Islam set to remain key contest point in Malaysian politics

Islam set to remain key contest point in Malaysian politics

The deepening Islamisation of Malaysia has echoes in the current populism policies of the US and Europe, writes Gerhard Hoffstaedter

The Islamisation of Malaysian society has received much attention over the last few decades. Much scholarship has focused on the changing daily lives of Muslims, how Malaysness and Islam were fused into a nationalist project and the accompanying state sponsorship of what many see as the continued Arabisation of this Islamisation process in Malaysia.

Thus it is now a given that Malaysian Islam(s) have radically changed. This is most visible in how Muslims dress, consume food, everyday objects and engage with fellow Malaysians of different religious backgrounds.

The halal market, which includes banking, foodstuffs, general consumer goods and restaurant certification, is a key indicator of these trends. Malaysia has established itself as a leading global halal market as well as exporter, with halal products amounting to RM35.4 billion (A$10.4 billion) in exports alone. While the exports and domestic market demonstrate Malaysia’s savvy investment in a key growth industry, the news is also replete with instances of Malaysian halal excesses.

In 2007, Malaysia’s national car producer, Proton, announced plans to build the first Islamic car, complete with headscarf compartment and Mecca compass. It was never built.

The same year, Malaysia’s first astronaut caused consternation over proper prayer etiquette on the International Space Station. In anticipation, the Malaysian Space Agency and JAKIM (the federal Department of Islamic Development Malaysia) had convened a panel of Islamic scholars to discuss this issue and published a Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station (ISS).

Earlier this year Malaysian authorities confiscated thousands of paintbrushes after rigorous testing found some contained pig bristles making them non-halal.

This increasing sensitivity towards the most banal and everyday objects has had a profound effect on society as a whole, dividing people along religious lines further and further. Today most services, such as transportation, hospitality, banking, shopping and many others, have been impacted. Supermarkets that stock non-halal food and beverages, such as alcohol, bacon, and pork sausages, isolate these items to an identified section of the store. Supermarket trollies marked for carrying halal produce are likewise segregated so that no contamination between the domains may occur. Checkouts are also signed according to whether the clerk can or will handle halal objects. In Kelantan there are separate check-out lines for men and women to limit interactions between genders. McDonald’s recently banned non-halal cakes from their in-store birthday events.

These examples, apparent in public spaces throughout Malaysia, are among the most conspicuous, but do not go to the heart of religious enforcement activities in Malaysia. These noticeable measures which enter the lives of non-Muslims are often discussed for their apparent absurdity.

Moral policing

It is, however, the more insidious moral policing Muslims are subject to every day that has changed life and politics in Malaysia so significantly over the last few decades. Malaysia deploys a form of legal pluralism that makes only Muslims subject to two sets of national laws, Islamic and secular. Sharia or syariah law is hitherto only applicable to personal law issues such as marriage, inheritance and adherence to the Muslim faith.

However, more encompassing syariah laws are regularly debated in the media. Syariah law today is largely a state matter and regulates punishments for drinking alcohol, committing adultery or attempting to leave the religion.

Today, Islamic enforcement agencies have not just the funding and reach to delve into the everyday lives of most Malaysian Muslims, but also the agenda-setting power to change political debates and positions

There are significant social forces, non-governmental organisations and not least the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) pushing for harsher sentences (a PAS private members ‘hudud’ bill that would enforce whippings and amputations as punishments is yet to be debated in federal parliament). The ruling UMNO party (United Malays National Organisation) used to be a secular counterweight in such debates but has increasingly sided with more Islamist leanings towards a more Islamised polity and society with subsequent prime ministers Mahathir and Najib already declaring Malaysia an Islamic country.

Current prime minister Najib is not the first prime minister to use Islam and harsher Islamic laws for political gain or to increase his party’s appeal with rural and more conservative Malay voters. Prime ministers Mahathir and Badawi before him extended the reach of Islamic law, funding for Muslim social and educational causes and crucially the enforcement of Islam laws.

Today, Islamic enforcement agencies have not just the funding and reach to delve into the everyday lives of most Malaysian Muslims, but also the agenda-setting power to change political debates and positions. JAKIM alone pays for 15,000 imams across the country who fund the further education of religious scholars, teachers and their own personnel in religious schools and universities in the Middle East and South Asia, furthering the influence of Wahhabi and other fundamentalist ideologies into the doctrines and practices in Malaysia.

The main targets of these new Islamists continue to be Muslims in Malaysia. The key aim is to make Malaysia and Malaysian Muslims more exclusivist Muslims who will buy only halal products, surround themselves with fellow Muslims and adhere to a particular Malaysian state-sponsored version of Islam that increasingly has more in common with fundamentalist Middle Eastern versions than the pluralist history of its own vernacular forms of Islam.

The role of local Malay adat or customs has almost entirely been relegated to being outdated at best and haram or impermissible at worst. The Sultan of Johor has recently questioned the funding allocations for JAKIM and the growing Arabisation of Islam in Malaysia, lamenting the increased substitution of Malay dress and language with Arabic ones.

Shifting lines

Yet in Malaysia the lines of secularism and Islamisation, Malay and Muslim, state and non-state and powerful and powerless are continually shifting. The recent corruption allegations against Prime Minister Najib have completely redrawn decades-old political allegiances and positions. Former prime minister and UMNO leader Mahathir is now aligned with the political opposition; political foes UMNO and PAS are edging closer together and some sultans are beginning to reimagine their diminished political role in a Malaysia that currently lacks strong political leadership.

With so many political struggles ahead, the role of Islam in Malaysia will remain a key point of contestation. To set the agenda and tone for these contests to come, Deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki told the Star newspaper that JAKIM required more than RM1 billion RM (A$290 million) to counteract threats against Islam in Malaysia. He singled out ‘The Islamic State, liberalism, pluralism such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are the examples of radical ideologies which belittle the religion’.

In this, the current populist politics of the US and Europe are akin to Malaysian politics, where minorities are blamed for a perceived loss of power of the majority. The perception and articulation of ‘Islam under threat’ is only a whimper away from ‘Make Islam great again’.

Featured image
Malaysia International Halal Showcase, an annual trade fair organised by the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation. Malaysia has established itself as a leading global halal market as well as exporter. Photo: thaumos, Wikimedia Commons.

Share On:

Leave a Comment