by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in the Malay Mail 4 July 2014
It has emerged that a number of Malaysians have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or Syria, or al-Sham: thus either ISIL or ISIS, but the former avoids confusion with our friends at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies), and it is shuddering to think that compatriots would be capable of the acts that have been reported, even filmed: the interrogation and murder of truck drivers, the humiliations and summary executions of captured soldiers.
In this context it is bewildering why anyone would cite ISIL fighters as an example of bravery in the face of the enemy. Why not mention the selfless Raja Aman Shah bin Raja Harun al-Rashid, who as Captain of the 3rd Battalion of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force fought the Japanese during World War II, and was ultimately executed after refusing to be released from captivity unless all his comrades were also released? Why not cite the warriors of Yamtuan Antah who, during the War of Bukit Putus in 1875, pushed the British back to the Residency in Sungei Ujong before artillery reinforcements arrived? Why not refer to the courageous heroes of all ethnic backgrounds who have received the nation’s highest award, the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa – one of the few federal honours yet to be sullied by political patronage?
We must accept that there are push and pull factors responsible for the decisions of young Malays to fly halfway around the world to take up arms. Clearly, they are disenchanted in their own country: either because of a lack of opportunities or a clash in values, they feel their lives cannot be fulfilled by what Malaysia has to offer. On the other hand, enticing them to the Levant is the promise of service to God and subsequent heavenly rewards, propelled by ISIL’s masterly use of social media.
But perhaps the seed of this phenomenon lies in shocking failures in our education system. Already there are Malaysians who are growing up with entirely different values, making a unified sense of citizenship increasingly elusive. Recently I learnt that in one school, children were taught to habitually step on portraits of leaders – a rejection not just of the individuals portrayed but the entire constitutional system itself, purportedly for being insufficiently Islamic. It is no surprise that such hate-filled students are ripe for radicalisation, being then sent for further training abroad.
It is a given that such extremism should never be allowed in our schools, but there is much more to be done. It is essential that we teach our common history and elucidate the concept of shared citizenship at every stage of education. Of course, once young Malaysians enter the workforce there should ideally be meaningful opportunities for them to become fully fledged members of society contributing to economic, cultural and spiritual life, in a climate of political freedom – for the links between education, freedom, poverty and terrorism have been much discussed.
ISIL has now declared itself to be “the” Islamic State, complete with “the” Caliph. No doubt this will attract some who believe that it is their religious duty to support “the Islamic State”. The lessons of history will be lost on them, for there were periods when competing Caliphates existed simultaneously: in the tenth century, the Sunni Umayyads claimed it from Cordoba (beginning with the enlightened Abd-ar-Rahman III (previously Emir) from 929-961), the Shia Fatimids from Cairo and the Sunni Abbasids from Baghdad. There, the great Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809) established the House of Wisdom, the epitome of his reign in which music, art, maths, medicine, astronomy and philosophy flourished, driven by the translation of earlier Greek and Chinese works – this was truly the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. In 796, he moved his court for geopolitical reasons to Ar-Raqqah, which ISIL today calls its capital, and where music has already been banned. There could scarcely be a more diametrically opposite regime.
Looking at our own history, some Rulers also claimed the title of Caliph, and at their installations a particular verse of the Qur’an was intoned: “We have appointed you Caliph [vicegerent] on Earth!”. Sadly, most politicians today arguing that Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state or some configuration in between have largely ignored our history (and our federal structure) in arriving at their conclusions – not merely the deliberations of the Reid Commission, but centuries before that.
But now, while Wisma Putra denounces the Malaysians who have joined terrorists in the Levant (originally from Latin, via French meaning “where the sun rises”), it is to the Attorney General, or the Home Ministry, or even Parliament, that we turn to see what might happen to those who have effectively committed treason by fighting on behalf of a foreign power.
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS
Image: Potrait of Captain Raja Aman Shah bin Raja Harun al-Rashid and Caliph Harun al-Rashid