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Philip Bowring: Defending Malaysia's diversity

International Herald Tribune

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2005
HONG KONG Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia has a well-deserved reputation for integrity and for propagation of "Islam Hadhari" - a moderate, modernist Islam focused on basic principles and the pursuit of knowledge. But official Islam in Malaysia continues to play into the hands of Islamophobes everywhere and upset the 45 percent or so of Malaysia's population who are non-Muslim.
 
Two current issues suggest that Abdullah will have to invest more of his own limited political capital in bringing a narrow official Islam into line with his own vision of an inclusivist faith that is intellectually alive and can coexist easily with the nation's large Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and other minorities.
 
In one case this week, a religious court declared that a deceased, M. Moorthy, a member of the first Malaysian team to climb Mount Everest, was a Muslim - and insisted that he be buried according to Muslim rites - despite the fact that he had been born a Hindu and, according to testimony by his wife and family, had never converted to Islam. The powers of the Muslim religious authorities were then confirmed by the High Court, which ruled it could not intervene in a decision by the religious court. In other words, in modern, multiethnic, inclusivist Malaysia, the religious courts are a law unto themselves
 
This is particularly worrying for non-Muslims. But it has wider implications in a society where all Malays are deemed to be Muslims, whatever they actually believe, and where religious movements by Malays have recently been persecuted on the grounds that they were judged heretical by the religious authorities. One sect that had been declared "apostates" recently saw its headquarters razed to the ground.
 
In another current case, a new Islamic Family Law has been rammed through Parliament. Although it has the legitimate aim of standardizing the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, Muslim women from across the religious/political spectrum see it as a backward step that enhances an already male-biased law. It will, they say, make polygamy and divorce easier for men, and reduce a wife's property and maintenance rights in the event of polygamy.
 
This legislation is being spearheaded by none other than the Prime Minister's Department. Bowing to old legal interpretations of Shariah on family issues is in contrast to Abdullah's public rhetoric calling for a progressive Islam, constantly reinventing itself in response to contemporary challenges and social conditions. "The notion that the Islamic concept of law is absolute and hence immutable has resulted in intellectual inertia," he has said, noting that "pluralism and diversity" were keys to the universality of the Muslim message.
 
As ever in Malaysia, the underlying themes may be more about political power struggles than religious beliefs. The governing United Malays National Organization must compete for Malay votes with the fundamentalist Parti Islam. Religion can be a weapon, too, in UMNO's internal politics. As with Christians in the United States, religious pressure groups exert political influence at the margin out of proportion to their numbers and politicians cynically use the groups for their own ends.
 
Abdullah generally has the trust of non-Malays, and Malays can recognize that his own beliefs are sincere, not the product of political calculation. That cannot be easily said of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister who proclaims liberal principles to receptive Western audiences but increasingly flirts with Islamic fundamentalism as he seeks to return to Malaysian politics.
 
In reality, Malaysian society is a lot more plural and tolerant than politicians' statements sometimes suggest. Nonetheless, the currents show the difficulty that Abdullah faces in reversing the trends of 20 years under his predecessor, Mahathir bin Mohamad.
 
While Mahathir's own agenda was an aggressively modernizing nationalism, for political reasons he allowed religious authorities to expand their power at the expense of secular forces. In many areas, including dress, Malay traditions have been abandoned to conform with alien but supposedly more Islamic practices imported from the Middle East.
 
Natural wealth and a benign history have enabled Malaysia to prosper economically while religious/ethnic divides have grown, at least in peninsular Malaysia. (Things are different in the ethnically more diverse Borneo states).
 
It may be hard to admit this in Kuala Lumpur, but Malaysia badly needs to look to Indonesia for an example of how to be a modern, multiethnic state. That will eventually require ending the automatic identification of "Malay" with "Muslim" and acknowledging that different interpretations of Islam can coexist within the same predominantly Muslim state. In Indonesia, pluralism and Islam are synonymous, but in Malaysia the links between religious authorities and a state with huge powers of bureaucratic patronage are inhibiting for both.
 
Unless Malaysia's prime minister tackles the social gap between Muslims and non-Muslims, it will continue to grow, whatever the claims of tourist brochures about Malaysian multiculturalism. Capital will continue to exit the country, and Abdullah's vision of Islam Hadhari will be stillborn.
 
 
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