The Persistent Threat of Extremist Islam in Southeast Asia
Islamist terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the Southeast Asian region and can be attributed to a myriad of indigenous and transnational factors. From the Bali bombing (2002) in Indonesia by Al-Qaeda and its regional affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, to the siege of Marawi (2017) by local groups linked to the Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines, Islamist violence in Asia Southeast has come a long way over the past two decades. Two broader categorisations often dominate academic and political discourse. One is based on local aspirations and grievances against oppressive regimes, and the other is based on the ambition to build a regional or global Islamic caliphate. With their Salafist and Wahhabi ideals, transnational jihadist movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS have exploited and influenced existing separatist and Islamist movements and, to a greater extent, co-opted domestic radical Islamist movements that have largely affected countries. from Southeast Asia. With relatively similar goals, the two groups spearheaded jihadist movements around the world to establish the supremacy of Islam (caliphate) by opposing modern and secular influences in Muslim countries.
The chapter in Kumar Ramakrishna’s book, “The Continuing Threat of Extremist Islam in Southeast Asia”, in Extremist Islam: Recognition and Response in Southeast Asia (2022), sheds light on the second and most dangerous factor, the growing phenomenon of religious (Islamist) extremism and its ideological ecosystem that has nurtured and sustained the movement in Southeast Asia for decades. In the author’s words, the book “challenges erroneous and controversial notions that portray Islam as an inherently violent religion, arguing that the theological and ideological amalgamation of what has been called ‘Salafabism’ is the lens most useful for recognizing closed-minded extremist currents.”
The Phenomenon of “Salafabism”
The pervasive influence of puritanical Islam has pushed radicalized and vulnerable sections of society into the world of violent extremism. The book is based on an established, albeit debatable, concept which the author calls “Salafabism” – a hybrid term comprising two dominant strains of Puritan Islam, Wahhabism and Salafism. The combination of these two dominant theologies that has produced this contemporary orientation pushes everything “Islamic” to the extreme. This hybrid term was originally coined, developed and popularized in the early 2000s by Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl. Later, it was examined in depth by sociologists like Riaz Hasan, for example, who began to study the phenomenon in the Muslim-majority countries of Central and South Asia.
According to Abou El Fadl, “followers of Salafism are no longer concerned with co-opting or claiming Western institutions as their own. Under cover of reclaiming true and true Islam, they define Islam as the exact antithesis of the West. He pointed out how Salafabists have adopted rigid and irrational approaches. However, critics of Abou El Fadl argue about the lack of empirical evidence documenting the pervasiveness of Salafabism in the contemporary Muslim world.
Like Hasan’s investigative sociological work on the subject, Kumar’s attempt to explore and examine “anti-Western” and “anti-modern” Salafabism in the jihadist and extremist milieu of Southeast Asia would help rekindle the debate about how this Salafist and Wahhabi amalgamation has hijacked Islam and whether or not the remaining traditional Islamic institutions can stand up to the “uncompromising” fanatical Islamist ecosystem. Nonetheless, the book documents and proves the robust existence of Salafabism in the region and how it finds its way into the religious consciousness of today’s Muslims in Southeast Asia.
Composed of seven chapters, the book discusses, among conceptual narratives, extremist Islam in Malaysia, Singapore, the southern Philippines and Indonesia and four “Salafabist” ideologues, non-violent and violent actors. It examines how radicalism and extremism are part of the larger issue of religious fundamentalism. According to the author, open-minded radicalism can be accommodated, and closed-minded extremism is inherently more prone to violence and danger. While exploring the “Salafabist” ecosystem that exists in Southeast Asian countries, the author examines four Islamist ideologues who are part of this ecosystem and adhere to this hybrid orientation: Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff (Singapore-Pro- ISIS), Wan Min Wan Mat (Jemaah Islamiyah, Malaysia), Abu Hamdie (Abu Sayyaf Group, Philippines) and Aman Abdurrahman (Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, Indonesia). The author examines the ecosystem with three identified nodes comprising people (Influencers), places (physical and virtual interfaces) and platforms (publishers, web portals) within which the Salafist orientation tends to culminate.
An alternate narrative
Ultimately, Kumar prescribes an alternative narrative strategy to effectively counter the extremist ecosystem in four ways (4M Way): message content, message framing, message delivery, and message receptivity to dominate competing Salafist narratives . To achieve this, the author argues for the effective deployment of this strategy, which should remain at the heart of the “whole of society” approach to influence the vulnerable Muslim population to move away from a rigid puritanical ecosystem towards tolerant Islamic values and practices.
While the author has somewhat managed to bring together his decades-long insights and research using sociology, psychology, theology and philosophy into a single book, his attempt to explain the concept of Salafabism is somewhat confusing. . For any non-expert, understanding terms like soft or non-violent vs. violent or hard Salafabism is difficult for general readers and may not be helpful for security or political establishments, especially in differentiating between “soft and hard” adherents. “. It looks like the same “good versus bad” or moderate versus extremist trapping the world has seen with the Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood movements. However, the book contains, and rightly clarifies, many of the familiar but unclear concepts and loosely used terminology associated with Islamist terrorism and violence.
For those familiar with the author’s work on the subject, this book seems like the logical culmination of Kumar’s years of rigorous research into Islamist ideology and ideologues, as he aptly acknowledges in the book’s pages. Kumar’s earlier work, particularly on counter-terrorism, focuses primarily on the Islamist ideology behind terrorism in the region (and beyond) and ideological jihadist networks in Southeast Asia.
Interestingly, Kumar briefly interacted with one of his subjects, Zulfikar, in March 2003 at Monash University in Melbourne. However, while dealing with Islamism and violence in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the (southern) Philippines, the author glosses over the thwarted Islamist insurgency in southern Thailand. Perhaps the decades-long Thai separatist movement could remain distinct for its local character and, so far, has been immune to the infiltration of global jihadist ideologies. This could be attributed to the absence of a Salafist-minded ideologue in the Thai insurgency who could inspire violence in the name of jihad or establish a caliphate, like the other case studies mentioned in his book.
This book also highlights the author’s interest in exploring other forms of religious extremism and their characteristics (for example, he briefly discussed emerging Buddhist extremism in Myanmar in the book) by exploring seven of the fundamental characteristics (identity supremacy, hate speech, political ambition etc.) of religious extremist in this context. Although a bit fuzzy and seemingly out of place, the author incorporates Buddhist religious extremism into the otherwise well-focused book on Islamist Salafabism in Southeast Asia.
While delving deeply into the root causes of Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia, Kumar offers a strategy for effective counterterrorism measures by examining regional and cultural dynamics. The author also devoted the last pages of the book to discussing the example of the (Islamist) Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamist political party in Indonesia that was heavily influenced by the earlier Muslim Brotherhood movement, now transformed into an Islamist nationalist. to party. By introducing the PKS into the discourse, the author is perhaps trying to show optimism for the so-called “post-Islamism” phenomenon in Southeast Asia. In conclusion, the book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the dynamics of the Islamist landscape of Southeast Asia and the hybrid ideological ecosystem that exists to foment jihad and violence in the region and beyond.
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