Malaysia is to be commended on its decision to set up Asean's first messaging centre later this year to combat violent extremism that lurks online. Cyberspace is a frontier domain where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is particularly effective in delivering religious propaganda. The geographical invisibility afforded by the medium obscures the real condition of those living under its sway. With the truth masked, ISIS reaches out to the intellectually impressionable, vulnerable and gullible everywhere who wish to settle imagined scores within their societies and outside. Extremists would consider this easy work as all that they need for the purpose is access to the Internet.
The deadly attractiveness of the ISIS narrative is accented by the fact that cyberspace is now the communicative terrain of choice for the young, much as reading books and writing letters were for an earlier generation. Thus, any intellectual counter-insurgency effort has to be effective on the Internet. That will give reason and peace a fighting chance against bigotry and violence. Malaysia's success with the centre will be instructive for its Asean neighbours. It will reveal how Muslims, particularly the young among them, respond to the message that Islam is a religion that thrives in peace, not war. Although Malaysia's quintessential character as a moderate Muslim country has been dented by the politics of race and religion lately, it remains a test bed of how economic development calls on the devout to preserve their core beliefs within the common practices of globalised modernity.
This is where Malaysia's neighbours can take heart from Prime Minister Najib Razak's remarks at the recent International Conference on Deradicalisation and Countering Violent Extremism in Kuala Lumpur. In declaring unambiguously that "there can be nothing Islamic about terrorism", he sought to defy the siren calls of deceivers who claim falsely that militant actions "are not only justified but (also) demanded by religion". The counter-narrative that the Malaysian centre proposes would do well to dwell on that single idea. It could show how Islamic thinking is broad and deep enough to take account of both human suffering and possibility, to meet the passing exigencies of history without recourse to ad hoc and self-defeating violence.
The message of insurrectionary groups such as ISIS is reductive and regressive. It is to kill perceived enemies in the present - infidels and heretics - to recover an ostensibly pristine world of past faith. The message emanating from the Malaysian centre, and similar organisations, should be inclusive and progressive. Like the believers of all other great religions, Muslims live in a world of time and change. In South-east Asia, they live also in a multi-religious region. Coexistence is the only way forward for all of them.