Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has had a difficult time since narrowly winning controversial elections in May. Equally, the country’s foreign policy has proven myopic with dubious forays into the Muslim rebellions in the Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand.
Nevertheless, Najib and Malaysia’s opinion in the Islamic world does carry some weight and his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week on the fast-evolving Sunni-Shia conflict which is taking root in much of the Middle East was refreshingly honest.
He put it bluntly, saying a battle is being waged for the future of Islam.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It was an impassioned plea, particularly with the Middle East focus on Syria where an Iranian Shia-backed regime is under attack from an array of Sunni, unilateral, forces with links to al-Qaeda.
“Our religion,” he said, “is being twisted by extremists who are deploying false arguments to foster division and justify violence. Across the Islamic world, extremists are wrapping their perverse agenda in religious cloth; tearing families, countries and the Ummah apart.”
Malaysia tries to portray itself as a moderate Islamic country but often bows to hard-line Muslim clerics demanding bans on Western performers and even on the use of Islamic words by non-Muslims. Muslims were banned from Black Eyed Peas concert because it was sponsored by Guinness – an alcoholic brewer.
Its position in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) also gives it clout and last month Kuala Lumpur took a pro-active role as a potential mediator in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis in Egypt.
Najib added: “We should not mistake moderation for weakness.”
He continued: “To face those baying for violence and call instead for calm is a sign not of frailty, but of strength. Muslim leaders should speak up and condemn such violence, lest their silence is mistaken for acceptance.”
With the United States draw down in Afghanistan heading into the final phases and the last of Americans out of Iraq, the political emphasis in the Middle East has shifted to regional powers. But countries like Egypt and Libya are in total disarray following the Arab Spring while sectarian violence is threatening Iraq with the Syrian conflict at risk of spilling across its borders into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
This has enormous ramifications for much of the Association of South East Asian Nations with three of its 10 members – Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia – being essentially Muslim states and another three – The Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar — witnessing violent upheavals linked to local Muslim communities.
The ramifications further afield, from Canada to New Zealand are also great given the potential flood of refugees seeking asylum in third countries. These potential refugees could dwarf the numbers of boat people currently being illegally filtered through Malaysia and Indonesia and onto Australia.
For those reasons alone, Najib deserves a much wider hearing.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.