It is encouraging that the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has generally reduced since 2014. Yet, the violent events that continue to occur indicate that we are far from solving the phenomenon of extremism. What makes matters worse is that perpetrators are constantly changing their modus operandi to incorporate the latest technological advancements, establish a virtually limitless support base, cause maximum damage, and avoid detection.
To effectively prevent violent extremism, we need to understand where it starts. One of the many ways in which extremism grows is from the seeds of hatred sowed and nurtured.
In the Malaysian context, the main platforms where hate speech (HS) is observed are:
1) social media,
2) mass media such as news outlets, television etc; and
3) political communication.
This is particularly concerning because these are platforms which we use every single day –and so there is constant exposure to HS that may slowly and insidiously influence minds towards extremism.
This is supported by data which highlights that 83 per cent of militant detainees charged under anti-terrorism laws relied on social media platforms to access materials and establish virtual networking with like-minded individuals.
Race, religion and nationality
In Malaysia, the dominant themes of HS are race, religion, and nationality. These three main issues have the potential to provoke and incite the public towards intolerance, hatred, and extremism. In some instances, it has resulted in physical manifestations of violence, such as the bombing of a Puchong nightclub in 2016, a senseless tragedy which remains the worst act of terrorism committed on Malaysian soil to date.
Due to our history of dealing with communist insurgencies, the racial riots of 1969 and other events of a violent nature, the government has implemented a very cautious approach to balance fundamental liberties with the rights of the people to be protected from harm. To date, we have approximately 14 different laws which can be used to limit freedom of expression –and this applies to hate speech as well. Despite these laws, our legal framework to address HS has weaknesses, particularly the lack of a clear definition. This may result in many instances of “hate speech” being cast under the grey area of these laws – some of which may not necessarily need legal intervention and restriction. In addition, the lack of consensus as to what hate speech is has made it very challenging to detect, monitor and address hate speech.
How can we adequately tackle a problem when there is so much disagreement as to what constitutes hate speech, to begin with? It would be as futile as shooting in the dark – we are more than likely to miss our aim and may cause even further damage in the process.
When I propose a specific law on HS, it is not to add an arbitrary restriction on freedom of expression. Rather, it should aim to provide a higher standard of what falls under HS to avoid abuse of process. The law-making process must also factor in widespread consultation with experts from various backgrounds, affiliations, and organisations – including victims of hate speech. In addition, hate speech laws should also be enacted with the aim of reconciliation instead of merely punitive measures. This may help prevent future instances of hate speech instead of relying on the enforcement of laws and the threat of punishment. But legal reforms take time and political will to succeed. This means important work to prevent HS and violent extremism must continue in the meantime.
Addressing current weaknesses
First, we need to identify and address current weaknesses. The lack of clarity in the national and legal framework, impractical goals, emphasis on the FORM as opposed to the SUBSTANCE, and the need for results NOW can be counterproductive in PVE. Good things and lasting change take time and thus PVE initiatives MUST focus on the long-term goals. As such, utmost care, consideration, and collective deliberation must go into the planning and execution of PVE initiatives to ensure we
1) identify root causes
2) address pre-existing grievances, and
3) identify and adapt to developing challenges.
In addition, PVE initiatives must be presented in a way that would increase engagement and positive reception by the public. We must not target a particular group due to perceptions that extremism is a problem specific to them as opposed to others. Usage of terms and language used must be accurate and sensitive to the context. For example, the commonly used term “Islamic Extremism” or “Extremist Islam” is problematic on many levels. Semantically, it suggests that Islam has elements of extremism or, worse yet, Islam is SYNONYMOUS with extremism. This is wrong because Islam is one and is the middle way; extremists are not accepted by Islam and are rejected by Muslims who hold onto true Islamic teachings.
Thus, continued usage of these terms may cause Muslims to feel discriminated against as “perpetrators of extremism” and lead to a higher chance of them rejecting PVE initiatives due to distrust and suspicion, despite the good intentions in implementing them. For example, research has identified that many Muslim Americans feel that police outreach and community engagement efforts are disguised as surveillance tactics that unfairly target them. This causes further stigmatisation which hampers efforts towards inclusivity and social cohesion.
That said, Malaysia has many notable efforts to prevent HS and violent extremism which should be acknowledged, supported, and continued. However, more can be done to come up with EARLY INTERVENTION METHODS. It is imperative to have a WHOLE-OF-SOCIETY approach that is well planned and executed to be RELATABLE and RELEVANT to the situation on the ground.
When this is done, PVE initiatives have a higher chance of being accepted by the wider public.
Prof Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud highlighted in his article “Containing Muslim Extremism and Radicalism” that we should avoid enforcing artificial unity by adopting a framework which may not be relatable, relevant, or suitable to the Malaysian people. Doing so may aggravate the problem by causing feelings of frustration, rejection and even radicalism. In contrast, we must emphasise awareness, advocacy and intervention methods that align with LOCAL NEEDS which are RELEVANT TO OUR CONTEXT. We can diffuse hatred with positive, persuasive methods which emphasise SHARED VALUES of the Malaysian community. We are all from diverse and different backgrounds, but we MUST come together because a united Malaysia is, indeed, worth fighting for.
Dr Murni Wan Mohd Nor is Senior lecturer with the Department of Government and Civilisational Studies, Faculty of Human Ecology, & Research Associate of IPSAS (UPM).