About 250 billion Muslims (15% of the global Muslim population) reside in Southeast Asia, mainly in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world (190 million residents). In contrast to the situation in the southern regions of the Philippines and Thailand, where separatist Islamist groups are wedging a war against the governments under the banner of Islam, Indonesian and Malaysian Islam coexists with democracy. Today, however, escalation of Islamization fanned by transnational terrorist organizations poses a threat to frail stability of secular regimes.
Influence of Daesh on the political development in these countries is visibly manifested in the accelerating extremism and increasing threat of terrorism. Its implicit impact is expressed in the growing role of Islamic radicalism in the political movement.
The fact that this terrorist group has a camp in the region, which is characterized by long-standing ties with international terrorist organizations, strong leaders ready to pledge allegiance to Caliphate, a social base receptive to radical ideals and great potential of growth if ISIS militants returning to their home countries begin a recruiting campaign there, puts the region at risk of proliferation of Daesh ideology. As Head of the Indonesian National Anti-terrorism Agency Ansyaad Mbai admits, “Our main concern is that we don’t know what today’s Daesh fighters will do once they return home. In 2016, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines already heard explosions. Terrorist attacks were prevented in Malaysia and Singapore, where, according to the country’s Minister of Home Affairs Mr. Shanmugam, the threat of terrorist attacks has reached “the highest level in recent decades.”
Forecasting the future of the region, local officials have to develop two scenarios. Number one if Daesh wins, and number two if it loses the fight in the Middle East. Regardless of which scenario proves accurate, Daesh will still be a major driver of the jihadist movement in SEA, thus exorcising the region to a greater terrorist threat.
So-called “Lone Wolves” (former Daesh militants or radical Muslims) inspired by the Daesh ideals are believed to be the most notorious agents of Daesh. They all support the Salafi ideology, reject the ideals of secular democratic regimes and will not hesitate if it comes to shedding blood for the sake of the Islamic Caliphate known as Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara they are trying to establish within the border of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and the Philippines. There aspirations overlap with Daesh desire to strengthen its positions in the region.
Although chances for the idea of Caliphate to ever materialize are rather illusive, the risk of rapid radicalization of the Southeast Asian Muslim community amidst spreading international terrorism remains high. Such development might have serious political implications for SEA Muslim countries, including a potential split of the society fueled by religious intolerance and destabilization of young democratic regimes.
The threat of radicalization of SEA Muslim countries, largely orchestrated by external forces, continues building up in the context of strengthening ideological and political position of conservative part of the Sunni community hostile to other religions and ethnic groups. The idea of tolerance embraced by moderate Islam in both Indonesia and Malaysia (despite both countries persecute representatives of Shia and other religious denominations), being a prerequisite for the existence of a secular state, is giving way to the enthusiastically promoted “exclusive Muslim identity” concepts.
SEA Muslim countries are on the verge of a political crisis entailing social divide, where one group would be supporting the constitutional secular government and the other would employ Islam to combat the ideals of pluralistic democratic states. In turn, proliferation of transnational terrorism exacerbates political and religious divide of the society. And taking in these countries root religious intolerance gives a cart blanche to the Daesh propaganda machine.
Natalya Rogozhina, Ph.D. in Political Science, senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“