On May 26, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim sat alongside Dr. Ali Gomaa, the former grand mufti of Egypt, and Habib Umar Bin Hafiz, founder and dean of the Dar al-Mustafa seminary in Tarim, Yemen. The event, entitled Majlis Ilmu Madani, or Gathering of Civilizational Knowledge, could have been construed as a showcase of Malaysia’s Islamic identity, which Anwar vowed to uphold at the dawn of his premiership. However, the event, which attracted more than 18,000 participants, was part of Malaysia’s broader strategy of religious soft power.
Even prior to this event, Anwar had invited to Malaysia numerous influential religious scholars and personalities from around the world, including Jamal Farouk Jibreel from Egypt, Mehmet Fadil Ceylani from Turkey, Muhammad Nuruddeen Lemu from Nigeria, Ismail Menk from Zimbabwe, Muhammad Salah from the United States, and Wael Ibrahim from Australia. On June 19, the Malaysian prime minister hosted Dr. Ekrima Sabri, the imam of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Ahmed Mohamed Saad from the United Kingdom, and Muhammad Haydara al-Jilani from Gambia, for another Majlis Ilmu Madani, which Anwar said was organized to help people understand his administration’s notion of “Malaysia Madani.” Briefly, Malaysia Madani represents DSAI’s vision of a Malaysian society that is civilized, skilled, and inclusive, based on core values that include, respect, care and compassion, as well as trust.
These religious preachers represent an array of mainstream Muslim traditions, and are known to have different views on social and political issues according to their respective traditions and local contexts. While it initially seemed like Anwar was cultivating relations with scholars from his own modernist, Islamist milieu, it soon became apparent, especially after the invitation of Habib Umar, a Sufi Muslim whose tradition shuns politics, that he was reaching out to broader cross-section of Islamic traditions. Indeed, based on the list of invitees so far, Anwar appears to be making heavy investments in Malaysia’s “sacred capital.”
Dr. Gregorio Bettiza, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, has argued that states can possess “sacred capital”: religious resources that can generate soft power if leveraged in the right way. Malaysia at first glance appears not to fit this bill. Its status as an Islamic state continues to be contested, and its constitution is arguably secular. In this sense it contrasts starkly with the likes of Saudi Arabia, custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, or Egypt, host of the prestigious Al-Azhar University. In Southeast Asia, it is Aceh that has had the title of Serambi Mekah (“Verandah of Mecca”). Hence, competition against other Muslim states for sacred capital is out of the question, and the manufacture of it would be nearly impossible, and would likely take centuries.
Nevertheless, Islam and the Malay ethnicity has historically held a privileged position in Malaysia. This fact is a given for Malaysians and their political elites since decolonization. When there was a religious resurgence in the 1980s, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad embarked on a program of Islamization during which he co-opted Anwar, who was then a youth activist. Subsequent Malay nationalist politicians, as well as Islamists in the opposition, have exploited this sacred capital – the nexus between Islam and Malay identity – for domestic political gains.
Anwar has been cognizant of the potential of Malaysia’s sacred capital since his days in the youth group Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia. During the 2018 Pakatan Harapan administration, he did not have the wherewithal to capitalize on Islam and the Malay identity. He also had the sticky image of being allegedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist activism from his heyday. This time, however, Anwar is seemingly attempting to broaden the application of sacred capital beyond Malaysia’s polarizing identity politics.
Since taking office last November, Anwar has invited Islamic scholars from around the world to Malaysia in order to generate sacred capital. Through the cultivation of relationships with the abovementioned scholars, Anwar appears to be attempting to build Malaysia’s soft power as a global champion of a version of Islam that is internally syncretic and inclusivist with regard to various Islamic traditions and movements. In his vision of Malaysia Madani, he is attempting to blend aspects of Islam from Egypt’s traditional scholarship, Tunisia and Turkey’s nationalist-Islamism, Yemen’s Hadhrami tradition and historical network, sympathy for oppressed Muslims worldwide, the teachings of popular Salafi figures, and experiences of Muslim scholars from the West and even from Africa. The campaign so far appears to have been well received by Muslims within and outside of Malaysia.
The Muslim State(s) of Play
Anwar’s cultivation of sacred capital come at an apt moment, given the state of play in the Muslim world. According to research led by Dr. Peter Mandaville at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, geopolitical rivalry in the Middle East had resulted in the use of religion for domestic and foreign political interests. This has involved the cultivation of certain religious institutions and scholars, and the simultaneous restriction of others. A good example is the development of global Salafist movement by oil-rich gulf Arab states.
However, the soft power rivalry in the Muslim world has seemingly come to a state of perhaps transient stability, offering Malaysia opportunities to advance its own inclusive vision. To realize his vision for Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has silenced his political and religious opponents. While this has made it possible to hold “decadent” concerts and parties, MBS’ vision for Saudi Arabia came at the cost of credibility among Muslims. After a brief but bitter rivalry between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, the two are in a détente. With less competition, UAE has relied more on local experts such as Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, while Qatar is unlikely to look for a replacement for the late charismatic spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to drive their vision of moderate and tolerant Islam.
At the same time, Turkey’s geopolitical fantasies and its soft power appeal have reached their upper limit. Turkey now has to address its current domestic politics and overreach in regional conflicts. Meanwhile in Indonesia, Malaysia’s regional “competitor” for religious soft power, President Joko Widodo’s term is coming to an end and the future of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) involvement in politics through Indonesia Vice President Ma’aruf Amin is unclear. NU’s front-and-centre position in Indonesian politics through Ma’aruf Amin may fade with the end of the current administration’s term. Candidates for the next presidency and vice-presidency, thus far, are neither of Ma’aruf Amin’s calibre, nor at his level of public support. Even NU’s interpretation of Islam Nusantara, which Indonesia has been exhibiting to the world as an inclusivist model of Islam, has not been truly successful as a cultural export. Islam Nusantara’s appeal in the Malay world has been limited and will wane as NU steps back from its current prime position in Indonesian politics.
As a result, present conditions in the Muslim and Malay world provide Malaysia with an opportunity to use religious soft power to drive foreign investments and interest in the Malaysian economy. Having been wrecked by corruption scandals, domestic political instability, and one economic downturn after another, religious soft power presents itself as another tether for Malaysia to recover its global place, especially in the Muslim world.
Based on the current trend, if Anwar were to continue to invite religious scholars from different traditions and movements, Malaysia could come to be seen as a place where diverse religious ideas could grow in a Muslim majority, multi-cultural, and multi-religious context. Given the restrictions on religious scholars and ideas as well as the politicization of Islam in other parts of the world, religious scholars from different parts of the world could also contribute to Islamic discourse with Malaysia as its platform. If Anwar’s strategy is successful, and if he can translate this momentum into economic and cultural benefit, Malaysia has the potential to be a significant player – or even a leader – in the Muslim world.