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
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
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.