The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: Ideological, Security and Geopolitical Implications for Malaysia

Narratives of the Taliban’s return to ruling Afghanistan largely centres on a foreboding future. Such narratives could shape discourses in Southeast Asia. Credit: AP/Zabi Karim


Following the recent withdrawal of US forces from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a flurry of media commentaries has highlighted the chaos confronting the nation.  Since August 31st, 2021, carefully picked metaphors by media analysts project a bleak future for Afghans. These images predict a range of scenarios that suggest a possible regression to repressive policies under the Taliban-led government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Inciting Violent and Non-Violent Extremist Threats in Southeast Asia

From a geopolitical perspective, there is much for Malaysia and the wider Southeast Asian region to be cautious about. One concern is the presence of terrorist networks in Afghanistan, with their consistent threats of violence against the “imperialist” West. The Daesh or the Islamic State of Khorasan have surfaced. It is a reality that these groups will become emboldened, with access to more weapons and other military equipment left behind by the US. Despite the Taliban having severed links with al-Qaeda and ISIS, the country remains in a precarious situation. How the Taliban will manage against the Daesh, and the subsequent effect on the civilian population remains a worry.

On the other hand, for certain Islamist groups in Southeast Asia, the idea of an Afghan state built on a shariah-compliant regime is a victory of sorts. Since the Global War on Terror (GWOT, 2001), news of Malay-Muslims fighting for the ISIS in Syria, as well as becoming suicide bombers had often surfaced. Therefore, since 2003, Malaysia has regularly hosted several counter terrorism seminars and workshops, focusing on identifying the causes of terrorist sentiments in the country. Authorities must continue this vigilance in light of developments in Afghanistan.

Recently, a high-ranking officer from Malaysia’s federal police headquarters commented on the involvement of Malaysians in terrorism overseas. As recent as September 2021, a Malaysian was sentenced by a Somali military court on charges of assisting the Al-Shabaab terrorist group in eastern Africa.

While the government’s counter-terrorism initiatives have been highly effective, more discursive forms of extremism within Malaysia pose serious threats to both domestic and regional security. Although considered non-violent extremism, they are nevertheless destabilizing. In Malaysia, these include online and verbal hate speech, and intolerance towards Muslim minorities such as the Shi’a and Ahmadiyya citizens of Malaysia. Psychological violence in the form of verbal insults and harassment of these communities are equally offensive, divisive and dehumanizing. These acts can lead to inter-communal violence in the future.

Potential Political Exploitations in Malaysia

There are also opportunities for politicians to use events in Afghanistan to their political advantage, by playing on the sentiments of ordinary Malay-Muslims. For example, the newly established government in Afghanistan was prematurely praised by the president of Malaysia’s Islamist party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). An editorial in the party’s mouthpiece Harakahdaily was recently penned by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, which has since received extensive international coverage, including a positive response from the Taliban leader himself.

There is clearly a domestic political agenda for this unofficial recognition by PAS. Malaysia has not officially recognized the Taliban government and was quick to counter the PAS statement. PAS continues to push for the resurrection of the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Bill 355, also known as RUU355. For quite some time now, the party has been insistent on tabling RUU355 in parliament. This is to empower Syariah law, which would mean harsher penalties against Muslim offenders, prescription of hudud laws, and restrictions on the propagation of non-Muslim religions. RUU355 is part of PAS’s ongoing demand for stricter Islamic laws, an agenda they consider to be part of the larger Muslim ummah.

Aside from the religious tone of the RUU355, it is also in line with the government’s ethnocentric narrative to “defend” Malay-Muslim rights. Politics of identity has created an uneasy tension in Malaysian society for several decades. Furthermore, due to a sizeable non-Muslim population, as well as a growing number of moderate Malay-Muslims in urban centers, politicians who may leverage ideological sentiments because of the Taliban struggle and victory, may create additional socio-religious cleavages at home.

Malaysia: Rightfully Cautious

On the foreign policy front, Malaysia is rightfully cautious. The government sees the exit of US forces, more as a re-alignment of American interests, to the South China Sea region and the wider Indo-Pacific. It does not see US withdrawal as a “failure” of Western hegemony or as a “victory for Islam”.

Instead, Malaysia remains cautious about cozying up to the Taliban regime, while at the same time, assessing US re-alignment. The US strategy to withdraw could be part of a more pointed hegemonic strategy to contain China in the Indo-Pacific. Some have labeled this strategy as part of the “Biden Doctrine”, one which focuses on existential threats which must be dealt with by avoiding “boots on the ground.” The most recent example of this is the Aukus deal, when the US moved to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia.

Malaysia must be cautious on two fronts. First, it must guard against the potential re-awakening of violent Islamist sentiments on Malaysian soil. Second, Malaysia must continue to remain neutral amidst increasing security threats in the region. This way, Malaysia demonstrates that being friendly to all is the best strategy to gain the trust of conflicting sentiments in the region.

Malaysia and China have robust economic and diplomatic relations, just as it does with the US and other regional powers. The trilateral security partnership or Aukus was announced barely two weeks after the last of US troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. While segments of the Malay rural and urban society reveal sentiments of “victory of Islam over Western oppression”, others are anxious about Aukus’s disrespect of ZOPFAN.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s United Nations General Assembly speech on September 25th2021, reiterated the nation’s worry about conflicts that can adversely affect Malaysia. For example, the crisis in Myanmar and refugees fleeing from the chaos to find refuge in Malaysia, is a social and economic burden. While the impact of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan may not be as direct, the stoking of amorphous narratives about the possible “rise of talibanism” across Southeast Asia remains the real source of anxiety.

Most of the narratives about the return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan project a foreboding scenario. The Taliban are often associated with extremism, oppression, punitive rule and violence. This in turn shapes discourses about how the new government will impact the ummah, including the large Muslim populations in Malaysia and Indonesia. These narratives largely originate in Western media and academe, which in turn are assimilated across Southeast Asia.

Malaysians (both Muslims and non-Muslims) by and large, understand very little about the details of what has taken place in Afghanistan or West Asia in general. Public opinion, and even a few politicians tend to conflate events. For example, the suicide bombings on August 27th 2021 at Kabul airport are popularly understood as “typical violent Taliban behavior.” The tendency is to accept hyped and sensational narratives without reading alternative interpretations which are historically contextualized. Also, there is often a tendency to interpret religious extremism exclusively in terms of security.

Most importantly, Malaysians should focus on more than one narrative about developments in Afghanistan. After 20 years of US occupation, despite limited military training and fire power, the Taliban’s deep faith and love for their land contributed to their victory. This was less a victory of militant, irrational or violent extremism, as it was keen strategic thinking and coordinated links with different ethnic grassroot communities.

Therefore, Malaysia and the wider Southeast Asian region must closely observe developments, as the process of nation building begins. For the sake of the Afghan people who have endured years of suffering, we hope the Taliban regime will adopt a moderate Islamic approach in their governance, while continuing to engage other moderate communities to rebuild their nation.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Sharifah Munirah Alatas is an assistant professor of strategic studies and international relations at the National University of Malaysia. Her specialities are in geopolitics, strategic thought, and foreign policy. Recurring themes in her academic and popular writings are West-centrism, intellectual imperialism, hegemony, and post-colonialism.

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