Killing draws Malaysia deeper into Middle East conflicts
Suspected Hamas member's assassination in Kuala Lumpur underscores how deeply - and dangerously - Malaysia is entrenched in region's politics and wars
Fingers are being pointed in multiple directions following the murder of a Palestinian man in Malaysia over the weekend.
Fadi al-Batsh, an engineering lecturer at a local university, was shot dead by two unidentified gunmen on Saturday as he walked to morning prayers in the Malaysian capital. Ten shots were reportedly fired at al-Batsch, killing him instantly, before the assailants fled on motorbike.
It seems almost certain that al-Batsch was a member of Hamas, a political party that since 2007 has governed the Gaza Strip, one of the two Palestinian territories. Numerous governments, including America and the European Union, consider Hamas a terrorist organization for its attacks on Israeli civilians.
Hamas has said that al-Batsch was a “loyal” member, while international media speculated that his funeral service in Gaza, which was attended by members of Hamas’ armed wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, suggests he could have been a commander within the military force.
Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, has claimed that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, was behind the assassination of Palestinian scientists in foreign countries in the past. He suggested that al-Batsch was another likely victim of Mossad.
This was somewhat supported by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who has said that the suspects are thought to be European-looking and have connections to a foreign intelligence agency. He added that al-Batsch was a “liability for a country that is an enemy of Palestine,” namely Israel.
Israel has denied any responsibility for the murder, as it has done in the past, suggesting instead that al-Batsch was killed because of factional disputes among Palestinian organizations, which have sparred with one another for almost a decade.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman also claimed that Al-Batsch had been chiefly working on how to improve the accuracy of rockets for Palestinian militants, which are routinely fired into Israel.
Regardless of who committed the murder, Malaysia now has been thrust into one of the world’s most entrenched conflicts, the repercussions of which could be significant. This comes as Middle Eastern affairs are now increasingly looking less distant from Malaysia.
For years, Malaysia has tried hard to take a conciliatory yet not aloof approach to the ongoing conflicts across the region, though not always successfully.
Last year, questions were raised about the role Malaysian troops were playing in the ongoing Yemeni conflict, a domestic political struggle that many analysts now consider to be a sectarian proxy war between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran. The vast majority of Muslims in Malaysia are Sunni.
A report last year by Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based news outlet, claimed that Malaysians were fighting with the Saudi-led coalition, as were American, British and French troops.
But Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein subsequently stated that Malaysian troops were only engaged in training exercises with Saudi forces and only helping to evacuate Malaysians from Yemen, adding that the country’s troops had not taken part in any military operations.
Another concern for Malaysia is that Islamic State (ISIS) forces continue losing ground in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of Malaysians are believed to have fought for ISIS in Syria or Iraq, while many wannabee fighters turned away from the Middle East have traveled instead to Malaysia, a potential “dumping ground “ for jihadists, local media reported last year.
Last month, local authorities arrested six ISIS-linked individuals, including two Malaysians, who were allegedly plotting terrorist attacks on non-Muslim places of worship. Last week, the police said they were still hunting another four militants, three Malaysians and one Thai, believed to be part of the same terrorist cell.
While some commentators think it is only inevitable that jihadists will try to establish bases in other Muslim-majority nations like Malaysia, now that ISIS-held territory in the Middle East is fading, some reckon that Malaysia’s close ties to Saudi Arabia is exacerbating the problem.
The government’s decision last year to allow for the construction of the King Salman Center for International Peace, an antiterrorism center sponsored by Saudi Arabia, would tempt even more ISIS fighters to attack Malaysia, Raja Bahrin Shah, an MP for Amanah, a “progressive” Islamist opposition party, claimed at the time.
Though the connection between the antiterrorism center and potential terror attacks is negligible at best, some analysts think that Malaysia’s historic ties to Saudi Arabia are problematic for other reasons.
On a visit to Malaysia in September, the United Nations Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune said that the increasing influence of doctrinaire religious authorities over domestic politics was likely because of “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula.”
Concerns about growing conservatism of Islam in Malaysia have been expressed for years. Many analysts say the reason is the increased number of Saudi-trained Islamic scholars who are now part of the religious establishment, as well as the spread of Wahhabism, a literalist interpretation of Islam.
The trend is exacerbated by a political arena cleaved between race and religion. Next month’s general election pits the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (Umno) and its dominant coalition against the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance, now steered by the equally Malay-centric Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM).
Incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak is always keen to stress that Malaysia takes a humanitarian, not sectarian, approach to problems in the Middle East and elsewhere. He has, for example, been one of the loudest voices when it comes to protecting the Muslim Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled from Myanmar following atrocities committed by the military which some consider genocide.
Malaysia has also stressed a humanitarian solution, rather than taking a divisive stand with rival factions, to the Syrian conflict. This month, the government expressed disappointment after the UN Security Council failed to reach an accord over how to solve the war, which has now been raging for seven years.
In a statement, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was “deeply concerned” about the recent use of chemical weapons against civilians, conducted by the Bashar Assad regime and supported by its Russian backers, as well as the later retaliatory airstrikes by America and European nations.
“Malaysia believes that no military solution can bring an end to the conflict in Syria. We urge all parties involved to find a political solution through dialogue and negotiations,” the statement added.
But the recent murder of a Palestinian in Kuala Lumpur poses no such problems of allegiance for Malaysian authorities. Malaysia still does not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel and has long sided with Palestinian leaders whenever possible.
Najib became the first Malaysian premier to visit Palestinian territory in early 2013, where he stated that he wants to see “an independent, unified Palestine.” And he played an active role in the large protests that took place in Malaysia last year after US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But, as political analysts note, Malaysia has always been careful to avoid engaging itself in Palestine’s sectarian disputes. Conflict between the two main Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fataḥ, erupted in the mid-2000s over governance of territories, which has become known as the Palestinian Civil War.
The factions still war for control of certain sections in Palestinian territory, despite a reconciliation agreement signed late last year.
Humanitarian and religious loyalty is one reason for Malaysia’s amicable stance with Palestinian authorities. Another likely reason is the fact that anti-Semitism is well established in Malaysia, despite officially not having any Jews within the country. The Anti-Defamation League, an America-based anti-racist organization, asserted in 2014 that more than 60% of Malaysians hold anti-Semitic beliefs.
Ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, now the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition coalition at next month’s general election, was notorious for his anti-Jewish spiel when in office.
In Malaysian bookshops it isn’t difficult to find a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf or a local language version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, arguably the most toxic of anti-Semitic texts. In its literature, Hamas borrows heavily from both the Nazi cannon and quotes at length from the Protocols.
So far, no political party has tried making political capital from the Palestinian’s murder in Kuala Lumpur. But with Malaysia’s general election set one week before Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary of independence – or the occasion when it expelled 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War – either side would likely win support by burnishing their pro-Palestine credentials.