Hidden a few kilometres down a remote country lane in the heart of Thailand’s troubled deep south – where a Muslim separatist uprising has left more than 200 dead this year – is the multi-million-dollar new campus of the Yala Islamic College.
With more than a dozen Arab teachers from across the Middle East and a seemingly endless flow of funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, Yala has become the most obvious manifestation of what critics here say is an “Arab threat” to the traditionally moderate and tolerant local Islamic tradition. It was first brought home in 2002 when two dozen Middle Eastern suspects were arrested in the south for forging travel documents, visas and passports for al-Qa’ida operatives.
How did the teachers at Yala make inroads into the “moderate and tolerant local Islamic tradition”? Well, it’s a school, after all. They taught a “purer form of Islam” (see below) from the Qur’an and Sunnah, showing through them that moderation and tolerance were not as Islamic as Thai Muslims may have assumed.
The south’s largely unregistered Islamic schools – which offer religious education, a regular curriculum and training in Arabic and the local Yawi dialect – are accused by the government of being breeding grounds for radical separatists. The Islamic faith in Thailand, like Buddhism, has always been seen as being integrated with many other beliefs and practices, but the foreign-returned Muslims are insisting on a “purer” form of Islam.
After all, it was the teachers themselves leading the jihad:
A number of the Muslim separatists killed on 28 April, when more than 100 Islamists were gunned down on their motorbikes by soldiers acting on a tip off about a planned series of raids on army posts across the south, taught at local Islamic schools. Radical Thai Muslims have also targeted government-run secular schools, with nearly 100 this year alone being burned to the ground.
Last week a Bangkok court issued an arrest warrant for a Muslim teacher accused of organising the worst separatist attacks – proof, say critics, that many Muslim Thai teachers who went overseas to Islamic schools must have come under the influence of hardliners.
The Buddhist minority in the south are circulating pamphlets detailing alleged local Muslim extremism, saying it poses an unprecedented threat both to their religion and the state. One senior Thai government official in Pattani said that he was aware of the first signs of “ethnic cleansing” in Narathiwat, one of the south’s Muslim-majority provinces. “Some Thai Buddhist families have been told to leave under the threat of violence,” he said on condition he not be further identified.
The Deputy Prime Minister, General Thamarak Isarangura, has said the Thai government believes there are military training sites in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt where Thai Muslim separatists are trained to execute terror attacks. More than 160 Thai Muslims students are enrolled in Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia, and 1,500 in Egypt.
Yala Islamic College is run by Dr Ismail Lutfi, a Thai graduate of the hardline Wahhabi Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He has an estimated 8,000 followers in key Islamic posts throughout the south, and the 1,500 students at the college are taught a hardcore Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law in the Arabic language.
Lutfi knows how to tell Western journalists what they want to hear; however, it is left unclear whether he considers jihad in Thailand to be violence and extremism at all:
“I am against violence and I am against extremism,” Dr Lutfi said in flawless Arabic in an interview at the college this week. “However, I do not consider telling the local Muslims that they should go to the mosque and pray five times a day extremism,” he added.