The Christchurch tragedy that took place on 15 March 2019 has again shone a spotlight on what seems to be a growing trend of religious extremism around the world. Malaysia itself is not immune to the threat posed by religious extremists after the arrests of hundreds of Malaysians and foreigners who were involved in terrorist activities.
A study by the Pew Research Center in 2015 revealed that a disconcerting 11% of Malaysian Muslims viewed the terrorist group ISIS positively.1 The same study also found that 86% of Malaysian Muslims are in favour of Sharia law becoming the official law of Malaysia. On the surface, these results are worrying but additional context is necessary to understand how much of a hold extremist ideologies have in Malaysia.
KAJIDATA’s own research not only coincides with the findings of Pew Research Center but also provides added context. Since 2014, KAJIDATA has surveyed Malaysian Muslims with various questions that ranged from their acceptance of a non-Muslim Prime Minister, their opinion of PAS and their acceptance of Hudud legislation.
One conclusion from the answers of such questions were that Malaysian Muslims are very much supportive of Islam being a major part of governance. Some of the results were:
•81% of respondents wanted more pro-Islamic policies including Hudud legislation.
•77% were happy with the Federal government’s policies regarding the inculcation of Islamic values
•74% would be open to the imposition of Hudud as national law
•87% would not accept a non-Muslim as Prime Minister
However, other questions yielded results that at the same time, Malaysian Muslims were also open to accommodation with non-Muslims:
•86% would like a third language such as Mandarin or Tamil to be taught at national schools to enhance national unity
•55% is agreeable for special rights of Bumiputeras to be given only to disadvantaged Bumiputeras
•90% feels that their relationship with their non-Muslim neighbours are good
The relationship that Malaysian Muslims have with Islam is a multi-faceted one. It is therefore too simplistic to take one result from a survey that found 11% of Malaysian Muslims supportive of ISIS and to then conclude that Malaysian Muslims are at risk of becoming radicalised. Of the 11% of Malaysian Muslims who viewed ISIS positively, it should not be automatically assumed that they all endorse the barbaric acts committed by ISIS. However, the fact that a few dozen Malaysian Muslims really did decide to fight for ISIS also means that at least some of the 11% approved of ISIS in total.
Further research is required to track the Malaysian Muslims’ mindset when it comes to the relationship between governance and religion. Is the desire for more Islam in the government a result of increasing self-piety which naturally leads to a desire for oneself to be represented by one’s government or is it due to disappointment with their economic condition? If the motivation is mostly economics, various indicators paint a bleak picture of the economic strength of Malaysians in general and Malaysian Muslims and Bumiputeras in particular:
•75% of Malaysians could not raise RM1,000 in an emergency as they lack any savings
•Only 3 million out of 14.5 million workers have some form of retirement scheme
•65% of national income go to corporate profits leaving only 35% to workers
•The household income gap between Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputera have tripled between 1995 and 2016
It can be argued that if Malaysian Muslims felt that Malaysia’s development was more equitably shared, the idea of an Islamic state that promises good governance and boundless prosperity may not be so attractive. One of the major cause of the Arab Spring was the failed economies of the Arab world.2 Additionally, if not for the economic collapse of Syria and Iraq, ISIS could not have attracted so many followers. A combination of religious fervour and economic hardship may lead to increasing hardline pressure on political parties to compete on out-Islamising each other.
While Malaysia is unlikely to face the same challenges as the Arab world, one precaution against extremism that must be taken is to at least ensure that Malaysia’s development does not leave behind it’s many Muslims. How exactly to do this will be one of the great challenges for the Malaysian government.
A total of n=4,897 Malaysian Muslims aged 21 years and above from all Malaysian states and territories were interviewed by telephone between 19 April to 24 May 2014 for KAJIDATA’s survey on Malay sentiments towards politics and religion. Respondents were selected based on random stratified sampling along the lines of gender, age and state.
A total of n=1,041 Malaysian Muslims aged 21 years and above from all Malaysian states and territories were interviewed by telephone between 10 to 18 July 2017 for another KAJIDATA survey on Malay sentiments towards politics and religion. Respondents were selected based on random stratified sampling along the lines of gender, age and state.
- Mushtaq, Abdul Kadir, Afzal, Muhammad, “Arab Spring: Its Causes And Consequences”, JPUHS, Vol.30, No.1, January – June, 2017 http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/HistoryPStudies/PDF_Files/01_V-30-No1-Jun17.pdf