Although millenarian movements are not new in Malaysia, their recent public presence is marked by savvy and creative social media strategies. Their content is easily accessible and well disseminated within and beyond national borders. This Long Read argues deeper sociological studies to better understand the various social conditions behind their popularity.
Millenarian movements, or movements promoting apocalyptic thought, uphold the following idea about the future: an “imminent, total, ultimate, this-worldly, collective salvation” often through a messianic figure, who would come and “establish the reign of righteousness and justice on the earth”. In Islam, this saviour is known as the Al-Mahdi. While the belief in eschatological narratives and figures including Al-Mahdi is part of the Muslim tradition, millenarian movements “seek to immanentize the coming of the “end”. They anticipate the coming of Al-Mahdi to lead a new, utopian order. Various Muslim millenarian movements have emerged throughout history in both the Sunni and Shiite communities. These include some Sufi orders such as Roshaniyya in Afghanistan and Naqshbandi-Haqqani.
Millenarian movements have long existed in Malaysia, albeit in fragmented forms. In the past, several personalities have claimed to be Imam Mahdi and a number of organisations promote apocalyptic narratives. The Al-Arqam movement, for example, can be considered a millenarian group; headed by the late Ashaari Muhammad, it caught public attention and was banned in 1994. Millenarian groups of the past disseminated ideas through closed-door gatherings, classes, and publications. More recently, the Malaysian Police uncovered online movements such as Perjalanan Mimpi Yang Terakhir (PMYT) and Gerakan Akhir Zaman (GAZA). These new millenarian groups have a wide audience.
In this paper, we argue that the evolution of millenarian groups in the age of social media poses a challenge to the effectiveness of existing approaches in dealing with millenarian movements. In the following sections, we first elaborate on how both state and religious authorities conventionally tackle millenarian groups. Then, we demonstrate how the use of social media poses various challenges to these approaches. We also discuss the limitations of current approaches. Lastly, we propose that millenarian groups be studied beyond these approaches to better understand the root causes of their emergence and popularity.
LIMITATIONS OF CONVENTIONAL APPROACHES
Generally, millenarian groups in Malaysia are tackled through security and theological approaches. They are subjected to state and religious authorities’ surveillance for being potential security threats and for spreading theological deviance from mainstream Sunni teachings. In 1994, the Al-Arqam movement was banned, and its leaders were arrested; allegedly over “plans to capture political power ‘through magic and violence’”. A fatwa (religious edict) was also issued declaring that books promoted by the organisation contained teachings that contradict the Islamic creed and can potentially cause confusion among Muslims and lead them astray. In September 2022, the founder of PMYT, Masitah Ab Jalar (also known as Sittah AnNur among her followers) was arrested for spreading “deviant teachings”. Similarly, a fatwa was issued to declare PMYT deviant and that the movement posed danger to the nation. Masitah later publicly declared her repentance and urged her followers to return to the correct teachings of Islam.
So far, no fatwa has been made against GAZA. However, the group has been referred to as “sesat” (deviant) by the Islamic Religious Affairs Departments of Negeri Sembilan (JHEAINS) and Selangor (JAIS), as evident in interviews with local newspapers. As of February 2022, GAZA remained under the observation of religious authorities, and no action has been taken against followers of the group. However, any report on the group’s online activities is forwarded immediately to the Malaysian Communications And Multimedia Commission for them to take action.
Banning millenarian groups based on security and theology inaccurately places these in the same vein as radical terrorist networks such as Al-Qa’eda and Islamic State (ISIS), which are also millenarian. Al-Qaeda and ISIS evidently weaponized apocalyptic narratives in their advertisements to recruit new members. By painting a picture of an upcoming apocalypse, the organizations posit that change and social transformation can happen only through violence. Nevertheless, all millenarian groups in Malaysia are treated as potential security threats even when non-violent. The securitization of millenarian groups is not only adopted by state authorities but also by local religious authorities. Today, religious authorities label millenarian groups as deviant based on theology and the perceived threat they pose to the nation. During a Friday sermon issued by the Perak religious authority, it labelled groups promoting millenarian thinking as deviant and frame them as a security threat to the nation.
THE CHALLENGES OF SOCIAL MEDIA: THE PMYT AND GAZA
Millenarian groups now utilise social media to disseminate ideas to a wider audience. PMYT’s and GAZA’s ability to utilise social media platforms, for example, renders conventional security approaches ineffective. Although PMYT’s online activities can be traced to June 2021, the movement started gaining public attention only in late August 2021. The movement centres around Sittah Annur who claimed to have met Prophet Muhammad and received prophecies about Doomsday and World War 3. Masitah went as far as to say that whoever stopped her from sending divine messages were infidels and would go to hell. PMYT uses social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Telegram. Content posted on these platforms is often standardized: screenshots of her Facebook posts and links to her YouTube videos are shared on Telegram. By the time of Masitah’s arrest in September 2021, PMYT had garnered between 2,000 to 3,000 followers from Indonesia and Brunei. This shows how ideas spread through social media can quickly reach audiences beyond Malaysia and effectively create transnational networks without any physical meetings.
One challenge posed by social media is that these internationally-based platforms lie beyond the control of the Malaysian authorities. Content posted on social media platforms cannot be easily taken down upon the demand of the Ministry even when it is offensive or contravene certain social media standards set by the government. This issue has been acknowledged by Annuar Musa, the former Minister for Communications and Multimedia. Seeking the cooperation of a social media company is a lengthy process that requires a preliminary investigation and the involvement of the Attorney General’s Chambers. Even if these processes are carried through, the compliance of social media companies is not guaranteed.
Telegram, for instance, is known for its refusal to heed governments’ pressures in revealing information about potentially harmful and dangerous private groups and individuals. In Malaysia and Singapore, Telegram chat groups have become a marketplace for selling and exchanging illegal drugs, non-consensual recordings of sexual activities, and child pornography. Despite the severity of these issues, authorities cannot enforce social media platforms to remove the content when demanded but can only act against members of such groups involved in the content creation and its distribution if they are identified. The authorities can also investigate offenders under provisions such as Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 “for improper use of a network facility”. This was the case for Masitah when she was arrested. She was also investigated under Section 298A of the Penal Code “for causing disharmony, disunity or enmity”.
Although authorities do not have much power to take down online content, they may pressure offenders to do so. Following Masitah’s arrest, JAIS announced that they will monitor her activities and enforce measures against her if her activities once again contradict Islamic teachings. It is unclear to what extent JAIS has been monitoring Masitah’s activities or if the relevant authorities have asked her to delete PMYT’s social media content. Following her declaration of repentance, PMYT’s Facebook page is no longer accessible to the public. This suggests that the page has either been deleted or set to private. Facebook’s privacy feature still allows new members to access these pages through invite links from existing followers. This privacy setting makes it complicated and tedious for these groups and pages to be tracked by the authorities. PMYT’s YouTube channel “S’ttah An-Nur PMYT” and its videos remain accessible, although the account has not uploaded any new videos since 23 August 2021. These videos received an average of 17, 000 views.
Despite JAIS’ warning, the authors observe that Masitah continues posting on PMYT’s main Telegram channel. The channel, however, has been set to private, which restricts newcomers from joining and limits sharing of posts only to Masitah, who administers the group. The group currently has 10,955 members. At the time of the arrest, the police also found 22 other channels run by PMYT. It remains unclear if these channels have been deleted or set to private. Such a feature makes it hard for authorities to track PMYT’s activities and followers’ responses. After the incident, Masitah posted similar content about her dreams and prophecies once to thrice a month, before going on a hiatus from December 2021 to March 2022. Since then, she has continued posting only once every few months. At the time of writing, Masitah remains active on her Telegram group which has over 10, 000 members. PMYT’s continued activities, though carried out in private, demonstrates how millenarian groups can thrive despite opposition from the authorities.
The Gerakan Akhir Zaman, or GAZA, is an offshoot of Muhammad Qasim Dreams, a millenarian group that originated from Pakistan, and is led by Muhammad Qasim. Like PMYT, the movement revolves around Muhammad Qasim who claims to receive divine dreams regarding World War 3 and doomsday He also claims to have met the Prophet Muhammad who wants him to relay messages to influential figures such as the Pakistani Prime Minister, as shown in Figure 1. With its messages mostly written in Indonesian and Malay, GAZA can be considered a Southeast Asian branch of Muhammad Qasim Dreams, which targets Malay-speaking individuals. Its biggest following comes from Indonesia, followed by Malaysia.
Figure 1: A screengrab of a video posted by a GAZA Twitter account. The video claims that there are four big signs signalling the end of times which Prophet Muhammad told Qasim through a dream.
The group centres their operation on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Telegram, and most notably, Twitter where its followers operate multiple accounts and utilise aggressive marketing techniques. One important aspect of such a strategy utilised by GAZA accounts involves replying to tweets and quote-retweeting different types of tweets to garner attention. The type of content retweeted or quote-retweeted by the GAZA accounts stretches from the news posted by broadcasting companies to viral, humorous or informative tweets (see Figure 2). By responding to tweets that have already gone viral, the GAZA accounts seek to piggyback on the popularity of these tweets and direct some attention to their cause.
Figure 2: An example of how a GAZA account piggybacks on a trending tweet to spread its message. As multiple Twitter users open the tweet to see more information and the replies received by the original tweet, they will stumble across GAZA’s messages.
A second important aspect of their marketing strategy is the publishing of high-volume tweets and using different accounts to retweet them. This helps them spread their message to more Twitter users. Figure 3 below shows the volume of returns obtained from searching related keywords like “‘Muhammad Qasim’, #GerakanakhirZaman, ‘Gerakan Akhir Zaman’ and #MuhammadQasimDreams’. We found that these keywords were mentioned 368,000 times by only 7,630 accounts. Although the number of users may not be significant, these tweets have approximately reached 39.3 million unique Twitter users. Upon closer observation, we found that these keywords are posted by astroturfing accounts. These accounts were created to specifically tweet about GAZA and to convince followers of the urgent need to join its cause. Astroturfing refers to the practice of creating an online illusion that shows widespread grassroots support for a particular campaign. Such a practice is harmful as it “misleads the public into believing that the position of the astroturfer is the commonly held view” and in turn, may influence followers to support a similar position – in this case, the ideas promoted by GAZA.
A second important aspect of their marketing strategy is the publishing of high-volume tweets and using different accounts to retweet them. This helps them spread their message to more Twitter users.
Figure 3: A graph exhibiting the volume of tweets that features the words: “‘Muhammad Qasim’ OR (GAZA NEAR Qasim) OR (#GerakanakhirZaman) OR ‘Gerakan Akhir Zaman’ OR #MuhammadQasimDreams’, from the period 1 January 2022 to 1 July 2022.
Twitter has evidently shown that it is unable to deal with spam, fake and bot accounts that continuously emerge in bulk on the platform. While bot accounts and activities are easily identifiable, it is more difficult to distinguish an astroturfing tweet from a tweet posted by an actual supporter of GAZA. As such, Twitter has been unable to deal with astroturfing accounts consistently. In the case of GAZA-related accounts, some have been deactivated by Twitter for spam and bot-like activities, but many others remain active.
The above demonstrates that the modus operandi of contemporary millenarian groups has become more sophisticated with the rise of social media as compared to previous groups who disseminated ideas through gatherings and publications. Through social media, these groups have not only managed to spread their ideas beyond Malaysian borders and created a transnational network of followers in shorter periods of time, they can also thrive despite attempts by the authorities to thwart them. Several social media features have also made it more difficult for the groups’ activities to be tracked. The authorities can no longer effectively contain activities carried out by these groups simply due to changes in the way they operate. As social media features continue to grow more sophisticated, the effectiveness of existing approaches to tackle them continues to drop.
MOVING BEYOND SECURITY AND THEOLOGICAL LENSES
In the age of social media where millenarian groups can thrive despite being banned, more creative solutions are needed to tackle them. While it is important to remain vigilant of any potential threat posed by these groups—including the spread of misinformation and disinformation—it is also necessary to understand and address the root causes of their emergence and popularity. For a long time, the current approaches have only sought to clamp down on millenarian groups – which were sometimes successful but ignored the deeper social conditions that led them to appear in the first place.
The religious authorities in Malaysia have often cited ignorance and lack of proper religious education as factors that drive individuals to subscribe to millenarian groups or teachings. However, existing studies suggest that other sociological factors are at play. Throughout history, millenarian movements gained traction during periods of political, social, moral, and theological uncertainty. Under this condition, belief in millenarian ideas gave followers a sense of relief. To be sure, Muslim societies were most receptive to such movements during the height of European colonialism. Subscribing to millenarian beliefs to find relief remains the case today. A study by Luthfi Makhasin on followers of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani in Indonesia shows that millenarian ideas help “people comprehend the current world, their problems and possible future solutions”.
Previous studies have also shown that subscription to millenarian ideas is related to individuals’ circumstances and environment. An anthropological study on a millenarian group led by Sheik Nazim in Lebanon found that one’s socio-economic status, upbringing, and religious orientation significantly influence the level of affiliation and adherence to the teachings of its leader. Followers who religiously believe in and adhere to Sheik Nazim’s prophecies of the end times tend to come from the middle class who resided in a region that had gone through “a tumultuous age… torn apart by political and religious conflict”. They also tend to come from a more religiously conservative background and to be feeling threatened by Western materialism. Their experience of living in an anarchic situation had left them “with a deep sense of despair and insecurity”. Hence believing in the apocalyptical teachings of Sheik Nazim serves as a coping mechanism and gives a sense of protection “from physical danger”. In contrast, Sheik Nazim’s followers who admire the figure but do not commit to his teachings tend to come from higher social groups, who have found ways to reconcile with Western culture, and who are more exposed to Muslim-Christian interactions.
Habibis’ findings, which were obtainable only through an anthropological study, are significant in showing how various factors relating to one’s social conditions influence one’s level of adherence to millenarian ideas. These findings also prove that ignorance and lack of proper education are not necessarily key factors in causing an individual to follow millenarian groups. Instead, religious conservatism and the inability to reconcile with Western culture can be more influential.
These findings also prove that ignorance and lack of proper education are not necessarily key factors in causing an individual to follow millenarian groups. Instead, religious conservatism and the inability to reconcile with Western culture can be more influential.
UNCERTAINTIES AND TURBULENT TIMES IN MALAYSIA
Given that social conditions influence one’s adherence to millenarian ideas, it is important that millenarian groups in Malaysia are studied sociologically and examined against the background of the country’s current political and economic climate. This is to better understand why such groups remain popular among certain sections of society. Since 2020, Malaysia has gone through tremendous development and periods of instability. This includes the COVID-19 pandemic and the multiple enforcement of the Movement Control Order, as well as a political crisis marked by the Sheraton Move that led to the downfall of the Pakatan Harapan government. Despite the rise of the Pakatan Harapan coalition government following the 15th General Election, long-term prospects of political and economic stability remain to be seen. Apart from that, Malaysia also went through unprecedented flood disasters in 2021, which killed almost 50 people.
Figure 4: A screenshot of Masitah’s post on 14 January 2022 sharing that there are “mysterious activities” in the ocean, causing floods in Selangor and Jakarta. She further mentions how many places in Indonesia and Malaysia are no longer liveable.
These developments have in many ways affected the lives of Malaysians and impacted their economic and psychological wellbeing. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the political instability are valid causes of anxiety among the general population. Some of these anxieties are reflected in the narratives promoted by millenarian groups. For instance, during the flood disaster in 2021, Masitah posted that these floods, including those that took place in Indonesia, were a result of mysterious activities conducted in the sea by evil organisations (see Figure 4 above). Similarly, Muhammad Qasim Dreams also posted how the flood in Pakistan sought to cleanse the country of shirk and was a sign of end times. The movement justified this by pointing out how the area that flooded collectively spelt out the word “Muhammad” in Arabic as shown in Figure 5 below. Although these narratives are misinforming, they serve as explanations that may help to quell the fears and anxieties felt by their followers amid a situation filled with uncertainty and instability.
Figure 5: A screenshot of a video posted by one of the Muhammad Qasim Dream accounts positing that the flooded areas in Pakistan spell out Prophet Muhammad’s name in Arabic, proving the legitimacy of Muhammad Qasim’s dreams.
Malaysia will continue to undergo significant development and changes that affect various aspects of life. As the political and economic situation has yet to settle, anxiety and fear may remain prevalent among segments of society. Malaysia will also continue to face other issues including flood disasters caused by climate change. Amid this uncertainty, its population will tend to adopt various coping mechanisms in search of relief, including subscribing to millenarian ideas and groups.
Like many other millenarian groups, the two case studies presented in this article may each not serve as an overt security threat. Nonetheless, these groups and their methods of using astroturfing and spreading sensationalised disinformation and misinformation show that measures need to be taken against them. Their methods, if persistent, may create an environment where false information becomes rampant. Promoting sensationalised “alternative” news also leads to the erosion of trust, an increase in cynicism, and disengagement from factual news and the current political landscape. PMYT and GAZA can be seen as indicators that disengagement, cynicism and trust erosion are growing among certain society groups more than others.
It is undeniable that in the age of social media, millenarian groups and ideas can no longer be effectively contained through security or theological means. Hence, it is important to consider more creative, non-theological or security-related approaches. Regardless of the approaches chosen, it is imperative that authorities first recognise the root causes that drive individuals to subscribe to millenarian ideas. This can be achieved through more sincere engagements and interactions with existing groups to understand their social conditions. Such an effort is important in revealing the nuanced grievances and unmet needs of these individuals and, in turn, can help determine the kind of intervention required to tackle millenarian groups.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2023/30 published on 19 April 2023. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.
Amirul Adli Rosli was a Research Officer at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Nur Syafiqah Mohd Taufek is a master’s student in the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.