In Thailand’s Pattani state, sectarian conflict has killed more than 4,800 people since 2004. To end the violence, the military and an imam are using Islam to counter jihadism among at-risk youths.
A group of men, most wearing Muslim prayer caps, stand at attention. At the front of the room, an imam leads the group as they shout, “I will sacrifice everything, even my own life, to protect the purity of Islam.”
This isn’t a hardcore Muslim political or terrorist group though. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Next, the imam has everyone shout, “I will not get involved with any separatist movement in any case at all.”
In the midst of southern Thailand’s Pattani state, where sectarian conflict has killed more than 4,800 people since violence escalated in 2004, these men are at the heart of an effort to stamp out Malay Muslim militancy by eliminating possible recruits.
Facing a growing insurgency fighting to separate from Thailand, the Thai military set up the Peacebuilding Center to target at-risk youths. Local imams recruit men from “red zones,” areas known to have militant cells and high rates of violence.
“We are using Islam to solve the problem,” says Col. Chatchapon Sawangchote, director of the Peacebuilding Center. “Actually we don’t want them to side with the government or the state – we just want them to truly understand their religion.”
Colonel Sawangchote himself is new to Islam. He converted from Buddhism after working with Yeemae Pattalung, a local imam.
Mr. Pattalung is the regional head of Tablighi Jamaat, a rapidly growing global Islamic movement which eschews politics but is known for social conservatism. He admits he was skeptical when the colonel first asked for his help.