Muslims in Malaysian are more likely to support global terror groups, including the Islamic State (IS) and the regional Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), than their counterparts in other Southeast Asian nations, researchers at a Malaysian polling firm said Monday.
In a survey of tolerance and susceptibility toward extremism, the Merdeka Center reported that 18 percent of respondents from Malaysia supported the actions of JI, which is linked to al-Qaeda. By comparison, in Indonesia, where the militant group launched a string of attacks including the Bali bombings that killed 202 people 16 years ago, there was 12.6 percent support for JI.
The other two nations included in the study, the Philippines and Thailand, showed 15.7 percent support for JI and 9.9 percent support, respectively. During a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Merdeka presented slides of the report and announced that the final version should be released by year’s end.
In addition, support for IS in Malaysia was highest, at 5.2 percent – although the Merdeka researchers noted the figure was lower than 11 percent reported by the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey. Figures for the other three countries were 3.8 percent in the Philippines, 2.4 percent in Thailand and 1.3 percent in Indonesia.
Citing the Pew report as a motivation, Merdeka researchers said the survey was aimed at identifying the prevalence of religious extremism among Muslim-majority countries Malaysia and Indonesia, and Thailand and the Philippines, where Muslims are religious minorities.
“Previous research tended to just focus on the extremists themselves,” Merdeka director Ismail Suffian told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. “We are trying to gauge the level of tolerance and extremism in the larger population.”
Conducted in 2017 and 2018, Merdeka researchers surveyed 5,014 individuals age 18 and older in 753 distinct areas across the four countries, with the exception of Indonesia where respondents were age 17 and older.
To better understand attitudes to the umbrella term “extremism,” the researchers said they created one category to measure an individual’s willingness to commit sacrifices in defense of his religion while a second category measured one’s willingness to perform violent harm to others to achieve the same goal.
The report described a person willing to self-sacrifice for Islam as “someone (more likely a man) who is educated and religiously-identified, and who is drawn to a narrative that prioritizes purist Islamic goals and religious literalism, and denounces the West, while feeling that Muslims are treated badly around the world.”
Ananthi Al Ramiah, who co-authored Merdeka’s survey, explained its importance.
“As a psychologist, I approach humans as a biological entity and as such the dominant nature of such an entity is survival,” she told reporters. “Therefore a willingness to self-sacrifice is a distinct deviation from that genetic code.”
Despite support among Malaysian for extremist groups, the study found that Muslims in the country and neighboring Thailand were more likely to opt for self-sacrifice – 31 percent and 32 percent – compared with 25 percent in Indonesia and 11 percent in the Philippines.
Violence to achieve religious goals
Filipino Muslims respondents, at 52 percent, showed the highest tendency toward being receptive to violence to achieve religious goals. Merdeka surveyed 1,000 Filipinos between Nov. 13 and 17, 2017, just weeks after government forces turned back Islamic militants who had taken over the southern city of Marawi for five months.
By contrast, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand’s responses were 28 percent, 26 percent and 21 percent respectively.
The survey described a person drawn toward violent extremism as “someone (once again, most likely a man) who is drawn to the narrative that prioritizes purist Islamic goals, religious literalism, and suicide bombing, while feeling that Muslims lack significance and dignity as a group.”
The survey was able to uncover the difference in motivation toward extremism between countries with a Muslim majority and those with a Muslim minority, Ananthi noted.
“In Muslim-majority countries it is motivated by the pursuit of a purer form of Islam which is usually Salafism or Saudi-influenced Wahabbism,” she said. “In Muslim-minority countries it is more abstract, and usually coupled with other struggles for land or livelihood.”
Among Muslims there is the idea of protecting the “dignity of Islam” perceived as being humiliated by external forces, she added.
Although Malaysia has not suffered significant terror attacks, the survey shows that some Malaysians have terrorist tendencies, said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, an analyst at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“This is not nearly the same as saying Malaysia or Southeast Asia is already extremist, we are not,” he said, adding that Malaysia remained a moderate country with a rising degree of extremism.
Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, said extremist views stemmed from the propagation of a warped and conspiratorial world view spread by extremist groups that has gone unchallenged for too long.
“When people believe in conspiracy theories about the world, there is a greater tendency for them to support extreme measures advocated by terror groups,” he told BenarNews.