This essay is part of a series that explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More ...

Southeast Asia is no stranger to the threat of Islamist militancy, and Malaysia is no exception.[1] Nevertheless, the transnational insurgent-terrorist hybrid, the Islamic State (IS) did introduce a new security challenge to the Malaysian government. It launched a recruitment campaign with an effectiveness and online presence that far surpassed its predecessors, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the Malaysian Militant Movement (Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, KMM). By May 2017, the number of IS-related arrests in Malaysia had reached 300, not counting the 56 Malaysians presumed to be in Syria.[2] If membership is calculated in terms of detainee per year, IS outperformed the other Islamist militant groups the nation had encountered previously. This is not to mention when compared to Indonesia, a country with a higher proportion of Muslims, Malaysia actually yielded more IS suspects on a per capita basis, although the intensity of conflict is far lower in Malaysia.[3]

Furthermore, many of those who joined the organization were young (between the ages of 18 and 40)[4] and included males and females. In addition, many were not Afghan-Pakistan veterans that eventually dominated JI’s ranks,[5] underlining the Islamic State’s success in penetrating new ground in recruitment. And IS, unlike JI, chose Malaysia as a target for attack — launching a grenade attack on a bar in Puchong on June 28, 2016 and plotting numerous other bombings and kidnappings.[6] In fact, it was reported that the Malaysian police has thus far foiled 18 plans by IS.[7]

This essay critically examines the Malaysian state's responses to IS, which, while having proven relatively successful in maintaining public safety (as compared to Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines), have not slowed the pace of radicalization among the Malaysian populace.[8] The essay highlights the operational dimension in the post-Internal Security Act (ISA) era,[9] where a more hardline and visible approach was taken with regards to Islamist militancy, legislatively and operationally. Accompanying such a shift has been an active discursive campaign to denounce, discredit and diminish IS, which has seen the Malaysian state depending heavily on religious figures, institutions and narratives. The essay then discusses the dilemma faced by self-proclaimed “Islamic” states such as Malaysia in countering Islamist militancy.

The Operational Dimension

The perceptible rise of the IS threat in Malaysia coincided with the government’s introduction of more legal instruments, a position supported by the White Paper on IS tabled on November 26, 2014.[10] This is despite the fact that the security apparatus have in disposal the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA)[11] and the Penal Code, which by 2007 has made numerous terrorism-related offences an explicit crime.[12] To be fair, the White Paper did highlight the limitations of current legislation in tackling the issue of Malaysians travelling abroad to participate in militant activities.

On March 30, 2015, a total of six bills were tabled in parliament to “deal with the growing domestic and international threat of terrorism.”[13] The problem of extraterritoriality mentioned in the White Paper was addressed by the introduction of the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Bill, which allows Malaysian authorities to seize and suspend travel documents, be it Malaysian or not, if the individual is suspected of wanting to “engage in the commission or support of terrorist acts.”[14] The Penal Code was also amended to make it an offense (punishable by up to 30 years in prison) for people travelling to or from Malaysia to commit terrorist acts. Another bill introduced is the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which allows for detention without trial up to two years that can be extended indefinitely by a Prevention of Terrorism Board with five to eight members. POTA was passed in the lower house of the parliament merely seven days after it was tabled on March 30, 2015.

Greater controversy arose when the National Security Council (NSC) Bill was tabled on December 1, 2015. While the NSC bill’s utility as a “counter-terror” bill was implied by government officials, the bill itself made no mention at all with regards to the term “terrorism.” The bill granted the Prime Minister wide-reaching powers, including the declaration of a specified zone as a security area (up to six months and can be renewed indefinitely), which entails almost absolute rule by the Council within that area. Security forces are free to search, arrest without warrant, and take temporary possession of properties, actions all protected from suits and legal proceedings.[15] The room for abuse of the Act drew heavy protests from the opposition and civil society, with a member of the bar council reportedly calling it “the mother of all bad legislations.”[16] The bill was eventually passed but gazetted without Royal Assent as no refinement of the bill was made despite the request from the Conference of Rulers.[17]

Even as the legal instruments were being put in place, the Malaysian police have been active on the operational front, with the rising number of arrests made and the relative security of Malaysia to show for it. E8, the counter-terrorism division of the Special Branch, was frequently highlighted as the counter-terrorism bulwark; to the extent that its chief was singled out as a target by the frustrated IS militants.[18] In addition, it was announced in July 2017 that a new federal counter-terrorism department is to be established, led by a deputy Inspector General of Police and staffed by 500 officers, more than doubling the manpower of the current E8 division.[19] Up to this point, SOSMA, with its provisions for preventive detention, has been employed for most counter-terrorism operations.[20] With more than 122 suspects charged and 68 convictions by January 2017,[21] some for the crimes of only owning terrorism-related materials,[22] it is safe to say that, on the operational front, the authorities waged a successful and visible, if not coercive campaign.

Discursive Dimension

Law enforcement actions in Malaysia were paralleled by an intensive campaign conducted by multiple state agencies seeking to discredit, denounce and diminish the organisation on the discursive front. The public domain was flooded with news on IS-related plots, arrests and charges, as well as expert analysis, high-profile events, and active information dissemination from the police. Such a surge in reporting was expected given the global attention (and imagination) seized by the rapid rise and televised violence of IS, but it is also suggested that the effort was geared towards generating awareness and alertness among the public to secure tip-offs, and to solicit support for the legislation introduced.[23]

In any case, the most substantial discursive campaign was waged in the religious domain. On October 21, 2014, the National Fatwa Council released a fatwa (religious edict) to discourage Malaysians from fighting in the name of IS, claiming that doing so is misunderstanding the concept of syahid (martyrdom) and jihad.[24] The Council also blacklisted the organization to make it haram (forbidden act) for Malaysian Muslims to join IS, while the Minister in charge of Religious Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department declared that those who died fighting for IS were not martyrs, and “their deaths are futile.”[25] The federal unit in charge of Islamic affairs, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), was quick to follow up with an “all-out war,” issuing multiple khutbahs (sermons for congregation of Friday prayers) to discuss the issue, and also started monitoring “all religious schools, religious education in mosques and religious talks.”[26]

The most concerted effort by the state to mount a discursive challenge on IS’s emotive and ideological appeal was to challenge the militant’s interpretation of the term “jihad.” A six-agency Jihad Concept Explanation Action Committee was formed, with policy actions targeted at schools, mosques and the cyberspaces to explain “correct” jihad and curbing misinterpretation.[27] The effort also culminated in a mini-booklet titled Jihad dan konsepnya [Jihad and its concepts], which was co-published by JAKIM and the Prime Minister’s Department with collaboration from the Mufti Department of Federal Territories, Royal Malaysian Police, and the NSC on April 21, 2015.[28] As the title suggests, the multi-agency publication primarily focuses on the exegesis of jihad, using “correct” definitions of jihad  to depict the “wrongness” for Malaysian Muslims to embark on jihad in Syria,[29] or worse, doing so under the umbrage of IS.

Through analyzing materials from 2014 to 2015, one can observe a few recurring themes running through most of the discourses advanced against IS, revealing the uniformity, repetitiveness (sometimes in verbatim) and coherence in the state-sanctioned narrative employed. The themes are:

1. Those who went for jihad under IS have misunderstood the real meaning of jihad, which should not be confined to physical warfare but has a wider interpretation, including “gaining knowledge, strengthening the economy, abolish poverty, reinforce the unity of the ummah (Muslim community), resist temptations of desires and the devil, and ensure fulfilment in the current and afterlife.”[30]

2. Emphasis on the importance of moderation in Islam and the dangers of religious extremism to the country.[31]

3. The urging of Muslims to follow fiqh awlawiyyat (fiqh of priorities)[32] in their life, where priority should be given to dakwah, tarbiah (education), and economic development instead of partaking in armed jihad.[33]

4. IS is considered khawarij (exiters)[34] and Muslims should not be fooled by their propaganda.[35]

Nevertheless, by 2016, a gradual hardening of the discourse had taken place, with the narrative not only highlighting in detail the brutality of IS,[36] but also appealing to families to be mindful of the activities of their children and to aid the authorities in monitoring any suspicious activities. [37] This shift is unsurprising considering that the authorities stressed the urgency of the situation, claiming that IS’s doctrines were enjoying “a wide reach, especially among youths that were shallow in knowledge and naïve in global affairs.”[38]

Discussion: the Dilemma of “Islamic state versus the Islamic State”

The Malaysian state response towards IS can be summarized as a mixture of haphazardness and composure. The Prime Minister’s nonchalance in telling his party members to “be brave like ISIL fighters” was followed by a downpour of speeches, conferences, security measures, legislative responses and religious rulings against the entity.[39] On the domestic front, IS was proclaimed as the “biggest enemy” of the ruling party — the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — instead of the opposition, shedding light to the openly confrontational approach taken.[40] Nevertheless, the prominence of the subject was sustained not only by its domestic security implications, but also by an international political arena that saw “terror,” though nonetheless problematic,[41] embraced as a common, high-level agenda. From China to Saudi Arabia, anti-terrorism played its part as one of Malaysia’s key elements of diplomacy.[42]

Actions by state authorities straddled both secular legalism and theological excommunication. For instance, in the trial of a female suspect, her conviction under the penal code for the possession of 12 terrorism-related books relied on, inter alia, a cleric’s expert testimony of the books’ relation to terrorism.[43] This is unsurprising considering, as discussed above, there exists a statist, religiously-impregnated discursive economy that placed IS at the furthest end of the “wrong” Islamic spectrum. However, resorting to a religious discourse to rally the fight against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” puts the Malaysian state in a bind, as years of state-led Islamization also saw itself, whether consciously or otherwise, pursuing an “Islamic state” agenda on both rhetorical and institutional grounds alike.[44]

The official responses to IS have resulted in an “Islamic state versus Islamic State” dilemma, where the Malaysian state has had to differentiate, but take care not to disown, a discursive ideal it has also claimed for itself, especially after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed’s shocking claim in 2001 that Malaysia “was already an ‘Islamic state.”[45] The avoidance of tackling the eponymous group by its name — seen in the titular shift from IS towards Daesh in statist discourses — suggests a discursive intimacy that needs to be navigated as both the state and its radical other now share a common vocabulary, audience and emotional appeal.[46] While illegality forms the basis of the state’s rather successful operational dimension, the discursive dimension is, by contrast, centered around IS’s “unIslamic-ness.” A corollary of this discursive strategy is that the Malaysian state has to also redefine and reassert its own “Islamic-ness” for an audience that showed considerable support to the “Islamic” state, at least as a discursive, if not ideological ideal.[47] It would have to refute accusations from the radicals and demonstrate that it is neither a toghut (tyrannical) regime nor a secular one,[48] despite the fact that there is no indication that such labelling by itself is a determinant of radicalization for an overwhelming majority of Malaysians.

The purity demanded of such the “Islamic state” ideal, while often paid lip service by leaders of postcolonial Muslim states, including Malaysia, were difficult to achieve for historical, pragmatic or demographic reasons.[49] Hence, such claims by incumbent regimes are constantly contested, predominantly by mainstream Islamist parties and movements in the democratic process and the larger public discourse. The long-running rivalry between UMNO and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), though not without intermissions, is the living witness of such contention. Ambivalence as such, when coupled with a statist narrative that contends, recasts, and outcasts militancy on religious grounds instead of its criminality, undermines the authorities’ effort to police Muslim thought for it is a space the Malaysian state has no total control, nor any homogenized opinion over. The controversy seen after a renowned Muslim scholar’s thoughts were claimed by the police to be influential in radicalization is a good example.[50]

As counter-narratives were often vaunted as an important strategy to combat IS’s influence,[51] an effective discursive strategy, among others, would inadvertently have to critically address the complex and sometimes conflicting relationship between territorial nation-states and a deterritorialized form of religiously-denominated statehood that is sustained as much by a radical imagination as it is by the cyberspace.[52] Cornering the discourse into a binary of “right” or “wrong” Islam may only further problematize the legitimacy of states, not to mention perceptions of Islam. Imagination is required of policymakers and scholars to look beyond the grotesque violence and to consider IS, as some scholars suggest,[53] as a revolutionary nation (ideological) and state (territorial) building project (which arguably culminated in the Marawi seize) before any honest, introspective and serious discussion of the appeal, capacity, as well as the root causes for ideological germination of IS, can begin.

[1] Mohd Mizan Aslam, “The thirteen radical groups: preliminary research in understanding the evolution of militancy in Malaysia,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 14 (2009): 145-161.

[2] “Four Malaysians replace IS leader Wanndy in Syria: Report,” Today Online, May 15, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,

[3] Joseph Chinyong Liow, “Malaysia’s ISIS Conundrum,” Brookings Southeast Asia View, April 21, 2015, accessed July 15, 2017,

[4] Ahmad el-Muhammady, “Countering the Threats of Daesh in Malaysia,” in Beatrice Gorawantschy et al., eds., Countering Daesh Extremism: European and Asian Responses (Singapore: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2016): 113.

[5] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but still Dangerous,” ICG Asia Report N⁰63, 2003.

[6] “ISIS ‘planned to kidnap Najib,’” The Straits Times, March 9, 2016, accessed July 15, 2017,; and Farik Zolkepli, “Car bomb attack plan in Klang Valley foiled,” The Star Online, March 6, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,

[7] “IS issues kill order on Malaysian counter-terror chief,” The Malaysian Insight, June 24, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,….

[8] A rough count by mid-2017 alone has seen at least 30 Malaysians arrested for IS-related offenses.

[9] The ISA is a preventive detention law that was heavily used by the state to deal security threats (including but not limited to Islamist militants) until its official repeal in 2012. Its broad mandate, frequently associated with the detention of political dissidents, and the room for indefinite detention without trial made it a subject of intense controversy.

[10] Federal Government of Malaysia, White Paper on Handling the Threat of the Islamic State, 2014.

[11] The enactment of the SOSMA Act in 2012 is a replacement of the ISA. It allows for detention without trial of up to 28 days with a clause strongly prohibiting its use for political purposes.

[12] There are 20 terrorism-related offenses in the Malaysian Penal Code. See Section 130C-T.

[13] Hemananthani Sivanadam, Yuen Meikeng, Martin Carvalho, “Prevention of Terrorism, Special Measures Against Terrorism Bills tabled for first reading,” The Star Online, March 30, 2015, accessed July 15, 2017,

[14] Special Measures against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act 2015, 5.

[15] Section 38 of the National Security Council Act 2016, 27.

[16] Sumisha Naidu, “Malaysia Senate passes controversial security bill,” Channel News Asia, December 22, 2015, accessed July 15, 2017,….

[17] “Putrajaya’s new security law now gazetted without royal assent,” The Malay Mail Online, June 9, 2015, accessed July 15, 2017,

[18] “Malaysia’s anti-terror chief targeted by ISIS,” The Straits Times, June 24, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,

[19] “Malaysia to set up counter-terrorism police department,” The Straits Times, July 8, 2017 accessed July 15, 2017,

[20] In a parliamentary reply made in November 2016, the Home Minister pointed out that out of the 255 IS-related detentions made since 2013, about 121 were taken action under SOSMA, while only 13 were detained under POTA. A significant number of the detainees, a total of 64, were released, most likely due to the limited detention period prescribed under POTA. Nazura Ngah, Mohd Nasaruddin Parzi, Hazwan Faisal Mohamad, “255 individu terbabit Daesh ditahan sejak 2013,” Berita Harian Online, November 17, 2016, accessed July 15, 2017,

[21] “ISIS cell found smuggling weapons into Malaysia,” The Straits Times, May 5, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,

[22] “Malaysian soldier gets seven months’ jail for ISIS image on mobile phone,” The Straits Times, October 20, 2015, accessed July 15, 2017,

[23] Interview with Elina Noor, Director, Institute of Foreign Policy and Security Studies, Institute of Strategic & International Studies Malaysia. January 11, 2016.

[24] National Fatwa Council, “Isu Umat Islam Malaysia Yang Berjuang Atas Nama ISIS” (the issue of Malaysians fighting in the name of ISIS), October 21, 2014.

[25] “Fatwa council blacklists Isis, says those killed not martyrs,” The Malaysian Insider (now defunct), October 24, 2014, accessed July 15, 2017,

[26] Hariati Azizan, “Jakim in all-out war against IS,” The Star Online, April 19, 2015, accessed July 15, 2017,

[27] The six agencies are the Home Ministry’s Malaysian Civil Defence Department, Prime Minister Department’s NSC, Royal Malaysian Police, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM), Al-Hijrah Media Corp and Institute of Islamic Strategic Research Malaysia (IKSIM).

[28] JAKIM and Prime Minister’s Department, Malaysia, Jihad and its concepts, 2015.

[29] The publication has a section dedicated to what religious clerics around the world has to say about jihad in Syria, see ibid, pp. 8-10.

[30] See JAKIM, “Memahami makna jihad” (Understanding the meaning of jihad), khutbah dated October 31, 2014; “Hakikat jihad” (the reality of jihad), khutbah dated February 13, 2015.

[31] See JAKIM, “‘Hakikat jihad’ and The Dangers of Religious Extremism (in English),” khutbah dated February 27, 2015.

[32] Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) of Priorities is a concept raised by renowned Egyptian Islamic theologian, Yusuf al-Qardhawi. Qardhawi believes that the rules of Shariah dictates that Muslims should be “putting everything in true perspective; no prominent issue should be postponed, and no minor issue should be given prominence; no big matter should be underestimated, and no small matter should be exaggerated.” Such matters of priority of the “Islamic Movement,” in Qaradawi’s opinion, refer to the deepening of the intellectual field, spreading the call of Islam through dakwah, nurturing of faith and thought through education, and the development of ideas and practices relevant to local and global development, to break “the Movement's domestic isolation and external blockade and ensure its universality and flexibility in the political field.” See Yusuf al-Qardhawi, Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase (Swansea: Awakening Publications, 1990) 11, 21.

[33] This is especially observed in the early stage of JAKIM’s responses. Of the six khutbahs collected up until December 31, 2015 that mentioned IS, four of them brought up the importance of fiqh awlawiyyat.

[34] The khawarij is a sect that emerged out of the first civil war of Islam between 656 and 661 C.E., where a group of Caliph ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib’s supporters rejected his caliphate and branded him as an apostate after ‘Ali agreed to arbitration with his rival, Muawiyah I, to decide on the succession to the Caliphate following the Battle of Siffin (657). The sect was known for their violent methods and their labelling other Muslims as takfiris. See Mohammad A.Abderrazzaq, “Khawarij and Ibaddiyya,” in Peter N.Steams, ed., Oxford Dictionary of the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press online edition, 2008).

[35] See National Fatwa Council, “Isu Umat Islam Malaysia Yang Berjuang Atas Nama ISIS”; JAKIM and Prime Minister’s Department, Malaysia, Jihad and its concepts,11-19.

[36] JAKIM, “Gelap dalam Suluhan Cahaya” (Darkness in light), khutbah dated January 29, 2016.

[37] JAKIM, “Cintai keamanan bencikan keganasan” (Loving peace by shunning terrorism), khutbah dated August 12, 2016.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Melissa Chi, “Be brave like ISIL fighters, Najib tells Umno,” The Malay Mail Online, June 23, 2014, accessed July 15, 2017,

[40] “Terrorism is Umno’s biggest enemy, says Hishammuddin,” The Malaysian Insight, July 9, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,

[41] Tatik S. Hafidz, “A Long Row to Hoe: A Critical Assessment of ASEAN Cooperation on Counter- Terrorism,” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia 11 (2009), accessed July 15, 2017,

[42] See Prashanth Parameswaran, “Malaysia, Saudi Arabia step up terror fight,” The Diplomat, March 3, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,; and “Malaysia, China set up high-level defence cooperation committee,” Channel News Asia, April 23, 2017, accessed July 15, 2017,

[43] Transcript of high court judgement for case Public Prosecutor vs Siti Noor Aishah binti Atam.

[44] See Joseph Chinyong Liow, Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[45] Patricia A.Martinez, “The Islamic State of the State of Islam in Malaysia,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 23, 3 (2001): 474–503.

[46] Which is also why IS addressed itself as daulah Islamiyah and the khilafa in the Malay speaking world, for these terms while their meanings can be generic, their appeal are strongly rooted in religiosity and historicity.

[47] It is found that more than 70 percent of Malaysian Muslim youths wanted the Quran to replace the Federal Constitution. See Goethe Institut, Muslim Youth in Southeast Asia: Surveys in Indonesia and Malaysia (2011) 45.

[48] JAKIM, “Gelap dalam Suluhan Cahaya” (Darkness in light), khutbah dated January 29, 2016.

[49] Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[50] “Police stand by remarks on Ibn Taymiyyah,” Malaysia Dateline, August 13, 2016, accessed July 15, 2017,; and “There is no such influence,” The Star Online, August 28, 2016, accessed July 15, 2017,

[51] “Malaysia’s Counter-Messaging Centre to counter narratives of terrorists, extremists — DPM,” The Borneo Post, November 9, 2016, accessed July 15, 2017,

[52] It was reported 75 percent of IS supporters in Malaysia were recruited online. See Muhammad Haziq bin Jani, Urgent need to counter Malaysias 'Cyber-ISIS,' The Straits Times, March 29, 2016, accessed July 18, 2017,

[53] Stathis N. Kalyvas, “Is ISIS a Revolutionary Group and if Yes, What Are the Implications?” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, 4 (2015) 42­–47, accessed July 15, 2017,; and Scott Atran, “ISIS is a revolution,” (2015), accessed July 15, 2017,


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.