Understanding the strategies adopted by Muslim extremists


I am speaking in the context of religious politics in the Malay Muslim community in this region.

Reform-minded Muslims (hereby termed as ‘liberals’ in popular understanding; not in specific political discourse located elsewhere, particularly in the Western hemisphere) has been at the forefront of confronting and challenging religious extremists.

Over the last decade or so, a certain strategy can be observed being adopted by extremists. Understanding this strategy is key to combating extremism.

Firstly, extremists start their religious offensive by caricaturing their enemy. Through this caricature, they launch their classic strategy of 'takfir' (excommunication by declaring someone out of Islam). Since the beginning of mid-2000, we saw a consistent harrassment of liberals by declaring them as heretical and apostates.

But because liberals are often well-connected in society across the religious spectrum and often plugged to political leadership and society's elites, being an educated class, there is a need to prevent any solidarity across the network of power. Hence, a second strategy is to 'ringfence'. Many observers had noted that the new generation of reformists come from beyond the traditional religious sector. These are the public intellectuals - graduates of non-religious institutions but adept and well-grounded in the religious sciences.

Therefore, ringfencing has two aspects. First is to narrow the notion of who gets to speak for Islam, hence preventing reformists from engaging in a discourse by de-legitimising them on the basis of not being from a certain class of 'religious graduates'. Second is to tell non-Muslims not to interfere with 'religious matters of the Muslims', even though the issues that reformists bring to the table are not just religious but also sociopolitical, ranging from democracy to human rights and governance. By ringfencing, extremists are in fact preventing solidarity and alliance against extremism that can cut across religions as well as involving support from non-religious authorities.

After takfir and ringfencing, extremists are able to go on direct assault of liberals by inverting the notion of extremism - that these liberals are the one who are extreme, causing public disturbance and posing threat to social cohesion and harmony. Anyone who is clueless of how extremists operate in society will not be able to understand why the Malay Muslim society is somewhat becoming more 'distant' and deeply 'conservative'. And this strategy is paying off. When liberals are harrassed and attacked, we find the nonchalant attitude of the wider religious and non-religious public. They either see it as none of their business or that there is legitimate ground to reign in on the 'deviant' or 'stirring trouble' liberals.

Finally, it must be noted that this extremist strategy is one that has been used before - against the Shi'ites. It short, the underlying motive of the extremists is to eventually dominate over their rivals, obliterate diversity within Islam, and present their monolithic and supremacist version of Islam as the only legitimate one. This is dangerous because their strategy is fuelling sectarianism and is extremely divisive; not to mention, going against the collective wisdom of mainstream Islam.

We need to be on guard.

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib