Malaysia reaches a critical crossroad over state Islamisation

To see off challenges to its dominance, Malaysia’s government exploits Muslim sentiment at every turn. This has been a factor in sodomy charges against opposition figurehead Anwar Ibrahim. EPA/Azhar Rahim

Fuelled by the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, debate about Islam and violence has flared again in Australia. In a predictable cycle of provocation and reaction, governments launch a wide-ranging security response while denying claims that Muslims are scapegoats. At the same time, they must reassure non-Muslims that the suburbs are safe.

The result is government statements that aim to placate everyone: Muslims are not targets and non-Muslims should stay calm because, as they argue, Islam is foremost a “religion of peace”.

Interpreting texts is problematic

In recent weeks, Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has uttered precisely these words. A battery of spokespeople for the Muslim community has chimed in. This is not rocket science: this gesture of reassurance is aimed at maintaining relationships, calming the angry and managing constituencies.

This context is important because the statement is disputed, such as last month in Quadrant in an article by Australian anthropologist Clive Kessler. Kessler has argued that the statement is an empty gesture. His article states that:

… bland and disingenuous assertions of Islam’s essentially peaceful character are inadequate.

Why? According to Kessler, it is because of Islam’s early history (“a story of political triumph and ascendancy”) and its founding texts (“the militant version is a reading or construction of direct intellectual lineage and identifiable descent within historical Islam”). Kessler is right that these texts contain some “authentic” justifications for violence: such quotes are available to anyone who seeks them.

For Kessler, however, this is not the end of the problem. Where Islam is not violent, it is still inherently political, he argues. Its politics, he elaborates, are “majoritarian”: where Islam offers “peace”, it is “peace on our terms”. In other words, Kessler writes:

… provided you utter your consent, there is a place for you in our scheme of things – and we will tell you what that place is.

Kessler’s argument begins with Australia, but as he goes on, it becomes apparent that Malaysia is on his mind. Kessler has long analysed Islam and politics there, beginning with fieldwork in the late 1960s. Recently, he reflected on a recent Malaysian federal court judgment and its alleged view that non-Muslims should acknowledge Muslim supremacy. Naturally, such a decision is enacted without violence, but for Kessler the point is that Muslim “peace” can be rigged.

Malaysian Muslim identity is contested

If Malaysia is his case study, then Kessler’s pessimism has won over his judgment. It is inappropriate to imply that Malaysia’s majoritarianism is fuelled simply by access to textual sources that support it. Instead, it is important that we do analytical justice to Malaysian political contests and ask what might fuel the selective use of “political” quotes.

In reality, who gets to say what Muslims should do is hotly contested in Malaysia. This is not only by minorities but by Muslims themselves. Despite arguments that the nation is “going backwards”, it is not all that obvious that political majoritarianism must prevail.

Malay Muslim unity is not automatic. If elections are any guide, then last year’s general election made this clear. The opposition coalition, the People’s Alliance, won a majority of the popular vote.

The People’s Alliance failed to win sufficient seats to form a national government and NGOs point to a strong gerrymander as the cause. Nevertheless, the point is that, according to a report compiled by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, 59% of Malay Muslim voters supported the government. This means 41% did not. In terms of the national vote, the People’s Alliance won at least 51% of the popular vote across ethnic and religious lines.

After being re-elected with a minority of the vote, Najib Razak’s government has intensified efforts to re-assert its authority by promoting Muslim majoritarianism. EPA/Shamshahrin Shamsudin

Why is this important? For one, it is difficult to be a majoritarian when one cannot be entirely confident that one is in the majority.

This is the context in which we should understand efforts by the authorities to reassert moral and political control. Since the election, they have banned non-Muslims from using the word Allah, seized Bibles printed in the Malay language, denied entry to an Indonesian “liberal”, and reiterated a ruling that Malay Muslims should not touch dogs.

These rulings may seem comical, and they have been derided. Yet political liberals may not understand that they reflect the Malaysian state’s overriding purpose now: to regenerate Malay Muslim majoritarianism, against strong counter-currents.

In Selangor, a People’s Alliance state, a recent poll by the University of Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections has found that opposition support remains high. It stands at 43%, despite a chief minister crisis, a water crisis, a Bible crisis, and more.

Delegation reminds us of political debate

It is in this context that the Malaysian government has denounced a visit to Australia by a delegation of People’s Alliance politicians belonging to the People’s Justice Party (PKR). Timed ahead of a new round of legal proceedings for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, this visit was intended to draw attention to Malaysia.

The group did the rounds, speaking before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and meeting senators Michaela Cash and Nick Xenophon. They met Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and held several open meetings with Malaysian students and permanent residents in various capital cities.

In a forum at the University of South Australia, they noted that Indonesia, home to more than 200 million Muslims, has around 150 fighters involved with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In comparison, Malaysia, with around 20 million Muslims, also has 150 fighters in that same conflict zone. Why is such a large proportion of one nation’s population involved compared with the other?

For delegation leader Rafizi Ramli, MP for Pandan and PKR General Secretary, the Malaysian authorities’ drive to reassert their leadership is what underpins arguments for Muslim supremacy. After all, in both nations, Muslims can access the same religious texts and emphasise quotes to justify violence if they wish to.

Needless to say, both nations host a wide variety of Muslim organisations, some linked to the government and others generated by other interest groups. These organisations take varying positions on religious texts. All are capable of quoting from these texts, and their publications often feature passages in Arabic, alongside translations in Malay or English. PKR campaign materials in the 2013 election were no exception.

The contest for the majority in Malaysia is fuelling the deployment of Qur’anic quotes for competing purposes. For this reason, Malay Muslims and “their” Islam cannot be summed up with reference to texts.