It really disturbs Dr Zamihan Mat Zin when he sees Muslims in Malaysia gravitating towards a Wahhabi/Salafist brand of Islam.
This is dangerous and divisive, he feels.
Dr Zamihan, a Home Ministry religious officer currently attached to the prisons department, has been helping rehabilitate religious extremists such as the detained IS militants. Through his interaction with them he has no doubt that it is their exposure to Wahhabism/Salafism that radicalised them.
Dr Zamihan says the Wahhabi/Salafist way is extremely rigid and rather extreme. It can split Muslim society, he warns, because its followers view Muslims who do not follow their way – as well as non-Muslims – as apostates so it is halal (permissible) to spill their blood.
He points out that apart from IS, a number of radical Islamist militant groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab all draw on the teachings of Wahhabism/Salafism to justify their brutal acts, claiming it as part of a jihad (holy war).
Dr Zamihan – who has a doctorate in Aqidah (faith) and Philosophy and is pursuing another PhD with a thesis on “Managing Conflict: A Study of IS” – says these extremists feel that only they are truly Islamic and right.
“They don’t accept the views or the religious authority of others, including the fatwa council or religious departments. They want an Islamic state but they don’t accept democracy and elections.
“They would kill, rob, kidnap, hijack, confiscate assets and property, steal weapons, carry out suicide attacks, buy material to make bombs, then make and use them because they want to destroy the current system of government, which to them is ‘unIslamic’ and is ‘astray’, so that they can set up an Islamic state according to their mould.’’
He says while extremist groups are not new to Malaysia, the present trend is really worrying because there is no structure, so attacks can happen anywhere; also, the extremists are hardcore.
Dr Zamihan is the president of Aswaja, short for Pertubuhan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah Malaysia, a group that is trying to roll back the Wahhabi/Salafist influence in the country.
But this can be a quite challenge when Saudi Arabia, with its huge coffers, is a major donor to many institutions, NGOs and charity organisations here.
Then there are also people in Malaysia in influential positions who speak in defence of Wahhabism/Salafism. They say Wahhabism/Salafism is part of Sunni Islam – which is something that some here refute – and deny that it is fuelling radicalism and extremism in the country and making people join IS.
A few months ago, National Fatwa Council chairman Tan Sri Dr Shukor Husin weighed in on the issue. He was quoted in a news report as saying that while Wahhabism is not haram (prohibited) here, it has no place in the country because its followers are fond of labelling Muslims who do not adhere to Wahhabism teaching as apostates.
But since religion is a state matter, he said, it would be up to the respective states to decide whether to restrict or allow it.
Johor, Kedah, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor are states that have banned Wahhabism/Salafism.
Senior fellow at the Institute of Islamic Strategic Research Malaysia (Iksim) Dr Engku Ahmad Fadzil Engku Ali says there is no single factor that motivates people to join IS. He feels that it is significant that most who join are from the younger generation – this could indicate immaturity.
Dr Engku Ahmad says data from the police, based on their interrogation of IS detainees locally and overseas, point to the conclusion that almost all subscribe at one point or other of their struggle to the Wahhabi/Salafist ideology. He also says that it is no secret that the Saudis have been giving scholarships to Malaysian Muslims for many years and many have graduated and come back and are holding important and strategic positions in Islamic agencies here; some are also lecturers at local universities.
“They are given free access to the young, the less experienced and easily charged minds of hundreds of students year after year. I am not saying all of them are radicalising these students but some surely do sow the seeds of extremism in these young minds.”
So Dr Engku Ahmad is calling for a serious overhaul of the education syllabus for Islamic subjects. To stop or minimise young people from being radicalised, it is important to give them the needed educational content from the early stage “nurtured in the correct way and conveyed in terms they can easily understand’’, he says.
Interestingly, Dr Engku Ahmad also urged political parties to have the “strong will to reject entrance into their parties of these elements, however enticing their support seems to be to their political struggles’’.
Malaysia enjoys very close ties with Saudi Arabia so won’t coming down hard against Wahhabism/Salafism affect relations between the two countries, we wonder?
“We have the right, or rather obligation, to reject such a rigid and harsh understanding of Islam that eventually leads to extremism and terrorism. It is totally unacceptable to say that we are going to tolerate such a school of thought, or rather a systematic indoctrination, on the pretext that we do not want to strain our relationship with the Saudi Kingdom – or worse, giving the lame excuse that such a rejection will cause us to lose our quota for the annual hajj!” says Dr Engku Ahmad.
“Rejecting Wahhabism/Salafism should not be seen as going against the Saudi Kingdom or government. We can even accept monetary assistance from the Saudis but we should not enslave ourselves to a dangerous doctrine like Wahhabism/Salafism as if we have sold our souls once we accept the Saudis’ assistance.”
He points out that Malaysia accepts assistance from the West but that does not mean it has to accept Christianity, the mainstream religion in the West.
“Similarly, it is very naive to say that we must accept Wahhabism/Salafism once we accept assistance from the Saudis. Even prominent figures in Saudi Arabia have started to admit frankly it is Wahhabism/Salafism that is the root cause of extremism and terrorism.’’