In a quiet office of Kebangsaan University, Kamarulnizam Abdullah holds court amid his books and thoughts. He’s a dignified man, a Muslim who loathes the concept of revenge and is instead inclined toward reconciliation. He believes terrorists can and must be rehabilitated.
It’s not a calculated argument designed to upset those whose lives were forever changed by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington a decade ago – or those who have suffered from the seemingly indiscriminate bombing campaigns that followed across Southeast Asia.
As Associate Professor of Strategic Studies and International Relations at the university, Abdullah is also a supporter of Malaysia’s controversial Internal Security Act (ISA), which gives counter-terrorism authorities the power to detain suspects for as long as they see fit.
That power, combined with a dedication to rehabilitate, would, Abdullah insists, turn Islamic militants away from the mantra of terrorism and ease them back into mainstream society.
‘The ISA isn’t about “correcting procedures” but a rehabilitation process,’ he says. ‘Its major objective is not to change one’s belief, but to disengage those who are involved with militant activities by changing their radical behaviour, perception, and attitude.’
Of the 75 former militants associated with regional terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Darul Islam (DI) and al-Qaeda who underwent psychological ‘healing’ at the Kemunting Camp in the northern state of Perak, none have re-offended.
‘It’s an attempt to bring back ex-militants to embrace mainstream values,’ Abdullah says.
There was no coherent policy by the Association of South East Asian Nations in the aftermath of 9/11. Each country produced its own response based on its own internal demands and foreign policy, particularly in regards to the United States. This was despite the region emerging as the second front in a global war against Islamic militancy. JI held close ties with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and went on an unprecedented bombing spree in the name of Allah.
Indonesia was slow to respond, but its brutal capture or kill motto gained momentum and succeeded in nailing all of JI’s major players. Singapore adopted a similarly tough stance.
However, Thailand dithered and has proved incapable of dealing with a Muslim rebellion in its south. This was not unlike the Philippines, where JI strongholds have been weeded out thanks largely to US help, but where local militias like the Abu Sayyaf remain a vicious problem.
Cambodia ousted Saudi missionaries who were converting its moderate Muslim Cham community to hard-line Wahhabism while enlisting financial and logistic support from the United States, which dramatically improved relations with local Muslims.
In Malaysia, ISA and its powers of detention are widely loathed as anathema to democracy and they are seen as a legacy of this country’s colonial past. Despite this, the approach has proven a comfortable fit with a policy rehabilitation built around religious discourse, dialogue and counselling of militants by security and religious authorities.
Some may consider that soft. But 10 years after 9/11, many countries are still grappling with Islamic militancy, while Malaysia – with its Muslim majority and mix of Hindu, Buddhists and Christians – has fared comparatively well.