Southeast Asia’s Moderate Muslims Look the Other Way as Brunei Doubles Down on Shariah

The announcement by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei of stoning for adultery and homosexuality might have been written off as the desperate appeal to the almighty to make up for the Sultan’s own past sins. After all, it wasn’t just his brother Jefri, the subject of many a titillating story of girls, boats, drink and all-round hedonism. If news stories are to be believed, he was involved in plenty of it himself.

But the silence from the Muslim leaders of supposedly moderate Malaysia and Indonesia at Brunei’s leap into a dark Arabian past shouldn’t go unnoticed. Indeed, given the pressure in some peninsular Malaysian states for hudud laws, which call for punishments supposedly required by the Quran and Hadith including crucifixion, stoning to death and amputation of hands, Brunei could be seen as a follower as much as a leader in the leap into the past.

Even more bizarrely, such literalist following of a 7th century text never was followed in the Malay sultanates which operated under adat or customary law. Only now that so many Malays have seemingly succumbed to the influence of Salafist ideas arriving from Saudi Arabia along with mountains of cash for radical Islamist groups have Hudud prescriptions come to be viewed seriously.

Disturbingly, as with Malaysia, politics is driving religious law in Indonesia as well, with Prabowo Subianto’s flagging campaign for the presidency against Joko Widodo turning to waving the Islamic flag to the country’s 225 million Muslims – 82 percent of the population – in his effort to rejuvenate his chances.

More generally, democratic politics there (as in many places in the west) developed a tendency for parties to be pulled by more radical elements so that for example in Indonesia the once very liberal-minded Nahdlatul Ulama of former President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur, 1999-2001) has moved to more conservative notions represented by Jokowi’s running mate to counter more extreme Salafist views. Whether that is wise is questionable given the traditional tolerance of most Indonesians.

In Malaysia, all this has happened as the influence on religious matters of the now-disgraced United Malays National Organization and Parti Islam se-Malaysia politicians has increased and is being cynically used by the deposed Prime Minister Najib Razak in his efforts to regain power. The machinery of government was used to impose a dogmatic and narrow version on Islam on the Malay community at large, including attempting to suppress Sufism. In this process, Malaysia’s Sultans, supposed to be the defenders both of Islam and Malay interests in their states and the country at large, have been bypassed.

In addition, although technically only responsible for the federal territories and the four states without sultans, federal Islamic educational, judicial and administrative and law enforcement institutions have proliferated, becoming a "government within a government," according to M. Bakri Musa in conversation some time ago. "Because of the exalted status they enjoy in Malay society, religious officials feel appropriately important ... and they behave accordingly".

Likewise Islamic studies departments have expanded, often at the expense of technology and practical subjects but the intellectual level was low. In Brunei, a similar situation exists. For the fiscal year 2018-19, the budget for Ministry of Religious Affairs was allocated B$257 million (US$190 million as of March 2018). That is is an increase from B$236 million in the previous fiscal year. More than two-thirds of the budget, about B$180 million, has been allocated for public Islamic religious education.

Though showing scant sign of religious fervor himself, Mahathir (and Anwar) must take much of the blame along with Najib for this, using Islam for their own political purposes and undermining the role of the (admittedly often ill-behaved) Sultans, who may be anachronistic but do represent Malay traditions better than the Salafist inclined, or indeed what has become the mainstream of official, government approved Islam.

In the longer run, this can only be to the detriment not only of NEP success and racial harmony, but to the willingness of Sabah and Sarawak to remain part of Malaysia.

In particular, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor – himself no angel – has criticized this growing Islamization, calling on Malays not to discard their unique culture and saying in 2016 that he was disturbed that some want to stop Muslims from practicing the traditional salam greeting, which stems from Indian culture.

Ibrahim said he would stick to "my customs and traditions as a Malay because I'm born Malay. If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practice Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you.

Mahathir himself did not directly link the rise of Arab-inspired orthodoxy to the failure so far to achieve the goals of the New Economic Policy implemented in the 1970s two generations after it was initiated. But many, not just non-Malays, see a direct relationship. Failure to take full advantage of the NEP on the economic, commercial and educational front is also linked to the increased social divide between Malays and others because of religion.

Although economic and educational progress has in one way reduced the gaps between Malays and others, social relations have been seriously impeded by focusing on more restrictive dress, eating and other behavioral codes.

The notion that after 48 years of NEP advantages, when the population is 65 percent Muslim and 75 percent bumiputra, the Malays and Islam still need protection and multiple privileges and enforce such nonsense as that all Malays are Muslim, depriving them of freedom of thought and choice.

Daim Zainuddin, in a recent speech, pointed out that ethnic bumiputeras, who make up the preponderance of the population, are responsible for only 8 percent of gross domestic product. UMNO functionaries have seized on that to charge that more help is needed for Malays. But the fact is that the NEP, with its guaranteed jobs, its guaranteed education and its rent-seeking contracts, has only lulled them into a sense that they don’t have to strive or perform.

“There can be no doubt that the biggest single factor which has prevented the achievement of the New Economic Policy’s objectives to reduce the disparities between the Malays and the other races is the system of values of the Malays and their actual practices,” Mahathir wrote in the 2008 Introduction to his 1970 nation-shaking book “The Malay Dilemma.” Another decade on, and one must ask if anything has changed.