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Professor Clive S. Kessler
Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad went on television in mid-July, more than two weeks after members of the al-Ma’unah Islamist group had seized a substantial quantity of arms from a Territorial Army depot near Grik in northern Perak, and a week after he had promised not one but two commissions of enquiry into the embarrassing and also tragic incident. He offered a thoroughgoing exposé of the group’s background and a warning of the great dangers it posed.
The cost of the episode was heavy, not just to the reputation of the army, Ministry of Defence and the government. Two non-Muslim security personnel were killed in a gruesome manner. They had been taken hostage in a northern Perak fruit-orchard at Sauk near Grik, where the jihad-obsessed Islamist strike-force had retreated following its dramatic arms heist. But the cost in human lives could have been heavier, and the army acted with restraint. Government spokesmen suggested that the main target of the group was Dr Mahathir, his ruling Barisan Nasional cabinet and the members of the UMNO Supreme Council. This may have been their ultimate objective. But more immediately, it seems the arms were to have been used, following the pattern of recent Islamist vigilante action in Jakarta, to attack places of ‘sinful behaviour’ such as bars. Innocuously or ineptly launched, two grenades were found at a brewery near Kuala Lumpur.
What might have happened, as Dr Mahathir argues, is deeply worrying; far less dramatic, what did happen remains disquieting. A couple of weeks after the Selangor State Religious Affairs Department had provoked widespread disquiet by raiding bars where alcohol was served in the presence of Muslim patrons and entertainers, a radical insurgent Islamist group based in Klang, Selangor struck a blow far more serious than a bottle of beer or a risqué cabaret. Through perfect impersonation the Islamists began the crisis by staging a brilliant heist. Dismissively but also with grudging admiration, Defence Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak said it was Hollywood stuff.
The al-Ma’unah’s followers were security personnel, engineers, computer salesmen and accountants. Born of despair or alienation or receding economic optimism or growing religious disaffection, susceptibility to the appeals of these apocalyptically-inclined Islamist groups is clearly spreading from the margins to the mainstream: from the outcasts of development to those social elements who should be avid partisans of Dr Mahathir’s modernist Vision 2020. Riding a tsunami of complex resentment, pious revulsion against his ‘brave new world’ is now reaching the new and aspiring middle-class Malays.
More worrying to Dr Mahathir was a far more widespread disinclination among the Malaysian middle classes generally to give credence to his and the government’s explanation of the events near Grik. People were even suggesting, and being believed, that the government was behind the strangely half-cocked insurgency, and had even staged or manipulated events to their own advantage. Some news-hungry and characteristically conspiracy-alert Malaysians infer that, if it served the UMNO’s interests, then they and Dr Mahathir must have had a finger in events from the outset.
When all the mainstream news media are dominated by the government and serve as outlets for an unceasing flow of official pronouncements, people will ultimately be tempted to disbelieve the truth, even when it is told; or they will treat it with the scepticism and resistance born of an unrelenting onslaught of moralizing and cumulatively infantilizing government assertions. Over the last couple of years the Malaysian public has been subjected to a lot that has strained their credulity. Following the bizarre al-Ma’unah episode Dr Mahathir is now paying part of the price. People are disbelieving him, because, whatever its origins and nature, the episode did play into Dr Mahathir’s hands and served his government’s interests. Their own actions demonstrate that Dr Mahathir and his BN coalition are the defenders of moderation and intercommunal cooperation.
Similarly, on the Malay front, recent events have had positive effects for the government. In firm action, not mere words, Dr Mahathir and UMNO have moved to defend mainstream Islam against false belief and politically motivated sectional ambition. The al-Ma’unah episode provided the UMNO and Dr Mahathir with the opportunity, once again, in the face of a renewed Islamist challenge following the setback of the 1999 elections, to act decisively, and with the support and gratitude of sensible people, in defence of moderation and of moderate and modern Islam.
That movements such as al-Ma’unah can win active middle class Malay adherents, and that they can attract a more widespread passive sympathy from intelligent people, may be what is most worrying about Malaysia’s recent jihad crisis. Dr Mahathir worries that movements such as al-Ma’unah and public sympathy for its misguided enthusiasts may cause the slowing down, even the stalling, of Malaysia’s socioeconomic development. Some thoughtful Malaysians are asking the obverse question: whether the rise of al-Ma’unah and of sympathy for its aims among the less secure elements of new Malay middle class is itself not a symptom of a long-term slowdown or reversal in economic growth; and of a consequent lowering or frustration of marginal middle-class social expectations and ambitions as the nation’s continuing post-1997 economic crisis unfolds.
WATCHPOINT: Continuing political tensions with the UMNO, persistent disputes over national economic recovery policies, and politically potent religious opposition and disaffection are likely to continue.
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