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Malaysian moviemakers highlight ‘collateral damage’ in fight against extremism

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KUALA LUMPURL Kneeling on a prayer rug, Wardah, a Malaysian woman, recites prayers to soothe her wounded soul. The camera closes in on her fingers tracing phrases on the pages of the Quran she is holding. The woman seems to struggle for a moment. To this mother of three, the holy book of Islam is both an instrument of salvation, and the very reason her family has been shattered.

The story of Wardah, was formerly married to a Malaysian man who turned out to be involved with the militant Islamic State group in the Middle East, is the focus of “Perempuan Radikal” (radical woman). Part documentary film, part animation by artist Arif Rafhan, the new movie was directed by Nora Nabila and produced by Fat Bidin Media in Kuala Lumpur.

Mostly narrated by Wardah, who conceals her face behind a naqab (the Islamic veil), “Perempuan Radikal” is the first in a series of three documentaries and two hyperlocal or locally focused YouTube channels directed at the Malaysian states of Kelantan and Sabah, whose borderlands remain fertile grounds for cross-border Islamic extremism. The films and digital content are produced in cooperation with the nonprofit international development organization The Asia Foundation, with the aim of raising awareness and counter violent extremism in the region.

For example, the next documentary in the series, “Oretulo,” will examine the long-standing separatist insurgency in Thailand’s southern Islamic provinces that border the conservative Malaysian state of Kelantan. A third film will focus on the Lahad Datu standoff, a much-debated February 2013 incident when radicals from the Sulu islands in the southern Philippines occupied the village of Tanduo in Sabah to defend historic territorial claims, and resisted Malaysian forces for a month.

“Countering violent extremism content is still something very niche in Malaysia, but some content creators are already doing it subconsciously,” said Sheril A. Bustaman, who manages Fat Bidin Media along with her writer and filmmaker husband Zan Azlee. “But there’s a misconception that [such] content must be directly conflict-related.”

Bustaman’s goal is to train young local directors, journalists and content creators to avoid the sensationalism that often accompanies mainstream media coverage of suicide bombings and attacks, and to look at these issues through other perspectives. That is the concept behind “Perempuan Radikal,” a film that, rather than focusing on Wardah’s terrorist husband, presents a tragic family story through her perspective as an unsuspecting victim.

“I don’t think these topics are sidelined but are just presented in a very methodical or statistical manner that makes them impersonal to the public,” said Bustaman. “That’s why we strive to train creators to tell stories from a human perspective for emotional and personal appeal.”

After the documentaries are premiered on the national cable news channel Astro Awani, they will be shown at public universities around Malaysia from mid-2022. The producers are now negotiating for international distribution, but with their focus on cross-border conflicts between Malaysia and Thailand, and the ever-porous sea frontier separating Sabah from the southern Philippines, the producers see great potential to impress and educate Southeast Asian viewers.

According to director Nora Nabila, it was initially difficult to get Wardah to open up about her personal saga, primarily because Islamic terrorism is considered one of the most serious social stigmas among most Malaysian Muslims.

“We asked for Wardah’s help to get an interview with any of her family members or her best friend, but it wasn’t easy because of the perception of [Islamic-based] terrorism in Malaysian society, and the stigma you need to endure once you are exposing your affiliation with any member of your family who is related to a terrorist organization,” she said.

But Wardah understood the importance of Fat Bidin Media’s initiative and agreed to participate and help the filmmakers on condition that her identity would be concealed.

“Perempuan Radikal” stands as a remarkable cinematic record of the journey of a Muslim woman antihero who loses her freedom, work and social life after marriage — a common fate for many married women in the patriarchal traditions of Malay Muslim society. But then her world turned upside down when armed police appeared at the family’s door at dawn one day, announcing the sudden arrest of her husband. With no support and three children to care for, and in a state of shock, Wardah seriously thought of taking her own life.   

Women like Wardah are “collateral damage to terrorist organizations,” said Nora. “They are mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters who are clueless about their male family members’ involvement in terrorist activities, but are the ones who suffer the most, facing the stigma of society.”

Thankfully, Islamic terrorist groups attract relatively few sympathizers in Malaysia. A 2018 regional survey by the Petaling Jaya-based research company Merdeka Center revealed that support for IS among Malaysian Muslims stood at around 5.2%. The number is slightly higher than in neighboring countries, but is also significantly lower than the 11% of Malaysian IS supporters reported by the Washington think tank Pew Research Center in 2015.

According to the Malaysian government-funded Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), Malaysians are mostly attracted to terrorist organizations through the Internet and Facebook groups or by befriending IS sympathizers who hunt for radical minds through the intimacy of smartphone screens over the less-policed messaging application Telegram.

“While the narrow and highly specific interpretation of Islam propagated by IS has resulted in the group being rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Malaysia, their adept and savvy use of social media has been able to leverage the privacy and intimacy afforded by such platforms to attract supporters and recruits not only from across the region but beyond,” said Asrul Daniel Ahmed, an analyst at SEARCCT.

SEARCCT collaborated with Fat Bidin Media on a 2020 YouTube series “Saya Bekas Ekstremis!” (I’m a former extremist), which featured interviews that Azlee conducted with religious extremists jailed under the country’s security and terrorism laws. Azlee had previously reported from Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan for Malaysia’s Astro Awani channel in 2013, and also published a graphic novel, “Adventures of a KL-ite in Afghanistan.”

Today the numbers of Malaysian and Southeast Asian IS supporters are dwindling, said Asrul. A 2017 report by the intelligence and security consultancy The Soufan Group suggested that up to 1,500 fighters from Southeast Asia had joined IS. Support is thought to have declined since the fall of the last IS bastion in Syria in 2019, when the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died in a U.S. raid.

However, the risk of continued terrorist-related violence remains real in Islamic Southeast Asia. In March 2021, the Malaysian police revealed that a year earlier they had foiled a plot by Islamic extremists to kill then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other leaders in his then-ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition government, including Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng.

In the same month, neighbouring Indonesia witnessed two terrorist attacks in the span of three days. The first was a March 28 suicide bombing that injured 20 at a cathedral in Makassar, South Sulawesi, by Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a terrorist group that pledged allegiance to IS. On March 31, IS-affiliated individuals attacked Jakarta’s police headquarters with guns.

“One of the ways [extremism exists in Southeast Asia] is by framing perceptions of injustices faced by Muslim communities, both real and imagined, to rouse and inflame the passions of a small but significant segment of our population into ill-advised action,” noted Asrul. “Another has been through narratives that prey on vulnerable individuals to make them believe that martyrdom is the last chance at redemption for a life full of sin.”

For Azlee, Malaysians are “a little bit more privileged and have the resources” to join IS, and members of Malaysian society in general largely feel like it is their responsibility to always defend Islam as a religion. “There isn’t much critical thinking of whether the methods of ‘defending’ the religion are right or wrong,” said Azlee.

But to many Malaysian women like Wardah, faith has deeper meanings than just defense. Despite the hardships she must endure because of Islamic extremism, “Perempuan Radikal” sees her rebuild her own life through re-examining her faith — an ultimate example of courageous, real-life counterextremism.

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