Malaysia’s Slide Toward More Conservative Islam

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Malaysia’s Slide Toward More Conservative Islam

The past two decades has seen Malaysia’s slow and steady shift toward an increasingly conservative Islam.

Malaysia’s Slide Toward More Conservative Islam
Credit: Flickr / i-gunawan

On September 24, 2017 news broke of a laundromat that was only opened to Muslims in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor. Facing significant backlash, the owner of the business said that he was being a good Muslim by providing a “clean” (the Malay word in play – “suci” – is more accurately translated as “pure”) laundromat for Muslims – the irony was evidently lost between his prejudice and intolerance. Two days later, the Sultan of Johor issued a rebuke and demanded an investigation. On the heels of the rebuke, the business owner apologized and subsequently removed the sign from his shop but not without gaining some measure of support from ordinary Malaysians who saw some justification to his actions.

The past two decades has seen Malaysia’s slow and steady shift toward an increasingly conservative Islam, the result of successive administrations’ close ties to the Saudi royal family and an attraction to its petrodollars. This relationship dates back to the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was said to be a close friend of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz. The bilateral relationship has continued to grow. Prime Minister Najib Razak announced in February 2017 that Saudi Aramco would make an investment worth $7 billion into Petronas, a huge leap from the initial $200 million loan first received during his father’s administration in the 1970s.

Saudi Arabia has long seen Malaysia, along with Indonesia, as regional bastions of Islam, and has consistently tied its investment in both countries to Wahhabism – the brand of conservative Islam initially embraced by Muhammad Ibn Saud in 1744 through a pact with Abd al-Wahhab to expand the former’s empire. The pact resulted in support for Wahhabism gaining legitimacy and followers representing themselves as defenders of the true teaching of Islam. This position today is prevalent in Malaysia and Indonesia as a majority of Muslims in both countries conflate conservative Arab culture and practices with Islam, although historically, Southeast Asia has always been more inclined towards a more moderate version of Islam. A “good” Muslim to many in Malaysia is a person who adheres to Arab culture, and practices the literal version of Islam exported by Saudi Arabia. While Islam has been written into the country’s constitution as the religion of the federation, the constitution’s drafters saw only a ceremonial role for the religion. Shortly after independence, Malaysia’s first prime minister, Rahman, informed parliament that Malaya “is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood.”

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has dominated politics in Malaysia since independence in 1957, but has found it increasingly difficult to maintain its stronghold on government during the past two election cycles. Although initially rolled out as a strategy to curb the opposition Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)’s, influence on young middle class Malays, UMNO has come to rely more and more on political campaigning focused on Islam to attract and retain the Malay vote. Many urbanites today worry that this shift will lead Malaysia down the rabbit hole of a stricter, more literal version of Islam instead of the more moderate and tolerant version upon which the nation was founded. In June 2014 while celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of UMNO’s branches, Party President and Prime Minister Najib Razak called on members to emulate ISIS to ensure the survival of UMNO. Quoting an example where ISIS defeated the Iraqi army despite being outnumbered, the prime minister said, “when someone dares to fight to their death, they can even defeat a much bigger team.” The statement was at odds with his support, made clear at various international fora, of a moderate Islam.

Economic inequalities, the government’s pandering to Muslim hardliners, and its silence on racially divisive politics have created a perfect storm – youths unable to compete in an urban setting find purpose in fundamentalist teachings. In the mid-1980s, radical Indonesian preachers Abu Bakar Bashir and Hambali set up a regional network of extremists in Malaysia. Today, the government invites the likes of Zakir Naik, a hate preacher banned in India, and the UK for talks in Malaysia, while it arrests moderates such as Turkey’s Mustafa Akyol.

The ease with which youths have access to fundamentalist thought is cause for concern. According to the Associated Press in spring 2016, authorities in Malaysia have arrested more than 160 for suspected ties to ISIS over the previous two years. Malaysian intelligence reports that about 60 Malaysian youths have been entrenched in ISIS’ ranks in Syria although former Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar has stated that about 50 Malaysians are looking to return home. If and when they do return, they will find large swathes of rural Malaysia eager to listen to tales of their jihad. Malaysia will inevitably continue down a less tolerant, more conservative path, unfriendly to unbelievers and suspicious of everyone not conforming to a fundamentalist way of life.

The reliance of successive governments on race-based policies to address the long-standing socio-economic inequalities has resulted in more racial and religious tension, thus rendering conservative Islam an attractive vehicle for change. Many are eager to look to Saudi Arabia for paternalistic assistance without much thought for the strings attached to the assistance. The closer Malaysia inches to the Kingdom, the wider the door opens for conservative values which criticize a gold-medal winning gymnast’s attire, call for a ban on a beer festival, and deny social justice and women’s rights. To contextualize how acute the problem is for Malaysia, Pew Research Center’s Spring 2015 Global Attitudes Survey found that only 26 percent of Malaysians were very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. The same question yielded 48 percent in Pakistan, 67 percent in Lebanon, and 20 percent in Indonesia.

While the Sultan of Johor offered a swift and harsh rebuke on the laundromat issue, Prime Minister Najib Razak, the founder of the 1Malaysia national cohesion concept and flag-bearer for the Global Movement for Moderates internationally, remained conspicuously silent. With elections scheduled to be called any time before mid-2018, the prime minister is being strategically cautious so as to not lose the Muslim-Malay majority vote. But at what cost?

Dominique Fernandes holds an LLM from Harvard Law School and an LLB from the National University of Malaysia. She has spent some seven years as a federal counsel, advising the Government of Malaysia on its human rights obligations. She has since entered corporate practice but remains committed to the promotion and protection of human rights.