by Sam Westrop Focus on Western Islamism
Under Islamist Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia now serves as a testing ground for the ideas and ambitions of a powerful American Islamist network based in Virginia. Ibrahim and his Western Islamist backers’ newfound power illustrates an important new trend: the flow of Islamist ideas is reversing direction. In stark contrast to the past, Islamists in the West are no longer reliant on foreign patrons, but are now themselves leading exporters of radicalism to the East.
In recent months, Prime Minister Ibrahim has spoken at a steady series of events concerning the threat of “Islamophobia” from the West. Ibrahim’s rhetoric on this issue is not just his own; the language and intellectual arguments around his pronouncements are identical to those advanced by an Islamist network led by the Virginia-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and its Malaysian offshoot, the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).
Indeed, both groups are a consistent presence within Ibrahim’s busy schedule. In February, for instance, the Prime Minister addressed an IIIT conference titled “International Forum on Islamophobia,” organized by the American Islamist organization “in collaboration with [Malaysia’s] Foreign Affairs Ministry and Prime Minister’s Department.”
At the event, Malaysian officials, alongside IIUM speakers, warned of the threat posed to Muslims by freedom of expression. The IIIT conference in February also served to launch a new book on Islamophobia within “popular culture,” written by a Western academic closely involved with both the IIUM and IIIT. The book, produced by a Turkish Islamist publisher controlled by IIIT, features an endorsement on its back from Ibrahim.
Not many prime ministers would be inclined to take time out of their schedules to organize or speak at events with foreign thinktanks about subjects far removed from the everyday concerns of their constituents. And yet this book launch was just one of half a dozen IIIT or IIUM events Ibrahim has spoken at since his appointment as prime minister just five months ago.
The IIUM-IIIT axis is the public face of a powerful close-knit Islamist network that now wields enormous political power. Ibrahim has been involved from the very start. He is, in fact, a founding figure within both institutions. Malaysia’s new prime minister, it seems, is also American Islamism’s new prime minister.
The IIIT-IIUM Network
Anwar Ibrahim co-founded the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in 1981. Often referred to as the leading think tank of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, today the IIIT is just one component of a far-reaching Islamist network in the United States known as the SAAR Network, a vast array of charities and private companies that hold assets of at least half a billion dollars. Indeed, IIIT and other SAAR network entities are among the wealthiest Islamic organizations in America.
IIIT’s Islamism is brazen. A 1989 IIIT document states that “ultimate loyalty to the nation-state is both impossible and blasphemous” for Muslims. Instead, the author advocates for a caliphate, blacklisting Muslims who oppose such theocracy. (In recent years, IIIT has also blacklisted Muslims who criticize the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, ostensibly at the request of Turkish Islamist authorities).
In the past, the SAAR network, including the IIIT, is believed to have openly funded terror finance operations. But a federal investigation against the network, which led to law enforcement raids on IIIT’s offices, was shut down in the 2000s, reportedly because of political interference.
In an article noting the many Muslim Brotherhood ties of the IIIT, the Washington Post reports that one IIIT book, published in 2002 and titled Violence, calls for the state of Israel to be confronted with “fear, terror and lack of security.” The author, IIIT official AbdulHamid AbuSulayman, declares: “Fighting is a duty of the oppressed people” and that acceptable “targets” can be “civilian or military.” In an affidavit filed in 2003, a federal investigator described AbuSulayman as one of IIIT’s “ardent supporters” of the designated terrorist organizations Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
AbuSulayman, who passed away in 2021, founded both the IIIT and IIUM. At both institutions, he worked closely with Ibrahim, a fellow IIIT co-founder. Ibrahim previously served as president of the IIUM, and, Malaysian commentators note, “supported IIUM from its very inception.”
Such close ties have held fast. Just a few months ago, IIIT and IIUM organized a joint conference in Malaysia, titled the “International Conference on AbdulHamid AbuSulayman.” The Prime Minister once again attended, speaking alongside senior IIIT and IIUM officials, and giving a speech in which he explained the importance of using education to facilitate “conquest” and the spread of Islam.
“There is no success to the conquest if you fail to understand the first decade of Salahuddin’s rule.. the decade of consolidation, the decade of ‘dawah’, the decade of education or the decade of making education centres as a centre of excellence.”
IIIT founder, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, speaking about his planned education reforms.
Alongside issues such as “Islamophobia,” the use of education to further Islamist control is one of the IIIT’s specialties. The Islamist troika, comprising IIIT, IIUM and the Malaysian prime minister’s office, is particularly keen on advancing the “Islamization of Knowledge,” a proposed framework developed by the IIIT under which all subjects can and should be taught and understood through an Islamic lens.
An IIUM paper published in 2013 clearly illustrates the Islamist agenda, noting that “Dr. Abdulhamid Abusulayman was instrumental in propagating this approach during his tenure as the Rector of IIUM (1988-1998). His emphasis was on the practical aspects of Islamization …. Focusing on seeking the foundations of sciences in the Qur’an and the sunnah, this approach to Islamization was mainly critical of traditional Muslim scholarship, in particular the mystics.”
In his own recent speech in Virginia as head of the IIIT board in 2019, Anwar Ibrahim explicitly reaffirmed his and the IIIT’s commitment to “Islamization of Knowledge” ideals. In August 2022, just a few months before taking office, Ibrahim declared “IIIT’s commitment to Islamisation and Integration of Knowledge” as key ideas for the “realisation of humane governance in Muslim societies and around the world.”
It is upon this Islamist framework that IIIT and IIUM’s relationship is largely based. Writing in 2020, former Islamist activist Dr. Mohd Rasdi recounts, in a brief history of his own, regretted radicalization:
The other Islamic agenda was about the Islamisation of knowledge. In the United States, the International Institute of Islamic Thought was born from the work of Ismail Raj al-Faruqi, a Palestinian born American scholar.
He gathered a group of Muslim scholars in the modern disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, sciences and anthropology and began a discourse of reframing the disciplines within the construct of an Islamic world view.
The traditional ustaz [teachers] were incapable of thinking critically and intellectually and so the onus fell on the non-ustaz to lead the charge. The International Islamic University Malaysia was a manifestation of that Islamisation of knowledge agenda [emphasis added].
While the IIIT describes IIUM as a “long-standing” partner and is a major provider of scholarships to the university, and the IIUM concedes that IIIT operates a “branch in IIUM,” it is perhaps more accurate to consider the IIUM itself to be that very branch – IIIT and Western Islamism’s flagship institution in the far-East.
As Prime Minister, Ibrahim has quickly set about advancing the IIIT’s Islamization of Knowledge program. In January, at the launch of another book produced jointly by the IIIT and IIUM, Ibrahim once again attended, declaring that “Islamic education syllabus” in Malaysia would be “reformed” and that “Islamic civilization” would be instilled at “every level.”