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, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar 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 thinktank 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 Erdoğan, 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.
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.
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.”
The influence and relentless involvement of the IIIT and IIUM has been noted by Ibrahim’s supporters in Malaysian media, who have named and praised IIIT, IIUM and Ibrahim for their coordinated contributions to the “elevation of Islamic thought” in the country.
American Islamists have also made much of their successful export. The April edition of a leading Islamist magazine produced by the Islamic Society of North America, a close partner of the IIIT, is devoted to the new Malaysian Islamist government.
Across multiple articles and editorials, American Islamist editors and journalists describe Ibrahim as a product of American Islamist “intellectual thought.” The publication heralds the new Malaysian Islamic government, and features writings by Ibrahim and others praising the work of IIIT and the IIUM in effecting this change.
These American Islamists declare: “Armed with a global view inspired by Islam, [Ibrahim] represents a hope for Malaysia, the Muslim world and humanity at large.”
The IIUM’s usefulness is not limited to just the IIIT and Ibrahim’s branch of Islamism. This Western-backed institution attracts other Islamist actors in the West and elsewhere across the globe.
Salafi, Deobandi and Turkish Islamists, for instance, increasingly appear at conferences organized jointly by Western Islamist groups and the IIUM, and hosted in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, modernist Salafi groups, such as the Yaqeen Institute, a leading American organization, now regularly partner with IIUM academics.
Indeed, the founder of the Yaqeen, Omar Suleiman – perhaps the best-known imam in the United States – proudly announced in 2022 that he had successfully defended his PhD at IIUM, on the subject of Islamic Thought and Civilization, a popular IIUM teaching area based on the IIIT’s Islamization of Knowledge program.
The IIUM also finds willing partners in Wahhabis in both North America and Saudi, and works with Qatari regime institutions with a heavy presence in the West, such as the Qatar Foundation. IIUM officials even travel to Washington D.C. to take part in events hosted by Western extensions of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda movement.
Importantly, it seems IIUM may need the support of these Western Islamists more than these Western Islamists need IIUM. The university often advertises Islamist events in the West at which its more illustrious Western graduates speak.
The university also posts videos on social media, accompanied by Islamic pop-nasheeds [Islamic vocal music], featuring figures such as American imam Omar Suleiman visiting the IIUM campus.
Alongside IIUM’s overt involvement with international Islamism, some accuse the university of serving as a terror recruitment center.
As noted by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the terrorist group Hamas “conducts extensive social and cultural activities for students at the International Islamic University Malaysia.” Some recruits from the university are reportedly even “sent to a course in Turkey (at Hamas’ expense), given money by Hamas and then sent to Judea and Samaria.”
The Investigative Project on Terrorism, meanwhile, reports that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gave a speech at IIUM in 2013, in which he “advocated resistance and jihad.”
The IIUM also aligns itself with other violent Islamist movements around the world. The IIUM has bestowed an honorary doctorate, for instance, upon Khurshid Ahmad, a senior leader of the Pakistani branch of Jamaat-e-Islami, a dangerous South Asian Islamist movement. Ahmad has previously described the Taliban as “refulgent and splendid” and warned about the “implication of Europe’s [sic] being in the clasp of Jews.”
The IIUM’s website promotes Ahmad and other Islamists’ writings, not within a journal or as a publication in its library, but among a general list of Islamic “resources” provided to students. Other publications among the IIUM’s offered resources is a text by a Western Islamist convert advising students that “the Jewish community is to be viewed as an avid enemy of Islam.”
Despite this wide array of radicalism, the IIUM enjoys significant support from Western non-Muslim sources as well. The U.S. government discloses at least $725,000 of grants have been provided to the IIUM, mostly handed out in the last few years. Preposterously, the grants include State Department awards for combating “violent extremism.”
There is likely additional undisclosed funding as well. In 2018, a Department of Homeland Security center at the University of Maryland boasted that it was also working with the IIUM on a counter-extremism program, funded by the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
Significant funding arrangements and partnerships with the European Union and various European governments are also in place, although total amounts are difficult to ascertain.
A Geographical Shift
Over the past few decades, a distinct change has occurred within international Islamism. Wealthy Western Muslim communities, dominated by Islamist leadership, have established an enormous array of universities, thinktanks, charities, grant-making foundations and grassroots associations that now, in both wealth and influence, outstrip many of the organizations in Muslim countries on which these same Western Islamists once so heavily relied.
This success of Western Islamism, along with the declining interest in Islamism among the peoples of the Middle East, the exile of Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Egypt and the Gulf, and the dramatic ideological changes in countries such as Saudi and the UAE, have produced a curious geographical shift in the politics of global Islamism.
The West is no longer a mere outpost of radicalism directed from the Middle East and South Asia; instead, the West is a headquarters, hosting many of the leading centers of Islamist thought, which work to export their ideas to all corners of the world.
As a result, increasing numbers of Deobandis in South Asia increasingly look to the pronouncements of muftis in the United Kingdom for religious rulings. Countries such as the UAE include prominent British and American Muslim Brotherhood charities on their lists of Islamist terror groups that threaten the security of the nation. Indian newspapers, government officials and security figures, worry loudly and publicly more about the effect of American Islamist groups’ efforts to encourage and support extremism in Kashmir than the threat posed by radicalization among the country’s own 172 million Muslims.
And now, in Malaysia, the power of the IIUM and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim – progeny of a Virginia-based Islamist network – indicate the ease with which Western Islamism can now impose its ideas upon the East.
With the help of an Islamist Prime Minister who reached out to terrorist leaders upon news of his election win in November, it is now Western Islamism, not Saudi Wahhabism or South Asia’s Deobandism, that threatens to supplant the extant moderate Muslim presence in Malaysia; and soon, perhaps, elsewhere across the Muslim world.