OUR diaspora now includes a small number of Malaysians who are leaving their families to take up arms in Syria. Why?
In a riveting new video report, “The Jihadist in Our Family,” Malaysian journalist Poh Si Teng, who works for the New York Times, does the important work of trying to answer this.
She spent two days last October in Kuala Ketil, Kedah, talking to family members of Mohd Lofti Ariffin, who died fighting in Syria last year. The scenes of rural Malaysia are both familiar and deeply discomfiting. In one scene, a teenage boy in a white turban declares in a matter-of-fact voice: “If we want to go to heaven, we must die an honorable death. One of the easiest ways is to die a martyr. Personally, I would like to die a martyr.”
Outstation talked to Poh Si about her video, posted on the New York Times website January 14.
Was it hard to get the family to talk to you?
Initially, they were quite suspicious. Who wouldn’t be? Their family member just died in Syria and it was all over local media. They were afraid that if they spoke, they might get in trouble with the police.
How did you get over that hump?
I had a long discussion with Lofti’s brother Zainon about how he wanted his brother to be remembered, how he remembered his brother. Zainon was someone you could have a long philosophical discussion with, be it on Islam or the collective victimization of Muslims. At some point, he said: You’re non-believer. But since you seem sincere in wanting to know about my brother, I will tell you.
What was your conclusion on why Malaysians are getting swept up in waging a war far from home?
Social media has changed the game. As Ayob Khan, who heads counter-terrorism in Malaysia says, it’s so much easier now to go and join militant groups abroad. Social media has also made collective victimization a lot more powerful. And people who aren’t necessarily fulfilled in their current situation will search for a cause – they will look for a narrative to fulfill their aspirations.
Did you get any numbers on how many Malaysians have gone off on jihad?
65 people have been arrested so far in Malaysia in connection with Syrian militant groups, 53 Malaysians and 12 Indonesians. 23 have been charged.