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Malaysia and the concept of Peaceful Salafism

Salafism in Malaysia has garnered renewed attention with the increasing presence of Salafi ulama within the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) youth wing.

Salafi doctrines emphasise a return to religious practices of the Prophet and his followers in the seventh century and the removal of all forms of innovation and any adherence to pre-Islamic practices.

While it is unlikely that these new Umno Salafis would uproot the largely traditionalist Islamic bureaucracy and institutions in Malaysia, their presence has reinvigorated the nexus between Salafism, politics and extremism.

In order to contrast non-violent Salafism with Jihadi Salafism, the term "Peaceful Salafism" has been bandied about by pundits. While not meant as a serious analytical category, it attempts to describe the non-violent Salafi imagination in Malaysia, regardless of whether one is a political or quietist Salafi.

Quietists are perceived to be peaceful because they shun street activism and focus their activities on proselytisation. Political Salafis are perceived so because, unlike their violent counterparts, they attempt to achieve their end - an Islamic utopia - through political participation rather than armed strife. Peacefulness is thus defined as either being unchallenging of the political status quo or pursuing ends through the means of peaceful politics.

Salafi scholars have to rescind the hate in their rhetoric. Peaceful Salafis cannot be ambivalent to the presence of Jihadi Salafis and their followers who dwell safely within the Malaysian "Political Salafi" and "Peaceful Salafi" climate. Otherwise, they would be seen to harbour extremism hopes - no matter how latent - for an Islamic utopia in Malaysia.

But it is not incontrovertible that peaceful Salafism is all that peaceful. While field research by Dr Maszlee Malik and Dr Khalil al-Anani (2013) shows that political participation has tamed radical Salafi elements in Egypt, the same cannot be said about political Salafism's foray into the mainstream of Malaysian politics. Despite having an Islamist space in social and political arenas, Malaysia has hosted local and regional radical groups such as Al-Ma'unah, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia and Jemaah Islamiyah.

The mechanism that encourages peacefulness among groups that decide to lay down their arms for the political process is the promise of continued or even increased relevance and popularity in society. This mechanism is not foolproof.

As long as a total and radical Islamisation of Malaysia towards the end of an iconographic Islamic utopia is not fully achieved, radicals and supporters will feel unsatisfied and seek to realise "Daulah Islamiyah Baqiyyah wa Tatamaddad" (an Islamic State that is forever lasting). This was revealed in a Facebook posting written by a Malaysian Abu Sayyaf fighter who encouraged his followers to pursue armed extremism all over the world, from Syria to Pattani, Ambon-Poso and Mindanao.

Radicals like him may be militant or Jihadi Salafists, but radical followers and supporters, numbering in the thousands, are from the different strands of Salafism. What ties them together is a subscription to an exclusivist position on the Salafist doctrine of Al-Wala' wal-Bara' (Loyalty and Enmity) that draws narrow theological boundaries between oneself and the putative "Other".

This duality is at odds with the Malaysian society they live in, which is democratic - ostensibly a heinous innovation - and multi-religious. When confronted with their cognitive dissonance, they either put aside their worldview, or concur that Malaysia is yet to be Darul Islam.

Now that Umno has co-opted the Salafi ulama for religious legitimacy, there is a rekindling of political discourse within the Salafi worldview. For instance, Dr Fathul Bari, the current Executive Committee member of Umno youth who once elaborated on his taxonomy of kafirs (infidels) before he joined Umno, has recently expressed his displeasure regarding "Puji Kafir, Hina Islam" (praising infidels while insulting Islam). Dr Fathul Bari argues that, despite the value deficiencies of Muslim societies and governments, placing a positive value upon the perceivable good of infidel societies and governments is an act of shirk.

The Islamic Party, PAS, also legitimises its electoral fights with Umno by arguing that Umno does not satisfy their vision of Muslim rule. PAS and Umno engage in piety-outbidding through the contention of the Islamic-ness of Malaysia.

Otherwise, another example of piety-outbidding between PAS and Umno centres on the confusing debate over the legitimacy of teaming up with non-Muslims in their respective coalitions, because, as ideologues like Dr Fathul Bari would argue, some kafirs are Kafir Harbi and meant to be fought and opposed. The problem with this discourse is that it falls neatly into the already highly racialised politics in Malaysia, encouraging racist rhetoric and allowing Umno Supreme Council member Annuar Musa to brag that his "racism is based on Islam".

Salafi scholars have to rescind the hate in their rhetoric. Peaceful Salafis cannot be ambivalent to the presence of Jihadi Salafis and their followers who dwell safely within the Malaysian "Political Salafi" and "Peaceful Salafi" climate. Otherwise, they would be seen to harbour extremism hopes - no matter how latent - for an Islamic utopia in Malaysia.

Jihadi Salafism and elements of Salafism that encourage kafir hatred, that is hatred of non-Muslims, should not be left unchallenged.

Put in the context of a racialised, multi-religious society, non-Muslims and those Muslims around the world who are "not-so-Muslim" are at risk if hatred is given a womb in which to percolate an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria brand of 100 per cent Islam: Jihadi Salafism.

  • The writer is a Research Analyst in the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
  • This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'Malaysia and the concept of Peaceful Salafism'. Print Edition | Subscribe