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En. Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organization (Mapim), writing in response to my article “Zakir Naik and the radicalization of Malaysia” accused me of harbouring sentiments of hate and prejudice against Muslims.

He went on to opine that my claims about the radicalization of our nation, the impact of Wahhabism on our society and the fact that Malaysia was becoming a favoured destination for terrorists were all “unfounded” and based on “very vague perceptions.”

Malaysia & International terrorism

If Azmi had bothered to educate himself on what is going on in Malaysia in an objective manner, he might have discovered the many alarming reports on the issue from none other than our own police force.

The following might perhaps give him a brief idea of what is happening in our nation today:

• April 16th 2018: The appellate court sentenced two Malaysians and an Indonesian national linked to Islamic State (IS) to prison terms ranging from 8 to 12 years for conspiring to kidnap Malaysian officials and promote terrorism.
• September 24th 2018: Police arrested eight terror suspects including four Frenchmen who were students at the Islamic Learning Centre in Perlis. The suspects who had links to IS had planned to make Malaysia their central hub to spread Salafi Jihadi teachings in the region.
• 10th December 2018: Bukit Aman announced that it had thwarted terror plots with the arrests of six men and a woman with suspected militant links.
• 15th Feb 2019: The IGP announced that four foreigners and two Malaysians had been arrested on suspicion of being involved with terrorist groups including IS.
• March 11 2019: Police said that it had uncovered a plan by foreign militants to use the country as a “safe haven transit and logistics centre, following the collapse of terrorist outfit Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East. The militants plan to marry local women to get spousal visas to enable them to live in Malaysia, or to remain in the country by using education facilities, or by being involved in business.” His statement accompanied the announcement of the deportation of seven foreigners, some of whom he said were planning to launch large-scale attacks in several countries.
• 16th April 2019: Police said they had arrested 26 people suspected of involvement in terrorist or Islam State-related activities in the country. Of those taken into custody, 5 were Malaysians, 13 were from the Philippines, 6 were from Egypt, one from Pakistan and one from Tunisia.
• 20th April 2019: Police revealed that more than 100 Malaysians have joined IS… 51 Malaysians still in Syria, including 17 children.
• 25th April 2019: Police believe that the terrorist group Islamic State is looking at several districts in Sabah in their search for a new base in Southeast Asia.

In fact, according to police reports, more than 500 terror suspects have been arrested by Malaysian police since 2013.

Any reasonable observer would have to conclude, based on these developments, that we have a serious problem with terrorism and that foreign terrorists increasingly favour Malaysia as a base of operations. Of course, our police have been vigilant in monitoring and thwarting their activities but that does not negate the fact that we do have a terrorism problem and it is growing.

The above reports also suggest that there is active collaboration between foreign jihadis and locals and we must wonder why this is happening. Why are young Malaysians increasingly receptive to extremist ideologies? Why were so many young people in a moderate Islamic nation like Malaysia persuaded to join a ruthless terrorist organization like IS? Are these facts not symptomatic of the radicalization of our society?

And why is that these foreign terrorists do not seek to operate from countries like Vietnam or Japan or Hong Kong but seek out countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Southern Philippines or Southern Thailand? The fact is that in order to operate in any country, they need an accommodating local culture that will at least tolerate their presence if not welcome them.

Threat to non-Muslims

Azmi also seems to doubt that non-Muslims are a particular target of both foreign and local jihadis and asked, “Where is the evidence?”

Again, I suggest he look no further than the following sample of statements by our own police as reported in the media:

• October 27th 2017: Four foreigners and four Malaysians were arrested for suspected involvement in terrorist activities linked to Abu Sayyaf, IS and Jemaah Islamiah for planning attacks on Christian and Hindu places of worship.
• May 31st 2018: Police detained 15 suspected militants, several of them foreigners, who were planning attacks on places of worship in Kuala Lumpur.
• December 12th 2018: Two terror plots were thwarted with the arrests of two suspected militants in Kelantan. The intended targets were police stations as well as non-Muslim houses of worship.
• September 24th 2018: Police said that four French terror suspects arrested aimed to recruit new members and promote their teachings which permit the killing of non-Muslims and even Muslims who do not follow their ways.

Thankfully, due to police vigilance, these threats against non-Muslim places of worship were thwarted but there is no doubt that non-Muslims houses of worship continue to remain a target for jihadi groups.

It is no coincidence, of course, that non-Muslim places of worship are often targeted since Wahhabi/Salafist preachers often insist that non-Muslim houses of worship should not be permitted in Muslim countries. Indeed, Dr Zakir Naik himself is on record supporting such a position as his many video messages attest. This, in itself, contradicts Azmi’s claim that Naik is all for “peaceful coexistence in multiracial Malaysia.”

Wahhabi influence

Similarly, if Azmi cared to look with unblinkered eyes, he would find dozens of reports in our media about the threat posed by Wahhabi/Salafist indoctrination. Respected scholars and commentators like Dr Azly Rahman, Dr Syed Farid Alatas, Dr Farouk Musa and others have written extensively on the subject.

Several others have also expressed their concerns. An August 28th 2016 article in The Star under the heading, “Wahhabism has no place in Malaysia,” quoted Dr Engku Ahmad Fadzil Engku Ali of the Institute of Islamic Strategic Research Malaysia (a BN supported think tank) as saying that Wahhabi/Salafist graduates from Saudi universities have influenced the “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.”

He went on to call for “a serious overhaul of the education syllabus for Islamic subjects” to “stop or minimise young people from being radicalised.”

Even Dr Zamihan Mat Zin, whom many consider to be a radical preacher himself, was quoted as saying that he was really disturbed to see Muslims in Malaysia gravitating towards a Wahhabi/Salafist brand of Islam. After having worked with Malaysian IS militants, he concluded that he had “no doubt that it was their exposure to Wahhabism/Salafism that radicalised them.”

Special Branch’s Ayob Khan Mydin, perhaps the best informed and most experienced official on the subject, also expressed concern about the impact of Wahhabi teachings on our youth. He noted that many IS supporters were caught with books on Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th-century scholar whose thinking is central to Wahhabism and opined that it is this ideology that is radicalising these people. He said unless the issue is tackled at the root cause, which is at the ideological level, this problem of extremism and radicalisation will never end.

It is also well-known that our universities are a particular target for Wahhabi/Salafist indoctrination. To quote one example: in December 2016 a local media report quoted a source in the Public Services Department as saying that the Al-Madinah International University in Shah Alam has a “history of inconsistent religious teachings and extremist doctrine” and that its graduates had been barred from the civil service. JAIS, for its part, confirmed they were investigating the extreme elements of Wahhabism taught at the university while Special Branch found that “certain topics [at the university] were related to militant ideologies.”

The very fact that, according to recent surveys, one-fifth of students in major public universities believe that terrorism is an effective strategy to achieve an objective while 11% of Malaysians have a favourable view of IS ought to say something about the process of radicalization now under way in our nation.

Azmi might want to also note that all of the above people referenced are Muslims themselves; would he accuse them of “harbouring sentiments of hate and prejudice against Muslims”?

Zakir Naik

Azmi also took umbrage at my description of Naik as an extremist ideologue, arguing instead that Naik is a champion “of peaceful coexistence in multiracial Malaysia.”

Naik’s messages are widely accessible on the internet; his views are, therefore, a matter of public record. It is a fact that he has consistently belittled other religions, rallied against the practice of wishing non-Muslims on their festive occasions, and expressed sympathy, if not support, for jihadi groups. He is also on record encouraging Malaysian Muslims to vote for the BN government despite their long record of corruption because, in his view, it is better for Muslims to support a corrupt Islamic administration than a clean non-Muslim one.

It is also a fact that in response to his evident bigotry and support for extremism, countries as diverse as Canada, Bangladesh and the UK have banned him. In Canada, Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder of Muslims Against Terrorism, charged Naik with promoting Salafist teaching and urged the government of Canada to ban him.

In the UK, then Home Secretary Theresa May denied Naik entry on the grounds that “numerous comments” of his amounted to “unacceptable behaviour.”

In India, the Enforcement Directorate said that Naik’s “inflammatory speeches and lectures have inspired and incited a number of Muslim youth in India to commit unlawful activities and terrorist acts.” It also accused him of money laundering and is now seeking his arrest on an Interpol red notice.

In Bangladesh, Naik found himself in the eye of the storm after news reports surfaced that at least two of the terrorists behind a deadly attack in Dhaka in 2016 were “inspired by his preaching about Islam.” Rohan Imtiaz, one of the suspected attackers posted a message on Facebook quoting Naik prior to the attack. Bangladesh has since banned his Peace TV broadcasts noting that it is “ not consistent with Muslim society, the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith, Bangladesh’s Constitution, our culture, customs and rituals.”

Following the recent attacks in Sri Lanka, where yet another of the terrorists referenced Naik, Colombo also blocked Naik’s Peace TV broadcasts.

In addition, other reports indicate that Indian terrorist Rahil Shaikh (who bombed Mumbai commuter trains in 2006), Najibullah Zazi (an Afghan-American who was arrested in 2009 for planning to bomb New York City’s subway) and Kafeel Ahmad (another Indian terrorist who attempted to bomb Glasgow International Airport with an explosive-laden car), were all inspired by Naik’s teachings.

It is easy to dismiss criticism of Naik as Islamophobia but his well-documented extremist views, his bigotry and intolerance and the fact that many terrorists seem to draw inspiration from his messages suggest that Naik is anything but a champion of peaceful coexistence. As former federal minister Nazri Aziz, one of the few politicians to speak out against Naik noted, “Malaysia had its own stock of scholars and did not need those from overseas to spread animosity in the country.”

Naik’s claim that he is being persecuted “by people who don’t like peace to prevail,” that he is being targeted because of his work in spreading Islam is, therefore, simply laughable. Preachers of peace don’t inspire terrorists and mass murders. And neither do they provoke division and discord.

It also makes no sense to welcome Wahhabi/Salafist preachers like Naik to our shores when the National Fatwa Council has declared that Wahhabism is not suitable for Malaysia, when Wahhabism is banned in Johor, Kedah, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor and Naik is persona non grata in Sarawak.

Naik’s brand of Wahhabi/Salafi teachings also poses a threat to our democracy. As former IGP Fuzi Harun has noted, Wahhabi/Salafi groups have branded the country’s democratic system as “toghut” (unislamic) and oppose it. In other words, they are a threat to both our constitution and the democratic system of government upon which it is premised. Why would we even want to welcome people who are hostile to our democratic system?

If Naik is really the apostle of peace that Azmi thinks he is, there is a simple way to prove it: let Naik preach, teach and practise tolerance for all faiths, encourage respect for all houses of worship, for diversity and human rights. Let him cease his insulting comments of other faiths . Let him disavow violence and unequivocally condemn terrorism in the name of Islam.

After all, Malaysians demand this of their own preachers; should we demand any less of foreign preachers who have been fortunate enough to be given permanent residence in our nation?

A nation in denial

It is, of course, convenient for people like Azmi to label non-Muslims who voice concern about the radicalization of our nation as anti-Muslim or Islamophobic. It is their way of silencing opposition and avoiding real discussion of the issues that confront us.

If the growing arrests of both local and foreign terrorists, the increasing evidence of the radicalization of our society and the rapturous welcome given to a known Wahhabi/Salafist preacher banned in other countries elicits little or no concern from people like Azmi, it proves my point that we are a nation in denial.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |7th May 2019]