Soon after Mahathir Mohamed became Prime Minister in 1981, he embarked upon bringing Islam into Malaysia’s government. He opened an Islamic university, started an Islamic banking sector, strengthened Islamic jurisprudence and centralized Federal Islamic affairs under the Prime Minister’s Department.
Thirty-eight years later, that has created an unassailable Islamic bureaucracy that is independent of the executive branch, with their own sources of funds in addition to federal and state budget allocations. Elected governments, even under a new reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition that drove out the United Malays National Organization and the component parties of the Barisan Nasional, do not dare to cut down the size of the Islamic bureaucracy due to the potential political outcry that would follow from ultra-Malay-Islamic groups across the country.
This is a radical change from the country at its birth in 1957, when Tunku Abdul Rahman, who loved horse-racing and Scotch whiskey, was the head of state and entertainers like P Ramli dominated the movies whose audiences included miniskirted teenagers.
With or without Mahathir, the Islamic resurgence began in the early 1980s where ethnic Malays, thrilled with the Islamic wave created by Ayatollah Khomeini that humiliated the west in Iran, were becoming much more religious, with Malay social codes becoming much more observant of Islam. More women began covering their heads, Arabized dress started becoming synonymous with Islam and the Malay language itself was becoming Arabized.
An astute Mahathir saw this being translated into growing support for the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia or PAS. So in 1982 Mahathir recruited the popular Anwar Ibrahim, who was president of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) into his party UMNO to strengthen his Islamic credentials. Anwar moved through the senior political ranks very quickly, becoming Youth & Sports Minister in 1983, Agriculture Minister in 1984, Education Minister in 1983, Finance Minister in 1991, and finally Deputy Prime Minister in 1993.
Mahathir was able to decimate PAS in the 1986, leaving them with only one parliamentary seat although PAS rebounded and wrested the Kelantan state government from UMNO in the 1990 general election and has ruled it since.
The Malaysian Constitution specifies that Islam is the official religion of the nation, although freedom of religion is also supposedly guaranteed. In addition, under the constitution, ethnic Malays cannot convert to any other religion unless the Sharia Court grants permission, which is unheard of. Islam is a matter for the states to regulate and each head of state, raja or sultan is also the leader of Islam. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong or king is the head of Islam in the Federal Territories and states which don’t have a royal head of state.
As Islam is a state responsibility, each state has a Multi Department which issues fatwas based on interpreting the Quran, Hadiths, and Sunna, maintains mosque operations, and identifies and controls the spread of deviant Islamic teachings. State Islamic Departments are responsible for family law, mosque maintenance, Sharia enforcement, education, and general Islamic affairs. Each state will also have an agency and Islamic foundations which invest in Islamic insurance, Islamic education, and the spending of Zakat monies. The operations of these business arms are substantial, and the control of Zakat monies creates massive outreach into the community.
Although each state government has an executive council member responsible for Islamic affairs, the Mufti and State Islamic Departments tend to run autonomously without political interference.
During Mahathir’s first tenure, the Division of Islamic Affairs was upgraded to the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (JAKIM). With a Director-General in charge, JAKIM became responsible for Islamic affairs in all Federal Territories. JAKIM’s aim was to maintain the purity of Islam and Islamic teachings, coordinate law enforcement, and oversee Halal regulation. Within JAKIM is the National Fatwa Council made up of state Muftis and an additional five Islamic Scholars selected by the Conference of Rulers. Once a fatwa was approved by the Conference of Rulers and gazetted, it becomes legally binding within the Federal Territories.
Fatwa decisions are based upon the principle of collective decisions (Shura) of the Fatwa Council. They are opinions based upon the Islamic texts and advice given to the council. In effect, Fatwas cannot be challenged although there have been many cases of contradictory fatwas issued by various councils, where on occasion they have also been contradictory of the Federal Constitution.
JAKIM and the state religious departments have strong connections with the police. This relationship is outside the control of ministers and state executive councillors. The Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS), for instance, conducted raids with the police in 2014 on the Malaysian Bible Society that were embarrassing for the then-opposition Pakatan state government in Selangor.
These massive state and federal bureaucracies are directed by unelected bureaucrats and muftis. Their modus operandi based their interpretations upon the Quran, Hadiths, Sunna, and Fiqh texts, which cannot be challenged. The royal connection due to the Sultans and Yang di-Pertuan Agong being the heads of Islam takes away any accountability. Any attack upon the actions of the Islamic bureaucracy can easily be deemed an attack upon Islam and royalty itself.
This tenure with royalty is also mutually serving both parties’ interests. State Religious Departments and the rule of ‘Islam’ are protected by Royal patronage and royalty is protected by its position as the head of Islam.
The nexus here is Islam-Royalty-Malay Rights which is a completely unchallengable platform, enabling agendas to be carried out that are not even trusted to the political parties of the country. This is the core of the deep Islamic state within Malaysia. A massive group of civil servants is loyal to this philosophy rather than flag and modern nationhood. This is an almost unmovable barrier to any sense of secularism.
This deep Islamic state is ever increasing its powers, aided by the previous deeply corrupt government headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who saw in embrace of religion a bulwark against a secular insurgency spearheaded by the opposition. It worked for a long time.
Imams in mosques have long been forbidden to present their own speeches for Friday prayers as they are forced to read state prepared texts. JAKIM stopped non-Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Allah’ in 2007. JAKIM treats the LGBT community as deviant. The deep state prevented the federal government ratifying the ICERD treaty on anti-discrimination. JAIS acted against a forum on Malay women’s rights to not wear the hijab. Now JAKIM is opening a new special unit to investigate insults to Islam.
The disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh in 2017 was found by the Malaysian Human Rights Group Suhakam to have been undertaken by the state. The further disappearances of Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth, converts away from Islam, and that of Amri Che Mat, a Muslim activist abducted by masked men in SUVs in Perlis, remain unexplained. Mahathir remains publicly unperturbed.
This Islamic state has turned Islam into an authoritarian and totalitarian tool for control of peoples’ daily lives. Malaysia has become a pseudo-theocracy where anyone with opposing views will be pursued and prosecuted. Anybody giving a talk on Islam requires a permit.
Soon after the Pakatan Harapan victory last year, calls by a group of eminent Malays known as the G25 were made to the Conference of Rulers to review the functions of JAKIM. This was resisted. Mahathir announced in July 2018 that there would be an inquiry into the functions of JAKIM and was attacked by the Malay Rights group Pemantau Malaysia Baru, led by Lokman Noor Adam. Until now there is no sign of any report.
When Pakatan Harapan first came into office, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister responsible for Islamic affairs, tried to reel in JAKIM’s enforcement activities, but after criticisms have backed off. Islam mixed with politics and the philosophy of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) has brought many skewed discussions about Islam.
This has inhibited national debate about important Islamic issues. Issues relating to ethics, social justice, equity, corruption, the alleviation of poverty, education, and racial tolerance from any Islamic perspective are glossed over in favor of more trivial issues that hold the Malaysian narrative captive today.
Within this framework there is little real debate regarding social, spiritual, and the economic evolution of what Malaysia should be. The paradox is that there is actually little Islamic influence upon policy and decision-making within administrative government. The agenda and tight grip on bureaucracy and the executive are too hard to undo. Both Anwar and Mahathir helped to create this deep Islamic state. When they are both gone, this is the legacy the people of Malaysia will be left with.