Honestly, where is Malaysia?s ?Moderate Islam? project heading?

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jul 27, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Honestly, where is Malaysia?s ?Moderate Islam? project heading?

By Farish A. Noor

Malaysia is, at the moment at least, hot stuff. From the ever-increasing number of foreign tourists who flock to the shopping malls of the country in search of good bargains and a vibrant nightlife; to foreign investors who remain undeterred by Malaysia?s rising labour costs thanks to the guaranteed assurance that the skilled labour of Malaysia is able to manufacture goods and offer services that are technologically more advanced than what is on offer in neighbouring countries. It is for these reasons that Malaysia remains on the world map as both a tourist destination and a viable country to invest in.

The other major selling point that is currently in Malaysia?s favour is the fact that the country?s political leadership has gone out of its way to present an image of Malaysia as a bastion of what is sometimes called ?Moderate Islam?. Malaysia today ? along with Muslim countries like Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia ? is considered a major ally in Washington?s unilateral ?war on terror? and the government of Malaysia, cognisant of the geopolitical realities that it has to address and cope with, has deployed an image in keeping with this new-found role. More than ever, the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has projected itself as the bastion of Islamic moderation and has sold the image of the country as an alternative model to other less-than-liberal regimes in the Arab world.

But after more than one year in office, both local Malaysian political observers and foreign diplomats are wondering where Malaysia?s ?Moderate Islam? project is meant to take the country. Events over the past few months have suggested that despite the rhetoric of reform, tolerance and moderation, there remain deep undercurrents of religious conservatism in the country.

Earlier in the year more than a hundred young Malaysians were arrested by the country?s religious ?morality police? squads on the grounds that by going to bars and nightclubs and being seen (allegedly) partying and drinking alcohol they had broken the law. The methods of enforcement used led to a vocal outcry from the country?s human rights groups, when it was revealed that the youngsters were put into vans, humiliated and in some cases verbally abused, and brought to the lock-up.

Recently another case sparked off similar concerns about the fundamental rights of Malaysians when two young men were caught drinking alcohol and brought to the religious court. What horrified human rights campaigners in the country was the sentence meted out to the two men, who were sentenced to six lashes each ? a punishment hitherto unprecedented in Malaysian history and which put Malaysia in the same category as countries like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Sudan and Iran.

While these developments continue at their ponderous pace, the political leadership of the country continues to repeat the mantra of Islamic moderation, tolerance and pluralism. Yet it is now evident that within certain sections of the country?s parallel religious bureaucracy, the sentiments and values of Prime Minister Badawi?s ?Moderate Islam? discourse have not gained ground; and are in fact being openly rejected.

What, therefore, is really happening in Malaysia today? In the capitals of Europe ? notable Paris and Berlin ? there exists the growing perception that despite the laudatory rhetoric of Prime Minister Badawi there is a leakage of political power in the country. While the Executive says one thing to the international community, the realities on the ground in Malaysia would suggest that the shift towards a more narrow, literalist and fundamentally conservative brand of normative Islam is at work.

The main obstacle faced by the Executive in Malaysia today is having to deal with the gigantic, cumbersome and some might add economically costly parallel religious bureaucracy that was set up since the beginning of the Mahathir era (1981-2003). Mahathir?s Islamisation policy, like that of Pakistan?s, Nigeria?s, Sudan?s and the Arab states? was essentially a means by which the post-colonial state tried to buy off potential domestic opposition by offering jobs, income and social status to the Malay-Muslim majority community. During the 1970s to the late 1990s, this was the most effective means to ensure that the country?s growing Malay-Muslim population would stay loyal to the ruling UMNO party, that in turn used the state machinery as its own instrument of patronage and control.

Along with this came a host of religious laws, rules, norms and institutions ? all patronised by the state and paid for by the Malaysian tax-payer ? aimed at keeping the Malay-Muslim population in line. The net result has been the creation of a vast state-controlled patronage machine that provided for the needs of the Malays, while keeping them under the surveillance and control of the state and the UMNO party.

This could only be maintained however, as long as the economic boom was going well and foreign direct investment (FDI) was pouring into the country. Following the economic crisis of 1997-98 however, the Malaysian state?s patronage machine has faced several hard knocks. Can the Malaysian state keep the engines of patronage and social control going, and is the Prime Minister still running the show?

For all intents and purposes, the impression that the Malaysian ship of state is sailing rudderless is gaining ground. For the past few months and weeks, the parallel religious bureaucracy has tweaked the whiskers of the federal government and gotten away with it. The moral police raids, the sentencing of the two youths to lashings, etc are all indicators of a religion bureaucracy showing signs of defiance vis-୶is the Executive itself. Prime Minister Badawi may have wooed the international community with his talk of ?Moderate Islam? in Malaysia, but should we ever come to the day when Malaysian citizens are whipped and scarred by the religious authorities, it would be hard indeed to convince anyone that the brand of normative Islam in Malaysia is a moderate one. Long before the TV scr! eens a! nd newspapers are covered with images of bleeding Malaysians, the Executive will have to state clearly, once and for all, that there cannot be two systems and two governments in the country.

Dr Farish A. Noor is a researcher at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin and was formerly Chair of Asian Studies at Sciences-Po, Paris; and lecturer at the Islamwissenschaft Institute of Freie University, Berlin.

He is the author of ‘Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS’ (MSRI, Kuala Lumpur, 2004) and ‘The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia’s Subaltern History’ (Silverfish, 2002).

Visit Farish Noor’s website at http://www.brandmalaysia.com/movabletype/archives/a_brand_new_malaysian/guest_authors/dr_farish_noor/