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‘Governing Strangers, Conquering Stigma’: Moderate Islam, Ontological Security, and the Politics of Counter-Terror in Malaysia



Change log


Chan, Wai Yeap 


Campaigns to promote moderate Islam by Muslim states are usually understood as justifications to legitimise state control of religion for reasons extraneous to the function of counter-terror. Combining historical analysis, discourse analysis, and practice-tracing through original fieldwork, this thesis demonstrates that Islam indeed plays a central discursive and institutional role in counter-terror practices in Malaysia. I explain Islam’s importance in Malaysia’s counter-terrorism through the framework of ontological security, arguing that counter-terror is not merely about attaining physical security. Rather, it is an enterprise of ontological security-seeking that operates on two levels.

On the international level, the politics of counter-terror concerns the issue of status. By promoting the idea of moderate Islam and being an enthusiastic counter-terror partner to Western powers, Malaysian state elites sought to distance themselves and correct the stigma attributed to Islam following the onset of the Global War on Terror. Drawing from the historical international relations literature, I argue that this sense of insecurity is not innate but historical. In the case of Malaysia, colonisation fostered the internalisation of Orientalist judgments about Islam’s regressive and incendiary potentials amongst postcolonial Muslim elites but at the same sharpened Islam’s status as a symbol of indigenous identity. I show that to deal with this dilemma, Malaysia has opted for a state-led Islamisation project that also securitised Islam, whereby a discourse of ‘wrong’ and ‘deviant’ Islam increasingly came to constitute a vocabulary for the governance of Muslim radicalism and unorthodox.

On the local level, the politics of counter-terror concerns the domestication of the entity of the ‘terrorist’ within a vernacular of law, behaviouralism, and religious deviancy. I argue that the Muslim ‘terrorist’ occupies a position of ontological strangeness for the Malaysian state, as it transgresses familiar boundaries of citizen/militant, friend/enemy, and insider/outsider. Through original empirical research, I highlight how counter-terror is operationalised as discourses of bodies-making in Malaysia that constructed the ‘terrorist’ as a biopolitical, judicial, and redemptive subject for preventive, preemptive, and rehabilitative purposes. Tracing counter-terror through state narratives, mosques, bureaucracies, courtrooms, and prisons, I illustrate a dynamic I call the Islamisation of counter-terror, in which counter-terror is predominantly understood as an issue in need of religious curation instead of socio-political redress.

In adopting this eclectic framework, this thesis invites a rethinking of how the experience of colonisation, prevailing global hierarchies, and conceptions of the 'modern' and its opposites led to a security logic in Malaysia that places Islam in the state’s protection, on the one hand; but ‘Islamises’ understandings of the Muslim ‘radical’, on the other.





Hussin, Iza


counter-terrorism, Malaysia, religion and international politics, ontological security


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge