Can Malaysia’s Brand of ‘Moderate Islam’ Protect the rights of Minorities?

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jan 15, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Can Malaysia’s Brand of ‘Moderate Islam’ Protect the rights of Minorities?

By Farish A. Noor

Malaysia, now dubbed as one of the ‘models’ for progressive and moderate Islam in the world, is facing an identity crisis of sorts.

Over the past few years the ‘Malaysian model’ has been lauded in the international media as an example for other Muslim states to follow- though this has more to do with the rhetoric of the political elite of the country rather than its actual performance in the economic and developmental arenas. Malaysia’s troubled industries, including its national car maker Proton, remain in the doldrums and the Proton car company was recently dealt a heavy blow when it was announced that the Germany carmaker Volkswagen would not
after all take part in a deal to buy shares in the company. Faced with the realities of an increasingly competitive region and with the spectre of a dominant China rising above the horizon, the Malaysian state is still suffering from institutional inertia and showing little signs of being able to radically alter its governmental mind-set.

So how and why has Malaysia been singled out as a ‘model’ state for others to emulate? The answer lies in part in the rhetoric adopted by its leaders when dealing with the thorny issue of political Islam. Malaysia maintains that it is an officially Islamic state, though not in the same mould as Iran or Sudan. Malaysia’s political leadership, from former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to the present Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, have insisted that Malaysia will not tolerate any form of religiously-inspired terrorist activity in the country and has offered itself as a safehaven for those seeking an alternative, quietist, pacifist interpretation of Islam instead. Tourists who come to the country speak of the ‘moderate’ brand of Islam that is on display, where young Muslim women wearing headscarves can be seen driving around on motorbikes, working in offices and shops, studying in universities, etc - all the normal practices that have been denied to other ordinary Muslim women in other parts of the Muslim world.

Yet underlying these surfaces realities is another side of a country whose religious bureaucracy have taken on life on their own, and is now asserting its will in a less than clandestine manner. Last month the country was rocked by two incidents that showed just how far the religious bureaucracy had penetrated into the corridors of power: A new bill on Muslim family and marriage law stipulated that it would henceforth be easier for Muslim men to marry more than one wife, and on top of that opened the way for errant
husbands to claim part of their first wife’s assets in order to pay for his new lifestyle with wife number two. (Needless to say this did not go down well at all with the Muslim womens groups in the country, prompting a series of protests and appeals to have the law dropped altogether.)

Another issue of equal importance was the death and subsequent burial of a national hero, M. Moorthy, who was part of the national mountain climbing team that scaled Mount Everest. Moorthy, who was born a Hindu, had become paralysed after an accident during training, several years after his climb to the peak of Everest and after the nation had forgotten him. Following Moorthy’s death, it was suddenly claimed by the state’s religious authorities that he had converted to Islam- despite the fact that his wife and family denied any knowledge of such a conversion taking place.

On the day of his burial, Moothy’s body was claimed by the religious authorities who then proceeded to bury him as a Muslim, regardless of the vocal protests of his wife and relatives. From the outset this was bound to be a contentious issue, and it has now developed to become a major controversy in the country.

In response to the Muslim religious authorities treatment of Moorthy and his family, a string of Malaysian-Hindu groups and NGOs including the Hindu Seva Sangam, Tamil Foundation and Vivikenanda Youth Movement have come together to form the Malaysian Hindu Rights Action Force coalition. Other religious communities have also begun to act, with candlelight vigils, petitions and open protests erupting all over the capital of Kuala Lumpur. The central question that animates them all is simply this: Is Malaysia still a
constitutional democracy, or has the threshold been crossed and has the country turned into an Islamic state in all but name only?

Thus far the reaction of the Malaysian authorities have been slow and piecemeal, as expected. Discussion of the Moorthy case was deemed ‘controversial’ and ‘dangerous to national unity’ and the press was told in no uncertain terms that the matter should be kept off the broadsheets. Little media coverage has been given to the supporters of Moorthy’s family and thus far the only public comments that have been heard have come from the authorities who have stuck close to each other and maintained the
official line: that the conversion was bona fide and that the national hero had died a Muslim.

Nonetheless the affair has raised questions about the Malaysian constitution itself and the status of Malaysian civil law in relation to Islamic law. Which law is meant to dominate in the country and would the rights of Muslims be put before the rights of other religious communities? The Moorthy case has aroused the fear and anger of a wide section of non-Muslims in multi-religious Malaysia, and as with the case of the new Muslim family and marriage laws, has forced both Muslim women and non-Muslim minorities to reflect on their status and standing in the country.

Despite these setbacks however, it is clear that Malaysia remains firmly on the map as flovour of the month. Malaysia’s economic record of late has been little cause for cheer, but its commitment to the anti-terror campaign orchestrated by the neo-Cons of Washington means that it remains in the good books of the White House at least. But if this be the case, then it is obvious that Malaysia’s standing as a ‘model moderate Muslim state’ has less to do with its brand of statist Islam and top-down government promoted
Islamisation, and more to do with realpolitik geopolitical concerns. Should things remain the way they are, then it will become clear sooner than later that the countries claiming ‘moderate Muslim’ status are really players in Washington’s international gambit, rather than paragons of Muslim enlightenment and universal values.

With so much going for it and with the goodwill of the Muslim world in trust, Malaysia’s political elite could and should have opted for the braver option: Of using the time window it has at present to lay down the foundations for what could have been the first truly open, moderate, liberal and pluralist Muslim democracy where intelligent thinking on Islam and
Islamic normative praxis could have been discussed, formulated and put into practice. Instead it has taken the easy way out by using this positive publicity to keep things as they are, placate the interests of the right-wing conservative Muslim lobby, and maintain a ‘business as usual’ attitude. Malaysia was given a golden opportunity to deconstruct the
stereotype of the failed Islamic state, but has squandered the chance for the sake of simple political opportunism. Such chances do not come often, and Malaysia in particular may not be given the same chance ever again.