The Continuing Threat of Extremist Islam in Southeast Asia

Review by Animesh Roul (November 10, 2022): Islamist terrorism is not a novel phenomenon in the Southeast Asian region and can be traced to a myriad of indigenous and transnational factors. From the Bali bombing (2002) in Indonesia by Al Qaeda and its regional affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah to the siege of Marawi (2017) by Islamic State (IS) linked to local groups in the Philippines, Islamist violence in Southeast Asia has come a long way in the last couple of decades. Two broader categorizations often dominate the academic and policy discourse. One is based on aspirations and local grievances against oppressive regimes, and the other is based on the ambition of building a regional or global Islamic Caliphate. With their Salafist and Wahhabist ideals, transnational jihadist movements like al-Qaeda and IS have harnessed and influenced existing ethnic-separatist and Islamist movements and, to a larger extent, co-opted domestic radical Islamist movements which have broadly impacted Southeast Asian nations. With relatively similar goals, both groups have spearheaded jihadist movements across the world to establish the supremacy of Islam (Caliphate) by opposing modern and secular influences in Muslim countries.

Kumar Ramakrishna’s book chapter, ‘The Continuing Threat of Extremist Islam in Southeast Asia’, in Extremist Islam: Recognition and Response in Southeast Asia (OUP, 2022), sheds light on the second and most dangerous factor — the growing phenomenon of religious (Islamist) extremism and its ideological ecosystem that has nurtured and sustained the movement in Southeast Asia for decades. In the author’s words, the book “challenges misguided and controversial notions that depict Islam as an inherently violent religion, arguing that the theological-ideological amalgam of what has been called ‘Salafabism’ is the more useful lens for recognizing closed-minded extremist currents.”

The ‘Salafabism’ Phenomenon

The pervasive influence of puritanical Islam has pushed radicalized and vulnerable sections of society into the world of violent extremism. The book is based on an established, albeit debatable, concept termed by the author as ‘Salafabism’ — a hybrid term comprising two dominant strains of puritanical Islam, Wahhabism and Salafism. The bonding of these dominant theologies that produced this contemporary orientation takes everything ‘Islamic’ to the extreme. This hybrid term was originally coined, developed and popularized in the early 2000s by Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl. Later, it was examined in depth by sociologists like Riaz Hasan, for example, who began studying the phenomenon in Muslim-dominated countries in Central and South Asia.

According to Abou El Fadl, the ‘adherents of Salafabism are no longer concerned with co-opting or claiming Western institutions as their own. Under the guise of reclaiming the true and real Islam, they define Islam as the exact antithesis of the West.’ He pointed out how Salafabists have adopted rigid and irrational approaches. However, critics of Abou El Fadl argue over the lack of empirical evidence documenting the pervasiveness of Salafabism in the contemporary Muslim world.

Anti-West Sentiment

Like Hasan’s sociological investigative work on the subject, Kumar’s attempt to explore and examine ‘anti-West’ and ‘anti-modern’ Salafabism within the Southeast Asian jihadist and extremist milieu would help bring back the debate on how this Salafist and Wahhabist amalgam has hijacked Islam and whether or not the remaining traditional Islamic institutions can stand up to the ‘uncompromisingly’ fanatic Islamist ecosystem. Nevertheless, the book documents and proves the robust existence of Salafabism in the region and how it finds a way into the religious consciousness of modern-day Muslims in Southeast Asia.

Comprising seven chapters, the book discusses, among conceptual narratives, extremist Islam in Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Philippines and Indonesia and four ‘Salafabist’ ideologues, both nonviolent and violent actors, at length. He examines how radicalism and extremism are part of the more significant issue of religious fundamentalism. According to the author, open-minded radicalism can be accommodated, and close-minded extremism is inherently more predisposed to violence and danger. While exploring the ‘Salafabist’ ecosystem that exists in Southeast Asian countries, the author examines four Islamist ideologues who are part of this ecosystem and adhered to this hybrid orientation: Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff (Singapore-Pro-ISIS), Wan Min Wan Mat (Jemaah Islamiyah, Malaysia), Abu Hamdie (Abu Sayyaf Group, the Philippines) and, Aman Abdurrahman (Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, Indonesia). The author examines the ecosystem with three identified nodes comprising persons (Influencers), places (physical and virtual interfaces) and platforms (publishing houses, web portals) within which the Salafabist orientation tends to culminate.

An Alternative Narrative

In the end, Kumar prescribes a strategy of an alternative narrative to counter the extremist ecosystem effectively in four ways (4M Way): Message content, Message framing, Message dissemination and Message receptivity to dominate the competing Salafabist narratives. To achieve this, the author argues for the effective deployment of this strategy, which should remain at the core of the ‘whole-of-society’ approach to influence the vulnerable Muslim population to move away from a rigid puritanical ecosystem towards tolerant Islamic values and practices.

While the author somewhat successfully knitted his ideas and decades-long research using sociology, psychology, theology, and philosophy into one book, his attempt to explain the concept of Salafabism is somewhat confusing. For any non-expert, understanding terms like soft or nonviolent vs. violent or hard Salafabism is challenging for general readers and may not be helpful for security or political establishments, especially in differentiating between the ‘soft and hard’ adherents. This seems like the same ‘good vs bad’ or moderate vs extremist trapping that the world experienced with the Taliban and Muslim Brotherhood movements. However, the book contains and rightly clarifies most of the familiar yet unclear concepts and loosely used terminology associated with Islamist terrorism and violence.

Rigorous Research

For those familiar with the author’s works on the subject, this book seems to be a logical culmination of Kumar’s years-long rigorous research on Islamist ideology and ideologues, as he aptly acknowledges in the book’s pages. Kumar’s earlier works, especially on counterterrorism, primarily focus on the Islamist ideology behind terrorism in the region (and beyond) and the ideologue-driven jihadist networks in Southeast Asia.

Interestingly, Kumar briefly interacted with one of his subjects, Zulfikar, in March 2003, at Monash University in Melbourne. However, while dealing with Islamism and violence in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and (South) Philippines, the author skips South Thailand’s vexed Islamist insurgency. Perhaps the decades-long separatist movement in Thailand could remain distinct for its local character and, until now, has been immune to infiltration from global jihadist ideologies. This could be attributed to the absence of an ideologue with a Salafabist mindset in the Thai insurgency, which could inspire violence in the name of jihad or establish a caliphate, like the other case studies mentioned in his book.

This book also sheds light on the author’s interest in exploring other forms of religious extremism and their features (e.g. he briefly discussed the nascent Buddhist extremism in Myanmar in the book) as he explored seven of the core characteristics (identity supremacy, hate speech, political ambition etc.) of the religious extremist in this context. While a little blurred and seemingly out of place, the author incorporates Buddhist religious extremism into the otherwise well-focused book on Islamist Salafabism in Southeast Asia.


While diving deep into the root causes of Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia, Kumar offers a strategy for effective counterterrorist measures by looking at regional and cultural dynamics. The author also dedicated the last few pages of the book to discuss the example of the (Islamist) Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamist political party in Indonesia which was heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood movement earlier, now transformed into a Nationalist Islamist party. To conclude, the book is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding the dynamics of the Southeast Asian Islamist landscape and the hybrid ideological ecosystem that exists to foment jihad and violence in the region and beyond.

ANIMESH ROUL, Executive Director, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi. This book review was originally published in the European Eye on Radicalization on November 10, 2022.