing in other Western magazines and television networks- an article in a French news magazine two weeks earlier had carried the ominous title: ‘Malaysia- the next Afghanistan.’
That certain Western newspapers and TV channels could come to such an unfounded and exaggerated conclusion can only point to one thing: that many of the journalists and so-called ‘experts’ on international terrorism know precious little about Malaysia at all. Lest it be forgotten. There are some pertinent facts that ought to be borne in mind.
Malaysia, it must be remembered, has been at the forefront of the campaign against religious extremism and militancy long before it became the topic of the month in the West. Anyone who knows anything about Malaysia and Malaysian politics will tell you that successive Malaysian administrations - from the time of the Tunku until today - have taken the issue of religious extremism seriously. Coupled with the Communist insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s, the issue of religious militancy and extremism has consumed the time and energy of the Malaysian state and security forces for decades.
In the 1970s, the Malaysian government took the first steps to curb the use and abuse of religion by political movements in the country who wanted to use Islam as a convenient vehicle for political opposition. During the time of Prime Ministers Tun Razak and Hussein Onn the UMNO-led government made moves to ensure that Islamic discourse and symbols
were not used by the opposition to galvanize support for their struggles against the state. It was during this time that the ‘bulan bintang’ (Star and Crescent) controversy arose, and thePan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) was forbidden to use such politically loaded symbols in their campaigns.
This concerted campaign to control and guide the use of Islam to ensure that it would not fall into the wrong hands continued up to the 1980s and 1990s, when the present administration embarked on its own Islamization program in order to project an alternative image of Islam that presented the creed as something that was compatible with modernity and economic development.
The government was trying to do two things at the same time: On the one hand it sought to deepen the understanding of Islam among Muslims and non-Muslims, to show that Islam was not a militant creed whose goals could only be achieved through violent means. It tried to redefine the concept of jihad (struggle) in line with the needs of modernity and it attempted to show that Islam places a greater emphasis on economic development and material progress. By doing so it was trying to rescue Islam from the clutches of extremist militants and dogmatic Ulama who can only think of Islam in retrogressive terms.
Secondly, the government was trying to rob the extremists and fanatics of the religious credentials that they desperately needed for themselves. It was trying to pull the rug from under the extremists’ feet, by showing that their warped and narrow interpretation of Islam had nothing to do with the religion itself, and that their so-called ‘Islamic struggle’ was nothing more than a mad rush for power by any means.
This contestation over the meaning and content of Islam effectively led to direct confrontation between the state and the Islamist opposition. On many occasions, it was the Malaysian state (and not the West) that was the target of the extremists themselves. In some cases - such as the Memali incident of 1985 - the state was forced to take action against errant Ulama and religious leaders who had clearly gone against the law of the land and were prepared to challenge the authority of the state via extra-constitutional means. Extremist Ulama like Ustaz Ibrahim Mahmood (a.k.a Ibrahim Libya) were willing to use Islam as a justification for militant action against the state, and such individuals were either apprehended or silenced after all other avenues had been cut off. Later in the 1990s, the state also took action against another fanatical religious leader, Ustaz Ashaari Muhammad and his Darul Arqam movement which had, by then, grown bold enough to attack the state openly.
In all these cases, the Malaysian government chose to act of its own volition, regardless of the political costs involved. It did so in order to protect and maintain the security of the country and the well-being of all the ethnic and religious communities in it. It was not doing this to curry favor from the West, or to make itself look good in the eyes of the Western media. (If anything, the Malaysian government’s actions only earned it the scorn of the Western media and NGO’’s, who regarded such actions as heavy-handed and unnecessary.)
Today, it appears as if the tables have been turned. The Western media that once regarded some of these extremist movements as ‘legitimate’ opposition to the state have finally realized that they are, in reality, extremist organizations that would stop at nothing to get what they want. It took a spectacular attack on New York, and the loss of thousands of innocent lives, to convince the West of what we have been saying all along: that some of these organizations have to be controlled and their influence checked before they do any more damage.
Having come to realize that religious extremism is a potential threat to both national and international security, the West now seeks to identify all Muslim states as potential hives of terrorist and militant activity. It is this that angers so many Malaysians today. The fact is that Malaysia has been actively engaged in the struggle to control all forms of religious and political extremism for decades, and yet its efforts have not been acknowledged by anyone else.
The Western media is also short-sighted and blinkered by its own Euro centric prejudices, thinking that all Muslim countries are supportive of such militant organizations. Had these Western journalists bothered to check the facts, they would have seen that Malaysia was the one Muslim country that had gone out of its way to redefine Islam in terms of modernity and progress, and that by doing so it was trying to project a different model of Islam for the rest of the Muslim world to follow. (Indeed, until today, the Muslim world turns to Malaysia as an example of liberal, pluralist Islam at work.)
By lumping Malaysia together with other ‘rogue states’ and sponsors of religious militancy, the Western media and political elite are in danger of isolating the one Muslim country that can make a difference to the international struggle against terrorism and religious extremism. The Malaysian government has done much on its own and it feels that it has earned the right to some recognition and respect.
By tarnishing the image of Malaysia thus, the Western media has only added to the growing sense of apprehension among many liberal Muslim elites that in the final analysis, the West cannot go beyond its simplistic stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. By failing to distinguish between actual militant organizations and the liberal Muslim states that are determined to stop them, the Western media has created the impression that all Muslim states are potential threats and that ‘the only good Muslim is a dead one’.
Rather than playing to the gallery in their respective countries, these Western newspapers and TV channels ought to be doing some serious historical and political research, and pay credit where it is due. Unbeknownst to them, Malaysia has actually been one of the few countries that have held back the tide of religious extremism all along- and we did it not to earn their friendship, but in order to save Islam itself.