KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Sitting cross-legged outside Kuala Lumpur’s oldest mosque during afternoon prayers last week, Imam Mohd Faisal bin Tan Mutallib was resolute: Anyone considering joining the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria is “not a true follower of Islam.” But despite the best efforts of U.S. officials to combat extremism in Malaysia and partner with religious leaders like Mutallib, the gravitational pull of the Islamic State in this multiethnic country of 30 million remains stubbornly strong.
That is baffling to regional analysts and has muddied Malaysia’s reputation as an anchor of moderate Islam in Southeast Asia. Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 122 individuals since 2013 who either joined the Islamic State and returned home or were stopped while attempting to leave the country, according to government data given to Foreign Policy. That figure indicates an almost doubling of Islamic State-related arrests by Malaysian authorities between 2014 and 2015.
Authorities have also identified between 100 and 200 people currently inside Malaysia who support the Islamic State.
“The involvement of Malaysians in militant activities in the name of Islam has tarnished the country’s image and affected the purity of Islam,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told parliament last year.
Analysts said the rising number of extremist suspects is surprising for a country that has been hailed as a leading U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism. As recently as April, an estimated 60 to 150 Malaysians were identified as members of the Islamic State, or ISIS. Those numbers were similar to those of recruits from Indonesia — a country roughly eight times the size of Malaysia’s population, noted Joe Chinyong Liow, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The reasons for the rise are unclear, and analysts differ about the drivers of extremism within Malaysia. But observers have pointed to the politicization of Islam in the country’s government, combined with the simultaneous authoritarian tactics in policing dissent, as factors.
“Islam has unfortunately become heavily politicized in Malaysia,” Liow said.
At least a fraction of radicalized Malaysian men have found a way into the Islamic State’s network through a combat unit known as Katibah Nusantara, led by an Indonesian named Bahrum Syah. (The group is also referred to as the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit or Katibah in Malaysia.)
Sidney Jones, a leading expert on Katibah’s activities and the director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said the original combat unit started out with about 100 men last year. Since then, Jones said, “indications are that it had grown considerably and was being deployed in different areas.”
Katibah is believed to be fighting Kurdish forces in Syria and has received training from Chechen instructors, said Jones, who said it’s likely the Islamic State has more than 200 supporters in Malaysia. “There are bound to be more than have been explicitly identified by the government,” she said.
Officially, Malaysia’s efforts to combat Islamic State recruitment are extensive, if not overly aggressive.
Last October, the government’s Department of Islamic Development, the overseer of Malaysia’s mosques and Islamic scholars, issued a fatwa against the Islamic State and sought to convince followers that militants who have died while fighting with the group were not martyrs. The government also has launched countering violent extremism programs that focus on the dynamics of youth and terrorism. In its annual country report on terrorism, the State Department in April praised Najib for founding the Global Movement of Moderates, a Kuala Lumpur-based organization that works against violent extremist ideologies and has more credibility than similar groups based in the West.
But many of these positive steps have coincided with troubling developments in Kuala Lumpur’s political system.
Malaysia, which gained independence from Britain in 1957, is a Muslim-majority country that is home to a large minority of ethnic Chinese, who make up roughly 20 percent of the population. The constitution declares Islam the state religion while allowing freedom of religion for non-Muslims.
Many blame Kuala Lumpur’s ruling political party, UMNO, for poisoning the country’s political rhetoric as it depicts the country’s Muslim heritage as under threat by secular and non-Muslim forces. Worsening the rhetoric are other conservative Islamist parties that pull UMNO further to the right at the expense of the country’s non-Muslim minorities. “The net effect of this is that non-Muslim Malaysians are marginalized as Islamist parties try to ‘out-Islam’ each other,” said Liow.
A primary scapegoat of the rivaling Islamist parties is the country’s ethnic Chinese population, which has become more politically active amid new allegations of corruption against the government. In early July, a report in the Wall Street Journal found that nearly $700 million was transferred to Najib’s personal bank account in 2013 from unnamed donors. That sparked massive protests in late August made up mostly of the country’s ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, though Muslim Malays participated as well. During the demonstrations, posters circulated depicting a man holding a bloodied machete and slashing an opposition protester. It warned Chinese citizens who joined future protests to “be prepared for a blood bath.”
But Malaysia’s heated political climate isn’t the only driver of extremism, according to experts. Amid the backdrop of Malaysia’s increasingly ethno-religious political rhetoric, the country’s security apparatus has taken a heavy-handed role in policing the practice and dogmatic principles of Islam, especially if it departs from mainstream Shafi’i tradition, a school of Sunni Islam. Shiism, for instance, is prohibited, as are more obscure sects.
Those suspected of ties to the Islamic State, a Sunni-dominated network, are subject to indefinite detention without trial under Malaysia’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, or POTA, a new set of anti-terrorism policies adopted by the government.
Terrorism experts in the United States credit Malaysia’s government as a leader in running programs to counter violent extremism. Those efforts included a workshop last January that promoted community-oriented policing as a means to counter violent expression and another one last November that incorporated government officials and community leaders to devise ways to counter violent extremism online.
Mutallib, the chief imam at Jamek mosque, participated in a State Department cultural exchange program this year that takes foreign community leaders on short-term visits to U.S. cities, such as Detroit, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon. His mosque teaches Islamic classes and plays a big role in Kuala Lumpur’s community, making him a valuable contact for U.S. officials.
But not all partnerships with the United States are viewed favorably. Inside the Malaysian government, some officials have charged that POTA was implemented at the persistent request of the U.S. government — an allegation the State Department denies.
Pushing back, State Department spokeswoman Anna Richey-Allen said the U.S. has itself raised concerns with the Malaysian government about the law’s ability to indefinitely detain suspects without trial. “We are closely monitoring implementation of the act and regularly raise our concerns regarding rule of law in Malaysia,” Richey-Allen told FP.
Whatever the impetus for the new anti-terrorism laws, critics say the medicine is worse than the disease.
“The relative authoritarianism that’s being practiced actually further drives a lot of this movement underground, which is harder for us to monitor and address,” Nurul Izzah, a prominent Malaysian opposition figure, told FP. “At the end of the day, you want people to feel like there is relative space for them to participate in a democratic nation rather than driving them further into feeling marginalized and desperate enough to become a part of ISIS.”