Islamist Conservatism in Malaysia

December 20, 2013

Islamist Conservatism in Malaysia

by Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid

Mullah Harussani and NajibHarussani and Najib

The transmission of Islam in the Malay-Indonesian world remains entrenched in history as one of the foremost examples of peaceful proselytisation of religion on a trans-continental scale. So successful was the continuous process from around the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, that the Islamic faith (agama) became comfortably embedded as a definitive criterion, apart from the Malay language (bahasa Melayu) and rulership (kerajaan), of Malayness – in reference to the broad category of Southeast Asia’s indigenous population who were previously adherents of animism and variants of Hindu-Buddhist religious traditions prevalent in the archipelago.

The sources, modalities, timing and other details of the genesis of Islam among the Malays had always been diverse – there were sufis or Muslim mystics and shias; Arabs, Chinese, Indians and Bengalis; sayyids, sheikhs and itinerant missionaries; merchants, traders and political escapees from the flux engulfing their lands of origin or transit.

With its kaleidoscopic provenance as the backdrop, Islam as understood and practised by Malay-Muslims prior to the era of the nation state never bore monolithic traits. On the contrary, accommodation of mores from a variety of civilisational traditions prevailed, as strongly reflected in the assortment of religious practices deriving from various ethno-cultural traditions that eventually assumed the label of being part of Malay-Muslim heritage. Hence we find for instance, in Penang, the boria musical tradition which traces its ancestry to Shiah festivities. Religio-cultural marhaban and berzanji troupes who commonly perform during Malay wedding receptions, in turn, owe their origins to rhythmic salutations of the Prophet Muhammad popularised by sufi congregations.

Islam in Malaya, up till Independence on  August 31, 1957, had remained steadfastNik Aziz to the spirit of wide interpretation, as personified by its perennial willingness to accommodate the intricacies of local customs known as adat, and to tolerate the arrival of new cultural strands such as the Kaum Muda and even the West. The celebrated public debate in Kelantan on whether a dog’s saliva could be considered impure or not in 1937 was indicative of the spirit of tolerance of diversity of views that prevailed in pre-independent Malaya. The differences of views between the traditional and reformist ulama notwithstanding, the terrain of Islam in Malaya was invariably pluralist from the pre-colonial through the colonial epochs.

Accompanying Independence from Britain was the inauguration of a Federal Constitution which installed Islam as the state religion via Article 3(1). The Constitution was arguably a hybrid document, which was nothing peculiar in view of the new nation state’s eclectic sources of national history. Many analysts have put forward arguments that it had secular intent, but yet it seemed to elevate the religion of the majority of the population to a pedestal unreachable by other religions.

The precise implications of Article 3(1) never made clear, the political role of Islam in independent Malaya and later Malaysia was left to the behest of Malay-Muslim politicians entrusted with governance of the fledgling nation state. In managing Islam as a component of public life, however, religious purity was made subservient to political expediency connected in one way or another to the political fortunes of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has continuously ruled the country together with its non-Malay component partners in the multi-racial Perikatan (Alliance) and Barisan Nasional (BN: National Front) coalitions.

The public fate of Islam was thereby laid in the hands of successive Prime MinistersTDM and UMNO leaders, who resorted to the bureaucratisation of Islam in order to assist them. The expansion of the Islamic bureaucracy took place at a relentless pace under Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Islamisation programme in the 1980s.

By the time his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi pronounced Islam Hadhari, through which Islam was to be interpreted and applied through enlightened civilisational lenses, the Islamic bureaucracy had ossified into a monstrous elite whose ruthless hold on the Muslim populace was justified on the basis of Article 3(1).

In contrast to his predecessors who had refrained from exploiting Islam as a political tool, whether out of their own ignorance or respect for constitutional niceties established by its secular-inclined drafters, Mahathir unabashedly championed Islam as the most effective way of outflanking his competitors for Malay loyalty, namely the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS: Islamic Party of Malaysia) and emergent dakwah organisations such as the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM: Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) and Darul Arqam, which later morphed into Rufaqa’ Corporation and Global Ikhwan following Darul Arqam’s banning in 1994.

In doing so, Mahathir unwittingly (or not) inducted many elements of political Islam or Islamism into the official state apparatus. Inducting the Islamist (which needs to be differentiated from Islamic) strand into affairs of the state was a double-edged sword. While being a politically deft move in neutralising the Islamist challenge, the state also incorporated negative aspects of marrying the management of Islam with overt politics, parallel with the regressiveness of the Saudi Arabian state as a result of its adoption of the Wahhabi brand of conservative Islam during its inception.

The state’s recent repression of unorthodox Islamic groups, as exemplified in renewed crackdowns on the Shiah and Global Ikhwan movements following the thirteenth general election, smacks of its inability to intellectually engage discontented elements within its majority Malay-Muslim population, who increasingly find the state’s handling of Islam to be inept and downright hypocritical. It would have looked credible for the UMNO-controlled state if its actions were all guided by a sincere intent to defend the integrity of Islam, but the fact of the matter remains that when so-called transgressions against orthodox Islam are committed by elements organically connected to the state, the ruling elites indulge in deafening silence.

My personal contacts in the Police’s anti-terrorism unit admits that influential UMNO individuals at branch and division level also have connections to the Shiah, but the focus of the authorities, such as in seminars conducted across the country on the ‘Shiah virus,’ have portrayed as though the heterodoxy is an affliction linked solely to PAS. Solitary pronunciations by political elites that Shiism is acceptable for non-Malay Muslims such as Iranians (who provide good income by forming the bulk of Middle Eastern students conducting postgraduate research in Malaysian universities), but forbidden for Malay-Muslims, adds an ethnic dimension to the state’s management of Islam (comprehension and practice of Islam) in Malaysia being a factor of ethno-religious politics rather than religious purity.

The government acts only on rogue Muslims in such a way that political benefit accrues to the state and its organic linkages. It is utterly unable to fathom that the Malay-Muslims have developed their Islamic horizons intellectually as a result of the shrinking of the ummah into a global village in the internet age, and so are open to the more sophisticated choices of models of Islam offered throughout the world. How could the state isolate the Islamic understanding of its Malay-Muslim population but at the same time urges them to embrace globalisation and modernisation?

The state continues to pursue an anti-pluralist approach to religion, but fails to appreciate that diversity of views and perspectives among the learned, even in theological matters, has been part and parcel of the glorious Islamic civilisation. Many eminent scholars such as Al-Kindi (d. 873) and Al-Jahiz (d. 868), were not orthodox Muslims as we would normally understand it. Even the great Ibnu Sina aka Avicenna (d. 1037) has been considered by some historians as having belonged to the freemason-like Ikhwan as-Safa brotherhood or one of the Shiah sects.

In addition, prominent Sunni ulama putatively acknowledged by the later generations of Muslims as veritable reformers such as Al-Shafie (d. 820), Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Al-Suyuti (d. 1505) clashed with the religious officialdom of their days. Al-Shafie, whose school of law Malaysia’s Sunni Muslims purport to follow, was dragged to the court of Harun Al-Rashid on the accusation of colluding with Shiahs.

By equating unorthodoxy with deviancy, the Malaysian state is killing offIslam H intellectual creativity and innovativeness among its Muslim populace, over whom it prefers to exert an everlasting dominance. Ironically, this runs counter to the Islam Hadhari strand of civilisational interpretation of religion which the government once projected itself to be a proponent of.

Not only is the government rolling back on its supposedly enlightened conception of Islam, but by laying itself vulnerable to skewed interpretations of Islam proffered by cohorts of conservative ulama infesting its bureaucracy, it is also espousing an overall regressive trajectory in the sphere of ethno-religious relations. Small wonder then that the self-appointed guardians of present-day Malaysian Islam, all organically linked to the state, utterly fail to understand how the appellation ‘Allah’ can be justifiably employed by non-Muslims as a religious reference to an omniscient God.

Internalised in the Malay-Muslim psyche as a factor of Malay ethnocentric politics, Islam in Malaysia has been reduced by the powers that be to a political tool to satisfy their political machinations towards ensuring continual Malay-Muslim (read: UMNO) hegemony.

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid is Associate professor and Chairman of the Political Science programme, School of Distance Education, University Sains Malaysia.

12 thoughts on “Islamist Conservatism in Malaysia

  1. Malaysia is being governed by a bunch of political bigots at the behest of mullahs like Harussani and his colleagues. Religious intolerance and racist politics will destroy Malaysia’s delicate harmony and inter-ethnic relations. Allah now belongs to the Malays here. Actually, the Malays are a confused lot. Religiosity and corruption are on the rise. That is Islamic conservatism propagated by a corrupt regime. Good luck.

  2. Gertak, you are not correct in saying that the Malays are a confused lot. They are divided on issues of Malay identity, and Islam. This is a serious problem for our country, given a weak Prime Minister.Your views please, Mr. Bean and Semper Fi.–Din Merican

  3. The history of Islam legal place in our country is NOT by designed – Firstly Article (3) was by a foreigner – Pakistani – the place of origin of Islamic Statism. The rulers were not proponent of it originally seeing protection of their own state powers and influence as their main objective. Even the proponent of maintaining secularity in this country Tunku Abdul Rahman, put the reason publicly as the multi-cultural/multi-religious aspect of this country BUT he has been recorded privately to have told his party members Islamic state is a bad idea.

    This means that there is NO ONE ultimately responsible for the design of Islamic role in this country and what makes all these Islamic politicisation really bad idea is that those who are making the changes do it WITH DEGREES OF IRRESPONSIBILITY – there are very few and mostly in PAS these days that really do take the responsibility of outcome, of the design – EVERYONE ELSE IS FOR NARROW SPECIAL OR WORT SELF-INTEREST REASON.

    The assumption is simply somehow Islamic will find its way ultimately – simply a taking things for granted – in fact a recipe for disaster. How else do you explain the current anti-Syiah rhetoric is ALREADY A VIOLATION OF IOC AGREEMENTS WE SIGNED?


    It comes down to simple this – when it comes to Islam and MALAYS – WHERE DOES THE BUCK STOPS? The answer, now, is NO ONE..

  4. Din,
    Pretty soon it will be revealed by our illustrious religious alamaks (sic) that old Mo, the prophet was actually a Malay who while visiting Arabia met with Gabe (the angel) who was also visiting. Gabe was there to civilise the wild uncivilised Arab tribes and help bring them into the fold of humanity, but alas until today (except for a couple of centuries which culminated in the so-called golden age) the Arabs and those who are stupid enough to fall under their religious persuasion are still as uncivilised as ever. But the Malay alamaks will claim that because old Mo was actually a Malay, our Islam is more authentic than the Arabs and we are the rightful defenders of Islam; any way the so-called Saudi royal family who claimed to be the keeper and defender of Islam are known to be descendants of an Iraqi Jew named Menachaim bin Ibrahim bin Moshe who swindled some stupid Arabs of vast tracts of land which later became Saudi Arabia.

  5. I sincerely hope that the (or any) Islamic Authority in Malaysia can explain to the Muslim populace of this country why “TUHAN HARUN” and his disciples were not apprehended when they knew of its existence for more than a year before they embarked on their murderous act.

    They said they were aware and were monitoring its activities.

    Was the Police in the know? Or were the religious authorities keeping the knowledge to themselves? Probably in hope of napping them in the name of Allah SWT, and claiming victory and kudos from the public.

    Looking at “Tuhan Harun” via pictures of him in the media, I am flabbagasted at how people could be conned into accepting him as GOD!!! And providing him with funds to heaven???

    The fella does not even need a perhimpunan agong to spread his message. Does not even need a shave.

    In the sand dunes, they could have called him “Lawrence of Arabia”.

    But then, Lawrence was no ‘Tuhan’.

    I am confused.

  6. Narrow, divisive and damaging politics of religion over the decades, together with weak and corrupt political leadership, had done a lot of damage to the country and there is no quick fix.

    You don’t mix politics with religion, let alone race, unless you are inviting trouble……..the permanent and long term damage has just started to unfold.

  7. From ‘Descent into Chaos’ by Ahmed Rashid (Viking, 2008, 484 pg): pg 34 -36:

    …Pakistan’s identity crisis is rooted in the fears, insecurity, and contradictions inherent in Muslims living during the Raj, Muslims who had once ruled India and now lived in a Westernized colonial state after they had been heavily defeated — most recently in the 1857 uprising. Modern Muslim reformists and elitist landlords saw a majority Hindu population favored by the British and so began to consider themselves as a separate “nation” from Hindu India. This “two-nation theory”, which was to form the basis for the Pakistan movement, disregarded ethnic and linguistic differences and considered a separate religious identity sufficient to create a new nation. Yet adherents had no support from the ulema, or religious leaders, who saw Indian Muslims as inextricably linked to the ummah, or the global community of Muslim believers, whose leadership still lay with the defunct Ottoman empire. The ulema did not consider a new nation-state for Muslims as being valid, although they were to change their minds after Partition. This identity crisis became even more complicated when the Muslim League, founded in 1906 and led by Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, drew its main support Muslims in central and eastern India rather than the western regions that were to become the future Pakistan.

    The League made its demand for an independent Muslim state in Lahore on March 23, 1940, at its annual general meeting, when it passed the Pakistan Resolution. Seven years later Britain handed over a truncated Pakistan, with Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and the North-West Frontier Province forming West Pakistan, while the eastern province of Bengal was divided between India and Pakistan to create the geographically distinct East Pakistan…The speed and nature of Partition satisfied nobody. Millions of Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan crossed over into India, while Indian Muslims migrated to East and West Pakistan. A staggering twelve million people moved home and between five hundred thousand and one million people were killed in the ensuing sectarian violence. Pakistan emerged from a bloodbath of religious and ethnic hatred even as millions of Muslims chose to remain in a secular India. It was a tragic beginning for a new nation-state.

    Immediately the question of Pakistan’s identity arose: Was it to be a pluralistic, democratic country for Muslim and other religious minorities or a theocratic Islamic state? Founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah was perfectly clear that Pakistan had to be a secular, democratic state. In his most famous speech, in 1947, Jinnah was emphatic: “YOU MAY BELONG TO ANY RELIGION OR CASTE OR CREED — THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BUSINESS OF THE STATE,” he said (my emphasis).

    Jinnah died early, in 1948, and since then many Pakistanis, but particularly the military, have ignored his wishes and the democratic founding creed of the country. Today no state-funded school’s textbooks teach children Jinnah’s words because they would infuriate the mullahs. Today the military and the mullahs stress the Islamic nature of the state and pervert Jinnah and history by claiming that Pakistan was created as a result of a religious movement.

    For half of the sixty years of the country’s existence, Pakistanis have lived under four military regimes. Each one has reinvented the wheel by debating whether democracy is possible in an Islamic state and whether a parliamentary or or presidential system best suits the country’s “Islamic identity.” The 1973 constitution, which established a parliamentary system of democratic government and is still in force today, has been amended so many times by politicians and generals alike that it is barely recognisable. Attempts by secular politicians to live by the rule of law and the constitution have failed. The first free and fair elections took place only in 1970 — twenty-three years after Partition…

    Sotong, Jinnah was right all along, but ironically it is India that has proved him right. His own countrymen has failed him so convincingly and now, is it our turn?

  8. I should like to add that it was recounted in ‘Freedom at Midnight’ that when mass migration took place on the eve of Partition, loony inmates of asylums across the sub-continent were all miraculously enlightened on their impending new status. They, like their saner co-religionists, joined in the two-way movement when the doors of the asylum were thrown open. They too didn’t want to be on the ‘wrong’ side when Partition arrived. Nobody knows how many made it in the end, either southwards or northwards.

    We are all blessed equally no matter which religion we follow.

  9. Dato, I never knew I would be missed. It has been clear from the getgo that our government should have never used religion (read: Islam) in this way. Yes, ‘used’. Can’t make it any clearer. It is an insult to all right thinking Malaysians who owe their loyalty to King and country (including those who served in the military, who made the supreme sacrifice). irrespective of their ethnicity and religious beliefs. Malaysia remains the only country in the world governed by a regime that defines ethnicity to include religion. If you are no longer a Muslim, you stop being a Malay, a statement made by the Old Goat himself which has the force of law.

  10. PMIP the predecessor of PAS was booted out by Tunku for a good reason and the Old Goat courted PAS just to complete his control over the Malays and failed. I am not surprised if Najib follows suit and succeeds with offers of Cabinet posts for PAS, with lucrative contracts to follow.

  11. Mr Bean:
    I think it was the affable Tun Hussein Onn who did the booting.

    PAS in BN?

    It will be déjà vu.

    Kelantanese cannot forget what happened when Dato Asri went on aboard the sailing boat. The ensuing riots in 1977 was a measure of the tension generated by the few PMIP occupants of Federal and ambassadorial appointments.

    The Petroleum Development Act 1974 signed in 1975 by Dato Muhamed bin Nasir as MB, on behalf of Kelantan and Tg. Razaleigh on behalf of Petronas, has been the point of contention between the people of Kelantan and Putrajaya.

    If the petroleum royalty issue – 5% cash to Kelantan – has not made things any easier for Kelantan royal, Tg Razaleigh, and one-time challenger to Mahathir, it certainly sends a simple clear message to any current PAS leader itching to ensconce himself beside Najib – resist or face total rejection.

    Kelantan people, not least the Malays tak senang lupa.

  12. A lot of Malays are confused about Islam. They want to be conservative but most of the time they are following non-Islamic things. I’ve met people who act pious and ultra-Islamic but have no idea what’s being written in the Quran. Malays take for granted that they were born Muslims.

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