Moderate Malay Muslims Seek to Cool the Heat

The news earlier this week that 25 prominent Malay Muslims are seeking what they called “an informed and rational dialogue on the ways Islam is used as a source of law and policy” is a heartening development in a country where race relations have continued to the point where neither the majority Malay Muslims nor the minority Chinese, who represent about 22 percent of the country, trust each other.

"Given the impact of such vitriolic rhetoric on race relations and political stability of this country, we feel it is incumbent on us to take a public position," Noor Farida Ariffin, former Malaysian ambassador to the Netherlands, said in a statement issued on behalf of the 25 signatories.

The 19-paragraph statement was signed by prominent people, including former secretaries-general, directors-general, ambassadors and individuals. Noor Farida, who once headed the Foreign Ministry's Research, Treaties and International Law Department, said she and the others "are deeply concerned about the state of the debate on many issues of conflict on the position and application of Islamic laws in Malaysia."

"It is high time moderate Malays and Muslims speak out. Extremist, immoderate and intolerant voices as represented by Perkasa and Isma do not speak in our name,” the statement said "Given the impact of such vitriolic rhetoric on race relations and political stability of this country, we feel it is incumbent on us to take a public position and urge for an informed and rational dialogue on the ways Islam is used as a source of public law and policy in Malaysia.”

The problem is actually not so much that Malaysia has a religious problem as it has a political problem, one that started as long ago as 2001, according to the late Barry Wain, writing in "Malaysian Maverick," his authoritative biography of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. That was when the United Malays National Organization “abandoned its historically moderate position in the struggle with [the fundamentalist Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia] for Islamic legitimacy.”

Mahathir declared Malaysia an “Islamic state” directly after jihadists at the behest of the late Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden flew jets into the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, killing more than 3,000 people.

And, according to Wain, while Mahathir said publicly that Malaysia’s other races were comfortable with that decision, it actually “increased UMNO-PAS friction and made life more problematical for Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and other religious minorities, comprising 40 percent of Malaysia’s population.”

As UMNO has become more sclerotic, beset with corruption and cronyism, Wain’s assertion has taken on more and more weight. Religious tension has continued to grow, exploding in 2009, when UMNO sought to use religion to shore up its position with rural Malays but ended up losing its two-thirds majority in the parliament, for the first time in the country’s 50-year history, along with five of the country’s states, including several of its most prosperous.

Even as Malaysia continued to urbanize and more ethnic Malays tended toward religious moderation, UMNO doubled down on its appeal to race and religion for the next five years, but did even worse in the 2013 general election, with a fragmented Barisan Nasional losing the popular vote by nearly 400,000 votes although it retained a healthy majority in the parliament with 140 seats to the opposition’s 82 by gerrymandering and the first-past-the-post electoral system.

But that election, and the events leading up to it resulted in the creation of Malay supremacist organizations like Perkasa, headed by the firebrand Ibrahim Ali, and Malaysian Muslim Solidarity, known by its Malaysian initials ISMA, which continued to raise the tensions with repeated assertions that Islam itself as practiced in Malaysia was in danger. Mahathir, in effect the spiritual advisor to Perkasa, and former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin led the charge against Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and demanding he take a harsher line against the country’s minorities in the effort to solidify the Malay base.

Mahathir has since withdrawn his support for Najib on his popular blog Che Det. And Najib, in his campaign to defend his own base, during the UMNO General Assembly in November announced he would withdraw his bid to do away with the widely criticized sedition law and instead strengthen it “to protect the sanctity of Islam and other religions.” UMNO leaders throughout the four-day conclave continued to paint a picture of a religion threatened from the outside.

There has been little attempt by Najib or anyone else to protect the sanctity of anything against Islam. The other religions, particularly Christianity, are seen to be under growing threat.

Today, many UMNO insiders are concerned that the party will lose out in the next election, due in 2017. But their answer is to solidify their support with a dwindling rural base with strident religious rhetoric and an attempt to generate fear that other races, particularly the Chinese – whose numbers in Malaysia have been dwindling for 30 years as a percentage of the population – would dominate the political process as well as the economic picture.

Whether the scholars and other Islamic leaders are willing to acknowledge the political roots of the country’s religious problems is unknown. But they did, according to the local press, “call on the prime minister to exercise his leadership and political will to establish an inclusive consultative committee to find solutions to these intractable problems that have been allowed to fester for too long.

The group also urged more moderate Malaysians to speak up and contribute to a better informed and rational public discussion on the place of Islamic laws within a constitutional democracy and the urgency to address the breakdown of federal-state division of powers and finding solutions to stories of “lives and relationships damaged and put in limbo because of battles over turf and identity," Noor Farida said.

In the statement, the signatories said: "As moderate Muslims, we are particularly concerned with the statement issued by Minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom, in response to the recent Court of Appeal judgment on the right of transgender people to dress according to their identity.

"He viewed the right of the transgender community and Sisters in Islam (SIS) to seek legal redress as a ‘new wave of assault on Islam’ and as an attempt to lead Muslims astray from their faith, and put religious institutions on trial in a secular court.

"Such an inflammatory statement from a federal minister (and not for the first time) sends a public message that the prime minister's commitment to the path of moderation need not be taken seriously when a minister can persistently undermine it."

They added that "these issues of concern we raise are, of course, difficult matters to address given the extreme politicization of race and religion in this country. But we believe there is a real need for a consultative process that will bring together experts in various fields, including Islamic and constitutional laws, and those affected by the application of Islamic laws in adverse ways.”

With reporting by Malaysian Insider, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement