Malaysia’s Grim Islamic Future
Politics, not religion, is responsible for this tragedy
By: Dennis Ignatius
A modern, moderate Southeast Asian nation of 34 million people with a healthy ethnic minority of Chinese, Indian, and indigenous groupings to go with its 58 percent Malay majority, Malaysia appears to be hurtling toward a 6th Century Islamic Shariah future. It is happening not because of overwhelming popular demand but because of years of cynical political manipulation and corruption.
Dennis Ignatius, a former career top Malaysian diplomat and ambassador, has written a three-part examination of how this came about. It also appears on his blog www.dennisignatius.com. While it is longer than our normal format allows, we present it here because of its importance and because of his articulate analysis of how this tragedy has transpired.
The “invisible” constitution & the emerging Islamic state
Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) President Abdul Hadi Awang is getting more and more extreme and outrageous in his pronouncements. After his failure to take over the government in the November 2022 election despite winning more seats in parliament than any other single party, he has become particularly bitter, resentful, and combative. He seems determined to provoke confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims.
When it comes to the 75-year-old Hadi, there seems to be a certain political paralysis; no one really knows how to deal with the challenge he poses. Some call for his arrest but they are too afraid to arrest him. There have also been calls for the government to come up with an effective counter-narrative to challenge Hadi’s disruptive, divisive, and disagreeable brand of political Islam. Others are hoping that the Malay-Muslim intelligentsia will take him on.
What most still don’t get, however, is that Hadi represents the face of Malaysia’s future. He’s a sign of the times, an augury of the change that is coming upon our nation. We are a nation in transition – from an unfinished and deeply flawed Westminster-style secular constitutional democracy to an as-yet undefined Islamic state.
It’s already too late to talk about stopping Hadi or about reversing the slide towards an Islamic state. It is now only a matter of time before political Islam triumphs over Malaysia’s secular constitution. We are only deluding ourselves if we think the clock can be rolled back. There’s no going back anymore; all that remains to be seen is what kind of Islamic state will emerge and who will shape it.
The signs of political Islam’s ascendancy and the future that Hadi represents have, in fact, been obvious for quite some time; the process is already far advanced on several fronts. Decades of intensive indoctrination within our national institutions, for example, have quietly but decisively transformed them into bastions of political Islam. The lines between private religious obligations and institutional responsibilities have been increasingly blurred. Many Malay-Muslim public servants now feel obliged to prioritize their religious imperatives (as defined by the ulema) ahead of their duties as public servants.
Kedah MB Sanusi Md Nor summed it up well when justifying his outright ban on gambling in the state: “I am a Muslim and cannot gamble. Later in the hereafter, I will be asked what I did on this issue, and if I did not do anything, I will be punished (kena tibai).” This fear of damnation in the hereafter weighs increasingly on Malay-Muslim officials. When applied to public office, it has huge consequences.
This approach to public office has taken on a life of its own; individual officers at various levels seek to ensure that their respective departments and their policies and programs are sharia compliant to the fullest extent possible. As a consequence, the dictates of political Islam are gradually being imposed on Muslims and non-Muslims alike not by law but by administrative fiat.
The dress code issue is one example. The government denies that there is a specific dress code and blames the “little Napoleons.” Nonetheless, dress codes have become the norm because it is promoted by an Islamic-minded bureaucracy and enforced by “little mullahs” across the system. This is the power of Islamists in advancing what has been called Malaysia’s “invisible” constitution.
The security services too have been persuaded to see themselves as defenders of the faith first, upholders of the secular constitutional order second. A former IGP, for example, refused to abide by a court order to locate and return to her mother an underaged girl who was illegally converted because of a contradictory ruling by the Shariah court.
The police also made headlines after it was discovered that a Special Branch officer warned of the dangers of Christian proselytization at an anti-Christianization seminar at a university campus. Despite the public outcry, the then-Inspector General of Police, the country’s top law enforcement official, insisted that there was nothing wrong with it.
This fundamental shift is not confined to public institutions alone. The shift to a more conservative expression of Islam is also broadly evident within Malay-Muslim society as a whole. Social media – especially that put out by PAS – has had a huge impact on the dissemination of the message of political Islam and religious conservatism. It might have even overtaken the power of the massive ‘ceramah’ network as a means of propagating political Islam.
As well, thanks to the takeover of our education system by Islamists, generations of students steeped in the narrative of political Islam are now reshaping all aspects of Malaysian society.
Concomitant with this Islamic ‘awakening’ is the growing belief – a belief that is encouraged by PAS as well as many influential Islamists – that Malaysia cannot be truly Islamic until the Koran rather than the Federal Constitution forms the foundation of the state, until Sharia law supersedes the civil code.
One indicator of the change that is shaping the Malay-Muslim world comes from a Merdeka Centre poll which found that the number of Malay-Muslim youth (15-25) who feel that the Koran should replace the Federal Constitution had jumped from 72 percent in 2010 to 82 percent in 2022.
It goes without saying that Malay-Muslims form the most important demographic in Malaysia; they determine the direction of the nation and the pace of change. If such large numbers favor an Islamic state, it’s going to happen one way or another, whether the rest like it or not.
To be sure, there is no objective way of knowing what the “silent” (Malay-Muslim) majority really think about an Islamic state. Malay-Muslim society is far from homogenous in its thinking or outlook. Generally, however, on matters of religion, Malay-Muslims tend to defer to the ulema, the body of Islamic scholars. There is also some anecdotal evidence that growing political disenchantment is driving more and more Malay-Muslims to look to political Islam for answers. This gives the ulema and parties like PAS disproportionate power and influence.
Whatever it is, for so long as the silent majority remain silent and allow the Islamists and others to speak and act in their name, they have rendered themselves inconsequential to the whole Islamic state issue, at least in the short to medium term.
Some argue that better economic programs could slow the advance of political Islam. While better economic strategies are certainly needed, that in itself is unlikely to change the trajectory towards an Islamic state. Remember, that on the whole, Malay-Muslim society has grown progressively wealthier since the 1980s but that has not stopped the drift towards religious conservatism.
No one left to stand up for a secular Malaysia
What is needed, of course, is a concerted effort to confront the political narrative of Islamists like Hadi, but that is unlikely to happen because few are willing to challenge them politically or theologically.
Recently, one respected commentator pleaded with non-Malays not to attack Hadi but to leave it to the Malay-Muslim intelligentsia to take him on. But Hadi has been ranting and raving and making the most outrageous statements against non-Malays and non-Muslims for years. With few exceptions, most Muslim scholars and academics have either kept silent or downplayed his remarks.
In fact, Malay-Muslim academics are the least likely to challenge Hadi and the Islamists. Many simply lack the intellectual capacity or credentials to take them on; others simply lack the courage. Most, I suspect, are quietly sympathetic. The few that endeavor to engage the Islamists in rational discussion find themselves quickly marginalized.
Our politicians are no better. Many, if not most, already subscribe to the general goals of political Islam. They all understand that the ground has shifted. There’s nothing to be gained politically by defending Malaysia’s secular multicultural identity. The fight among them now is not about whether Malaysia should be an Islamic state or not but about who ought to lead the emerging Islamic polity.
In any case, all too many of our politicians are thoroughly indolent, iniquitous, self-centered, and corrupt. All they want is power, position, and privilege; they have no commitment to the well-being of the nation. This collapse of leadership has created a political vacuum which Islamists are now rushing to fill.
Non-Malay political parties are fully aware of what is going on as well. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to seriously engage Malay-Muslim parties, but they have consistently failed to defend the secular foundations of our nation. When then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad triumphantly declared Malaysia an Islamic state at the Gerakan annual delegates conference in 2001 – barely days after the 9/11 attack – he did so with the acquiescence and support of Gerakan, MCA, and MIC leaders.
At the time, only the DAP vigorously struggled to defend the secular foundations of Malaysia. But that was before the party tasted federal power. Since 2018 (when they became part of the federal government for the first time ever) they’ve backed away from many of the issues they once championed.
Twice in the last few months, for example, the issue of RUU355 – which many view as a major step forward in the evolution of an Islamic state – has been raised in parliament by the minister of religious affairs; the DAP has said nothing.
The DAP skillfully preys on non-Malay fears about the green wave and presents itself as a bulwark against it but like the MCA before them, they too have made their accommodation with political Islam.
Whatever it is, the duplicity of our politicians is nothing short of criminal. In exchange for temporary power, position, and privilege, they are willing to compromise, even abandon, the fundamental and sacred principles that underpin Malaysia’s status as a secular multicultural constitutional democracy.
What hope can there be for Malaysia’s future as a secular nation when even non-Muslim political leaders are unwilling to fight for it?
Can Anwar save Malaysia?
Many – especially non-Muslims – are now looking to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to stem the advance of political Islam and preserve Malaysia as a secular multicultural democracy. I suspect that they are going to be very disappointed.
Anwar rose to national prominence as an Islamist. Along with Hadi Awang, he cut his teeth in ABIM, the Muslim youth movement, of which he was a founding member as well as its second president. Anwar was subsequently recruited by Mahathir to shore up UMNO’s Islamic credentials as a counterweight to PAS. With Dr. Mahathir’s full support, Anwar set about to Islamize the government along with the education sector. His policies directly contributed to the rapid rise of political Islam in Malaysia.
Since coming to power, Anwar has attempted to hunt with the hounds and run with the hares, playing up his commitment to secular multiculturalism while deepening his ties with Islamists. He has organized several large Islamic events to burnish his Islamic credentials. He has also sought to win over the Islamic bureaucracy with a range of financial incentives and support for initiatives like RUU355, a federal parliamentary measure to allow for the implementation of Shariah law.
As well, Anwar seems intent on expanding the role and powers of JAKIM (the Malay acronym for the Department of Islamic Development) in the affairs of government. In May, it was announced that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) would collaborate with JAKIM to censor material deemed offensive or deviant.
His latest move – inviting JAKIM to play a bigger role in policymaking, drafting the national budget and national development plans, and reforming national and governmental institutions – is the most ominous sign thus far of where he is headed. It will entrench the mullahs at the heart of government and put them in a position to influence the entire machinery of government and the policies that ensue from it. It might well lead to a burgeoning of the Islamic bureaucracy, perhaps even the creation of a parallel religious civil service.
This is actually what PAS has been pushing for. In 2020, PAS Dewan Ulama chief Nik Zawawi called for Shariah advisers – political commissars really – to be embedded in every government agency “to ensure that Islam’s position as the national religion was upheld when carrying out policies.”
Anwar’s actions have effectively redefined the Federal Constitution by giving religious authorities like JAKIM powers that the framers of the constitution never intended. Many including Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and the G25 reform group have argued that JAKIM itself is an unconstitutional body but that has not stopped it from becoming the behemoth that it is today.
It is the most significant step ever taken by a prime minister to empower the Islamic bureaucracy and should put to rest the issue of what Anwar’s priorities are. There’s a danger now that JAKIM’s influence on national policy could even eclipse that of the Malay rulers.
In retrospect, one wonders whether all the talk about reformasi while Anwar was in the wilderness and needed the support of a plurality of Malaysians was all just an elaborate public relations exercise.
Tellingly, all the ‘reformasi’ stalwarts within Anwar’s multiracial party – once passionate advocates of the nation’s secular constitutional democracy – have suddenly gone silent as their president leads Malaysia further down the road to an Islamic state.
In the meantime, Anwar continues to crisscross the country preaching about respect, tolerance, and inclusiveness. But it may be all just a charade, a clever move to keep non-Muslims on his side while pushing ahead with his Islamic agenda.
Despite his stirring speeches on tolerance and inclusion, he has done very little by way of actual policies to advance these goals. National unity and inclusiveness, for example, cannot be sustained without a more balanced civil service; something which Anwar has already ruled out for fear of upsetting the Islamists and Malay nationalists who see the civil service as their exclusive domain.
Even if Anwar genuinely wanted to rebuild Malaysia’s secular foundations, he does not appear to have the political strength, patience or the skill set that is needed to oversee the kind of vast institutional transformation that can counter the rising tide of political Islam. Being the populist that he is, he’ll just go with the flow.
Whatever it is, one thing is certain: Malaysia is quickly coming to an inflection point. Islamists have ploughed the ground well; Hadi’s version of an Islamic state will soon enough become Malaysia’s new political reality. Founding Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s “beacon of light” speech proclaiming independence as a secular nation in 1957 is about to go out.