Malaise in Malaysia
Will Islamicization Become Its New Future
The Southeast Asian country of Malaysia, long regarded as a beacon of moderate Islam, is now in the midst of a bitter struggle over the future identity of the nation. The contenders are backward-looking Islamists and forward-looking Muslim modernizers and their Christian and other allies.
In May 2018, Malaysia was seemingly on the cusp of an exciting new era. Pakatan Harapan (PH), a dynamic, emerging political coalition of moderate Muslim, Chinese, and other ethnic parties, won the fourteenth national elections in a landslide, almost doubling its representation in parliament by winning 121 of 222 seats in the lower house and garnering 48.3 percent of the national vote.
The losing Barisan National (BN) coalition was reduced to 79 seats, down from 133 in the 2013 elections. The largest party in that coalition, the Muslim United Malays National Organization, had long dominated Malaysia’s political scene, leading the BN coalition to victory in every election since Malaysia became independent in 1963. Under the leadership of its long-serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who led the country from 1981–2003, successive BN governments had pursued a top-down program of Islamicization of the bureaucracy. The aim was to instill and reinforce Islamic values throughout the government, at both federal and state levels, as well as across Malaysia’s multicultural and multi-faith society, of which 60 percent is Muslim and 40 percent adhere to other faiths, including the 9 percent who are Christian.
When the PH coalition won power last year, non-Muslims and many of the more liberal Muslims anticipated and celebrated an end to the relentless Islamicizing drive of the previous BN governments. But some of the more conservative Muslims were dismayed by the prospect of greater power-sharing with non-Muslim minorities and were fearful of a more secularized society in which the dominance of Islam-friendly policies would be eroded. By a strange twist of fate, the new PH government was led by none other than Mahathir Mohamad, now a nonagenarian, as prime minister. He had switched his party allegiances after becoming disenchanted with successive BN governments led by his successors.
Islamist Opposition to Racial Equality
Since last year’s general election, Malaysia’s hardline Islamist groups have triggered ongoing protests against the new government. Their aim is to undermine the nation’s stability and to re-establish the Islamicization process that had been underway since the early 1980s. Concerned that the new Malaysian government might ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)—a UN policy dating from the 1960s, which has received widespread support from world governments—Islamist lobby groups organized a massive protest rally against the ICERD on December 8, 2018. They feared that ratification might undermine the special privileges enjoyed by the all-Muslim Malay race in multi-racial Malaysia.
The Islamist protests were widely criticized both within and outside Malaysia. Prominent Turkish scholar and activist Mustafa Akyol commented: “I would recommend that all those in Malaysia who oppose the ICERD on Islamic grounds read the Ottoman Constitution of 1876,” which, in his view, accorded with ICERD principles. Pro-ICERD Malaysian Muslim lawyer Latheefa Koya observed that a large number of Muslim nations had already ratified ICERD. Nevertheless, under pressure, Prime Minister Mahathir announced that Malaysia would not ratify the UN convention. This climb-down on his part resulted in the menacing anti-ICERD rally passing off on December 8 without incident. Islamist pressure had paid off for the hardliners.
Islamist Championing of Special Privileges for Malays
In the midst of the ICERD dispute, some Malays found another creative way to swim against the world tide of racial equality. In November, some 53 Malay Muslim NGOs (non-governmental organizations) formed the G3 group, a “third force alliance” designed to champion special rights for the Malay race in Malaysia. Some G3 spokespeople expressed a longing for “the spirit of May 13”—an ominous reference to the 1969 riots by Malays against ethnic Chinese Malaysians, which was triggered by a controversial result in the national elections that year. Many were killed in those riots, a fact alluded to in expressions of “longing for blood” by G3 spokespeople. Islamist pressure was thus adopting a more menacing tone.
Although most of the increasing Malay Islamist rhetoric has targeted the Chinese, some has been aimed at Christianity and Christians (many of whom are Chinese). Just before Christmas, the youth chief of the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi, cautioned Muslims not to celebrate Christmas, claiming that the Christian festival was against the teachings of Islam. In a lecture in the PAS heartland of Kuala Terengganu, Muhammad Khalil reportedly declared, “Christmas has an element of syirik (idolatry) which is against Islam’s teaching. They claim that God had a child, which is against our beliefs as Muslims. They celebrate Christmas with such elements and claim that Prophet Isa (Jesus) is the son of God.”
Such anti-Christian sentiments evoked a sharp rebuke from Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa, a faculty member of Monash University’s Malaysia campus and founder of the modernist Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF). He questioned the Islamist party’s understanding of Islamic teachings and multiculturalism, adding, “Perhaps it is time for PAS to think whether they should buy an island and proclaim it as an Islamic State and live exclusively with their own kind with the same mentality.”
An Islamic State?
Just after Christmas, the Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) launched a campaign for Malaysia to be recognized as an “Islamic state.” This attracted howls of protest from diverse quarters, Muslim voices among them. Majidah Hashim of the Sisters in Islam lobby group declared,
Why can’t we just be good Muslims in a progressive country that embraces modernity and is friendly with all nations East and West? Because if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere, and seriously, isn’t that what we want? For Malaysians to be globally savvy instead of a Malaysia that is paranoid and suspicious of everything that comes from outside our borders? I wonder about the fragility of the faith of an ummah [Muslim community] that is built upon the fear of humans and not love for God. I wonder how they would fare on the stage of the great wide world out there.
The Malaysian scene is heating up, as Muslim groups maneuver to shape the Malaysia of the future. That future hangs in the balance, as can be seen in a recent decision of the Kuching Sessions Court to sentence 22-year-old Alister Cogia from Sarawak to ten years in jail for posting insults against Islam and Muhammad on his Facebook page. PAS, Malaysia’s Islamic party, seeks greater influence and is drawing ever closer to the United Malays National Organization, which is still smarting from losing the 2018 elections. Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of Universiti Sains Malaysia warns that Muslims in Malaysia are “slowly but surely becoming radicalized,” pointing out that classes in Islam, taught in government schools since the early 1990s, have shifted their manner of teaching from a traditional Malay style to one derived from the Middle East, especially from Saudi Arabia.
All this raises concerns among Christians and other religious minorities. Christian civil rights activist and lawyer Eugene Yapp comments: “PAS is now seen as the frontline in defending Malay Muslim rights. The religious community is badly polarized even further now. It’s now a bi-polar relationship; between non-Muslim and Muslim. . . . This is going to be the key social and religious driver in the days ahead that will influence the political scenario.”
Peter Riddell is Vice Principal-Academic at the Melbourne School of Theology in Australia, and a Senior Fellow of Kairos Journal.