In Thailand’s deep south, a region on the Malaysian border that is infamous for harbouring a decades-long violent separatist insurgency, a Chinese Muslim called Hu Ya Feng was reading Immanuel Kant. It was not for leisure. The German philosopher is required reading in the mandatory Peace Studies programme assigned to all students at Fatoni University.
“This is a very unique programme,” the tall, smiling student from Shandong told me. “I wanted to study in Thailand because it’s a beautiful country, and it’s much closer to my family than a university in the Middle East.” He was in his fourth year, studying Islamic law and Arabic at the university in Pattani province, which attracts students from places such as Cambodia, France and Papua New Guinea.
Founded in 2004, Fatoni University has an idyllic campus, with wide lawns and neatly paved roads. At its heart is an imposing white building, whose facade is inlaid with screens and inset with arches, capped with a gold dome. When I visited in July 2017, clusters of students lounged on the grounds under the hot sun, eating sticks of satay and ice cream in coconut shells.
The university is run by Thailand’s most prominent fundamentalist Salafi Muslim, Ismail Lutfi Japakiya. Over the past thirty years, Lutfi has almost singlehandedly reshaped the religious landscape of the region by spreading Salafism, an austere strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. About a fifth of Muslims in the region are now Salafis, according to Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, an independent group that monitors conflict in southern Thailand.
With a slim, unwrinkled face, Lutfi looked younger than his 68 years when we met on campus. He wore rimless glasses and an ankle-length white tunic with a matching white cap. “The key to solving the problems of our region is what I call the peace way,” he told me, with the defensive air of someone used to having to explain himself. “That is what all our students study.”
Historically an independent Malay sultanate, Pattani became a tributary of the erstwhile kingdom of Siam in 1785 and was eventually incorporated into the modern Thai state. Along with three other Muslim-majority provinces in the region—Narathiwat, Yala and Songkhla; the first two were carved out of Pattani province in 1808—it has long witnessed cultural and political clashes between its Malay citizens and the Buddhist constitutional monarchy of Thailand.
A violent separatist movement has existed in Pattani since 1948, though its various factions have not reached a consensus on what they demand. Since 2004, over six thousand people have been killed in the region. Recent incidents include bus burnings, truck bombings and the arrest of alleged Islamic State militants. In such a context, despite the reputation Salafism has acquired for fuelling extremism around the world, Lutfi’s network of universities may actually promote a form of peace.
Lutfi was born in 1950 in Mecca, where his father was studying, and brought up in Pattani. He was attracted to the separatist movement as a teenager, but lost interest when he, in turn, went to Saudi Arabia on one of the scholarships that Saudi universities have disbursed in Southeast Asia for decades. In the 13 years he spent studying at Madinah University and the Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, where he completed a doctorate in comparative Islamic jurisprudence in 1986, Lutfi embraced Salafism with a missionary zeal.
On his return to Pattani, he set up Salafi mosques and seminaries, for which he received considerable financial assistance from various West Asian governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as non-governmental organisations based in those countries. He also adopted modern technologies such as cassettes and CDs to spread his sermons to a wider audience.
Fatoni is the second of three campuses in Lutfi’s growing university network. The first was the Yala Islamic University, opened in 1998 with funding from a Saudi charity called the International Islamic Relief Organization. Last year, the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, donated $20 million for a third campus, called Madinatussalam—“city of peace”—which is currently under construction in Yala. There are now over four thousand students enrolled in the system, up from two hundred when it started.
Lutfi was not always a mainstream figure. In 2003, he was investigated by the Thai government for alleged links with members of Jemaah Islamiyah—a terror group with links to al Qaida—after it was revealed that the 2002 Bali bombings were planned in Bangkok. One of his students was arrested for having ties to the JI. In a 2006 interview with the researcher Joseph Liow, Lutfi admitted to meeting three JI militants at the time, but insisted that he dismissed them after an argument over whether violence was a legitimate response to state oppression.
“The Thais put the screws to Lutfi,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who focusses on Southeast Asian security issues, told me. But the national police found no significant links between him and terrorism or separatism. “He was not arrested,” Abuza said. “They went to him and did a deal. The crown prince”—now King Vajiralongkorn—“went to his Yala Islamic college to give him the royal good housekeeping seal. In return, he dropped ties to militants and Saudi charities. I think any ties today are dormant.”
The clean chit was a turning point for Lutfi’s movement. “After his name was cleared,” Srisompob told me, “he was appointed to many government commissions, and even appointed to the national legislative assembly” after the military coup in 2006. The Thai government, he added, recognised that Salafism was providing an “alternate path and identity” for the disaffected Muslims who were joining the insurgency.
Today, Lutfi’s universities receive funds from the national education budget. He was also put in charge of organising the haj pilgrimage for Thai nationals several times during a period that saw the Saudi government increase the number of haj visas allocated to Thailand, Liow said. This was particularly impressive because relations between the two nations were icy following the “blue diamond affair,” when a Thai janitor stole priceless jewels from the palace of Prince Faisal bin Fahd in 1989 and three Saudi diplomats in Bangkok were later shot dead under mysterious circumstances.
Lutfi’s protean nature has enabled his movement to expand its popularity and secure state support. “Thirty years ago, Lutfi was a straightforward hardliner,” Ilyas Yahprung, a lecturer at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok, told me. “But he has adapted himself to the changing situation and context in the deep south. Now I would say he is ‘soft Salafi.’” A 2005 US state department cable, posted online by WikiLeaks, notes that Lutfi “will remain an important figure in the reconciliation process as long as he can continue to balance his credibility with both southern Muslims and the Thai government.”
The “peace way,” Lutfi’s signature programme, is somewhat light on specifics. As he explained, it involves reading the Quran and Hadiths, as well as a few Western philosophers, within the framework that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Every Fatoni student must spend 16 weeks on the course. Not one of the over seven thousand alumni of the university system has become an extremist, Lutfi claimed. “We are clean!” he declared.
Many separatists are vocally opposed to Lutfi. “The Salafis are fanatics,” Abu Alfatani, a leader of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, one of the major insurgent groups in the region, told me. “Our home is becoming a destination for Saudis to spread Wahhabism,” he added, using the often pejorative term for Saudi Salafism. The PULO feels greater kinship with the Levant than the Gulf countries: Alfatani referred to the Palestine Liberation Organization as “our brothers,” and spoke highly of Syria and Libya, whose governments helped train the PULO cadre during the 1980s.
The local community has also expressed concerns that Salafism threatens its traditions. Yahprung said the Salafis oppose customary festivities on occasions such as Mohammed’s birthday. “I think it’s bad for local culture, because our customs and practices are what bind people together.”
Such concerns are likely not shared by the Thai government, which “will support any groups that are not separatists,” Ibrahem Narongraksakhet, a professor at the Prince of Songkla University, told me. “That being said, Ismail Lutfi at least understands the context of Pattani culture and is less literalist than most Salafis. The real hardliners are in Bangkok.” Lutfi’s balancing act of spreading a regionally relevant variation of Salafism, Narongraksakhet explained, was unique. In Thailand’s capital, meanwhile, the purist, transnational, context-free Salafism of the internet has taken hold.
It is embodied by people like Amin Lona, a swaggering 30-year-old cleric from Yala who has become popular among young Salafis in the capital. “I think of Ismail Lutfi as the ‘anti-me,’” Lona told me when we met near his Bangkok apartment, flanked by five acolytes with identical wispy beards and ankle-length linen pants. Wearing long tunics and an incongruous woollen beanie, Lona travels the length and breadth of the city, lecturing about a more uncompromising Salafism. “I have converted many Buddhists to Islam,” he bragged.
Unlike Lutfi, Amin supports the separatists. “As a Muslim,” he said, “we don’t accept any nation-state.” Also unlike Lutfi, he has never been to West Asia, and does not see any reason to soften the austere desert ideology of Salafism for its local and modern context.
These contrasts raise the question of how much the delicate promise of the Salafi movement in the region turns on the skills of one man. For now, Thailand’s deep south harbours one of the most unique Salafi movements in the world. But it is unclear whether the centre will hold after Lutfi’s death.
Lutfi was philosophical when I asked him what might come next. “If the peace way is beneficial for people here, they will change,” he replied. “If it’s not, they won’t.”