Interview with Akil Yunus

Interviewer: Could you share with us a little bit about yourself and the work you’re currently involved in?

Akil: My background is actually in journalism. I was a journalist for 5 years prior to delving into the P/CVE industry. I was covering current affairs, politics and things like that, but then I developed an interest and niche in studying terrorist movements and violent extremist groups and I reported on some of my studies as a journalist. Because I wanted to do something else, to do something different, in 2017 I decided to pursue my masters in International Relations specializing in terrorism and that’s how I ended up in this industry now. Obviously in Malaysia, you don’t have that many groups doing P/CVE and studying this field, so in terms of CSO’s, IMAN research is one of few, and I actually had a contact in IMAN who had worked there for quite some time. She kind of pulled me in, and since then I’ve been working as a research manager for a year and a half. Obviously my forte is in C/PVE, but in IMAN our focus is in society, beliefs, and perception. We study race, religion and other beliefs in Malaysia. But my personal area of expertise has always been PVE, and one of the personal projects I’ve worked on is a project with the UNDP in which we are mapping violent radicalization in Malaysia. So we completed that project earlier this year, and submitted our findings to the UNDP. The project is ongoing, but the current situation with COVID-19 has put a damper on the process because obviously we cannot conduct any field work or on-the-ground research, so that has impeded our work. We hope to get started again looking at this project and others.

Interviewer: Can you explain a little bit about how your work has changed since the pandemic began?

Akil: In terms of physical changes, obviously we’re no longer in the office, it’s a lot more online work that we are doing. Whatever ongoing projects we’ve had have had to be stopped, or at least held off temporarily so that we can focus on things that don’t require on-the-ground work. We’ve also had to change timelines and deadlines and things like that. We’ve been unable to get new projects because a lot of donors and funders have stopped their funding for now. So some projects that were supposed to start in the second half of this year have been cut off at least until next year, maybe even indefinitely. Those are a few of the challenges that we have faced being a CSO that is run on funding.

Interviewer: What do you think the current trends of VE in online platforms are?

Akil: If you’re talking about very current trends during this pandemic, I think that a lot of the extremist trends you see online stem from narratives of racism, hatred and xenophobia that we’ve seen during this pandemic. It’s essentially the main driving force for violent extremism in cyberspace. Some of the targets, or victims, of these hateful and xenophobic comments are people like refugees, marginalized communities, and undocumented migrants who are at the receiving end of this kind of hate. The problem with that it is when you have hatred towards people, it can then lead to physical forms of violence or even cyberbullying, which in my opinion is just as bad as physical violence. And obviously I think this has been the case across the region, the whole tendency to keep blaming other communities. In Malaysia for example, we keep shifting the problems to migrants, to undocumented immigrants, we keep putting the blame on them for potentially living in impoverished conditions that can cause the spread of the virus. In India, you have Muslim communities being blamed and targeted for spreading the virus. And all of this we are seeing predominantly happen on social media. What happens when you have this kind of hateful solidarity online is you have these violent extremist groups that are monitoring the conversations and are tapping into these narratives as a way to recruit people.

Interviewer: What about the trends before COVID started?

Akil: Well, I think that things have evolved because of COVID, certainly there are a lot more hateful and xenophobic comments now, but even previous to the pandemic, these patterns existed. There were clashes because of religion, clashes because of race, clashes because of different ideologies. If we’re talking about the region of Southeast Asia, then the hateful speech definitely is focused around race and religion, but in a place like the U.S., you have other issues like white supremacy. One of the reasons for the proliferation of violent extremist narratives online is attributed to social media- people generally can choose to be anonymous online and have no qualms about being hateful or racist because online anonymity shields them from any kind of accountability or vilification- the worst that could happen is someone would condemn their actions. But there are no concrete ramifications, they’re not going to be punished and it’s very difficult to regulate hateful actions online. Because of this anonymity, the language and behavior online can be so much more destructive compared to offline cases. 

Interviewer: What about the trends of preventing violent extremism online?

Akil: I think that a lot of the efforts online have been in terms of increasing digital and media literacy online. How we can encourage people to consume news and information online more effectively, how we can teach people to respect differences of opinion, and I think that you can’t see that happening in terms of education initiatives. They don’t specifically say that these are PVE efforts- they are essentially efforts to promote digital literacy online. One of the areas that we are lacking in, or haven’t touched on, in addressing PVE is the harder to reach spaces. Apart from social media you have violent extremism propaganda being distributed on more closed and encrypted spaces such as WhatsApp- there’s even evidence of people using email communication to communicate with one another. So ongoing PVE efforts must consider how to tap into encrypted spaces as well, and I think that’s where we need to look next. We’ve seen a lot of efforts online, like through Google and Facebook, where they are trying to regulate hateful speech, which is great, but how do we know that we are actually tapping into the targeted and vulnerable populations? That’s something we’ve been unable to address at this point in time.

Interviewer: When we look at this problem on private/encrypted space, what can individuals be doing to try to help PVE efforts?

Akil: I think that what’s important to know is that it’s not just online. Online PVE efforts need to be accompanied with offline engagement as well. So if you’re looking at targeting people who might be approached online, through encrypted channels, the only way we are going to be able to get through to them is through more offline methods, or targeted communication. I can’t conceptualize how that would work online, but offline it would be one-on-one interactions. We also have to consider the fact that it’s not just online issues that lead to people being hateful. There are many societal factors; cultural, economic, and even psychological factors which lead to violent behaviors or tendencies online. Online PVE efforts may not be able to address factors such as social alienation, unemployment, or just the general feeling of being disempowered or economic deprivation. 

Interviewer: Do you think that right now there are PVE organizations in Malaysia successfully pairing online and offline efforts?

Akil: Well, if I can speak for IMAN, I think we’ve been trying to have more face-to-face engagements through the campaigns and research we’ve done. But we don’t really have dedicated or strategic communication initiatives. In Malaysia, one of the bodies that is doing that would be the government, which is the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Counter-Terrorism. I think they have a dedicated strategic communication unit that has been coming up with campaigns, posters, and videos that work alongside more physical engagement in terms of promoting alternative narratives. It’s not so much countering violent ideologies, but providing alternate narratives, promoting human rights for everyone, empowering youth, gender equality, promoting interfaith understanding and tolerance, healthy cultural exchanges, and things like that. All of these things contribute to PVE efforts in the end, because we’re going directly down to the root causes and the general motivator for violent extremism.

Interviewer: Do you find any specific hardships in PVE efforts in Malaysia?

Akil: One of the biggest challenges that we have in Malaysia is the cooperation and engagement between stakeholders. All these initiatives we’re seeing are being pursued independently and in isolation of one another. In terms of civil society engagement, CSO’s in Malaysia still lack access to vulnerable populations. We’ve not had that kind of access, everything seems to be a government-lead initiative. Like I mentioned previously, government bodies have more freedom to navigate this field and pursue the work that they do because they have access to the necessary stakeholders, targeted audiences. In comparison, a CSO which is likely operating on a shoestring budget, will have many issues with accessibility. So whatever we can do is not nearly as far-reaching as we would like it to be.

Generally, we are unable to access government-controlled bodies such as prisons which are in charge of rehabilitating violent extremist cases. We also have no access to working with the police, who are obviously looking into more national security and countering terrorism aspects rather than prevention efforts. Our access to them can be quite limited, so when it comes to P/CVE, I think civil society engagement is crucial. The involvement of the private sector is also very important. In Malaysia, it seems that we have some work to do in that regard. We’re not really partners in terms of coming up with a national action plan on P/CVE (which has been in the works for some time). Recently, there has been an engagement session between government departments regarding P/CVE, and many CSO’s were not invited to that round table discussion. So when I talk about accessibility challenges, these are some of the things we’re facing. What ends up happening is CSO’s work in isolation of ongoing efforts by the government. When it would be so much better to be able to pull our resources together and work together to make a PVE agenda going forward. But that’s not happening at the level we’d like.

Interviewer: In an ideal world, what would a partnership between NGO’s and the government look like?

Akil: In an ideal world, I think the work of PVE CSO’s is extremely important and can contribute a lot, because we are the ones that have the better understanding of the community. Being NGO’s, being CSO’s, we communicate and interact with vulnerable populations a lot more. It’s the kind of thing where the government can lead the countering aspect of VE, but prevention initiatives should incorporate CSOs a lot more. We’ve thought about these kinds of ideas before, in terms of how CSOs can be part of the rehabilitation efforts when it comes to rehabilitating and reintegrating VE offenders coming out of prison for example. Or even if we’re looking at vulnerable populations such as youth. A lot of work that goes into empowering the youth in Malaysia is prioritizing the importance of them being able to voice their grievances, and to feel like they matter. These are all things that NGO’s are already doing without much involvement from the government. So, this is our strength, and in an ideal world it would be a division of duties. If I conceptualize it, it’s clear that you have the national security side of things, the hard measures which the government would obviously be in charge of. But then you have the soft measures, promoting social cohesion and inclusion- that’s where the strength of CSO’s comes into play. And even the private sector, if we’re talking about working together, big companies like Google and Facebook could come together to join the cause. In that way, we could really have every party working together to face this problem, making the work easier for authorities. Obviously, once you have strong prevention, you won’t have as many people joining terrorist groups or being susceptible to violent extremist ideologies. I think everything needs to start at a prevention and community level, which is where CSO’s really come in handy. 

Often the reason people turn towards violent extremism comes from the distrust that they have of authority, or of the government. So any kind of prevention efforts coming from the government may not be accepted openly. But, when you have similar messages, packaged differently, coming from grassroots organizations, people are more receptive to that. They feel that they are having a discussion among peers, and being listened to, not being spoken down to or regulated by the government. It’s a matter of perception as well, which is why CSO’s have an important part to play in this process.