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Championing Muslim Humanity to Perceive the Russian Invasion In the Indonesia-Malaysia Young Muslim Community 

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has generated extensive responses from communities across the globe. In Indonesia, we identified 6,280 tweets in support of Russia at the beginning of the 2022 invasion. Meanwhile, other research asserts that Malaysian netizens produced 1,142 pro-Russian tweets and dozens of Facebook posts.

Based on the above data, Indonesian and Malaysian social media users appear distracted from discussing the destructive impact of the invasion and instead focus on the superficial nature of the content they consume. As a result, audiences are vulnerable to being exposed to content that shifts their attention from the reality of the war to the perpetrator's point of view.

Our research found that social media users articulated Islamic narratives to express their support of the invasion. To investigate this notion further, we conducted a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) with students from two Islamic Universities in Indonesia and Malaysia. We then compiled the findings with online survey data that was distributed to a wider audience in both regions. Given that social media is potentially distorted by social noise, a cross-analysis between digital and traditional data is required.

Although Indonesian-Malaysian Muslim communities share societal values, there are notable differences regarding their perceptions of the Russian invasion. Our findings showed that young Malaysian Muslims expressed support for the Russian invasion predominantly due to “anti-Western” sentiment. Meanwhile, young Indonesian Muslims expressed admiration for Putin's bravery in waging war.

Methodology

To obtain the data, we conducted FGDs and online surveys of young Muslims in  Indonesia and Malaysia. The FGDs involved students from Universitas Pesantren Tinggi Darul Ulum in Indonesia and Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin in Malaysia, both of which have a long tradition of incorporating Islamic values into learning. In this session, we asked respondents questions about how they perceived the Russian invasion of Ukraine, followed by a moderated peer discussion of the topic. The questions focused on how they would describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how they would describe related content they encounter on social media.

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Furthermore, we administered a single online survey that was distributed through the Islamic school coordinator and sent to 315 respondents across the Java Region and 69 respondents from Malaysia. Respondents were obtained by random sampling and then selected based on specific criteria including a 15-40 age range and the requirement to have completed or to be undergoing a formal Islamic education. The participants were required to answer a combination of 22 open-ended and closed-ended questions for the survey, which included both quantitative and qualitative data regarding respondents' opinions towards the Russian invasion. Thereafter, the qualitative survey data was analyzed using the content analysis tool CAQDAS (Computer-Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis), which is used to segment survey data into different themes.

Young Indonesian Muslims’ Admiration for Putin

The survey results revealed that most young Indonesian Muslims were attracted to Putin’s macho persona. When the survey posed the question: ‘Do you know Vladimir Putin?’ the dominant answer from respondents (76%) was “Yes”, with the remaining respondents answering “No”. Respondents were then asked, ‘What do you know about Vladimir Putin?’, with the most common answer being that they admired Putin's machismo qualities, such as his bravery in waging war and defending the Islamic cause. Several respondents in the FGD session also acknowledged Putin’s macho persona. Moreover, the question ‘Do you think Russia is a “cool” country?’ resulted in 53% of respondents answering “Yes”, 17% answering “No”, and 30% stating, “Don't know”. When asked to elaborate on their answer, most respondents thought Russia was “cool” due to Putin’s pro-Islamic stance.

Regarding the question ‘Do you know about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022?’ 72% of respondents answered “Yes” and 28% answered “No”. When asked what they knew about the invasion, the majority of respondents focused solely on NATO and Putin’s defense of his nation, and completely neglected the humanitarian aspect. Lastly, we asked respondents if the social media content they consumed contained stories about Putin supporting Islam, with 69% of respondents claiming to have encountered content depicting Russia as pro-Islam, reflecting our previous studies.

Young Malaysian Muslims and Their Anti-West Sentiment

The Malaysian Muslim community had a different perspective on the Russian invasion to their Indonesian counterparts. They perceive the Russian invasion predominantly through historical anti-West lens. This aligns with what we observed in the FGD session. Replying to the question, ‘Do you see content that contains the message that Russia/Putin supports Islam?’ 20% of respondents stated “Yes”, 42% answered “No”, and 38% said “Don’t know”. Another question, ‘Do you think Russia/Putin is a pro-Islam country?’ was answered with 26% “Yes”, 46% “No”, and 28% “Don’t know”. When asked to elaborate on their answers, the Malaysian respondents said they were inclined to support Russia because of Malaysia’s colonial history with Great Britain. These answers highlight the difference in perspectives between Malaysian and Indonesian respondents, due to the different content they consume.

100% of Malaysian respondents answered “Yes” when asked ‘Do you know Vladimir Putin?’ The differences between the two sets of respondents continued when describing him. While the Indonesian respondents expressed their attachment to Putin’s macho persona, Malaysian respondents mostly perceived Putin solely through his role as a president. When asked ‘Do you think Russia is a “cool” country?’ 58% of respondents answered “Yes”, 18% answered “No”, and 24% stated “Don't know”. Upon elaborating, most respondents interpreted “cool” in terms of Russia’s culture and strong military power, with some mentioning Russia’s concern for its national interest.

100% of Malaysian respondents also answered “Yes” regarding the question ‘Do you know about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022?’ Moreover, respondents also believed that the invasion was caused by the West’s approach to Ukraine. They also hope the Malaysian government will support Russia, as the West are supporting Ukraine.

Cross-Analysis of Survey Results

We observed a similar pattern in the responses regarding consumption of social media among both sets of respondents. The predominant response was that they accessed social media up to five hours per day, with TikTok and Instagram the most popular platforms. They also stated that social media was their primary source of information about the Russian invasion. Based on data collected, 100% of Malaysian respondents and 72% of Indonesian respondents asserted that they had encountered social media content about the Russian invasion. Indonesian respondents claim to have encountered more Putin-centered stories, while Malaysian respondents stated they had seen content that blamed the West. Despite these differences, both Indonesian and Malaysian respondents said Russia was a pro-Islamic country.

A possible linkage exists between how these communities consume social media content and the persistence of anti-Western sentiment. The more time spent accessing social media, the higher the risk of being exposed to propaganda-related content. Malaysian respondents who spent a minimum of four hours on social media tended to view Russia as a cool and anti-Western country. Meanwhile, Indonesian respondents were more vulnerable to information disruption.

Championing Humanity

In an age where digital information dominates, the Muslim community must show information resilience. This means identifying propaganda and separating fact from disinformation. Due to its strong ties of solidarity, the Muslim community is more vulnerable to social media propaganda, particularly on the topic of Jihad. Failure to distinguish propaganda from actual Islamic teaching can result in terrorism.

The Muslim community should respond to war by revisiting humane Islamic teachings, instead of falling for social media propaganda. Muslims should think about the consequences for humanity before forming opinions on a particular topic. Victims of the war need support and protection irrespective of their historical or political background. These ideas can inspire young Muslims to distinguish between facts and propaganda and incorporate Islamic teaching in responding to the Russian invasion.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The above research shows how the Indonesian and Malaysian Muslim communities perceive the Russian invasion on social media. Despite similarities between the communities, Indonesian respondents specifically focused on Putin’s macho persona. On the other hand, Malaysian respondents tended to express their support for Russia based on anti-Western notions. As a result, we urge Muslim communities in both countries to shift the paradigm from social media discourse to a more substantial discussion. Championing humanity is an essential feature of Islamic teaching that should not be neglected.

In this situation, a cross-country dialogue between Muslim communities can ensure that responses to the war reflect Islamic values. Dialogue between Islamic communities, especially between young Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia, is essential in creating common ground to view international affairs and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine using Islamic values.  Humanitarianism is a universal concept that aligns with Islamic values and allows young Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims to aspire towards conflict resolution and peace worldwide.

Dias P.S. Mahayasa is a lecturer in Gender Studies, Department of International Relations, Universitas Jenderal Soedirman, Indonesia. He also serves as Director for the Center for Identity and Urban Studies.

Bimantoro K. Pramono is a lecturer in Digital Diplomacy at the International Relations Department, Universitas Paramadina, Indonesia. He also serves as a Visiting Researcher for the Data & Democracy Research Hub at Monash University, Indonesia.

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