Malaysia likes to present itself as a moderate Muslim state and it is fairly credited with cracking down on terrorism or individuals trying to join ISIS in Syria/Iraq or al-Qaeda related groups.
Yet even some Islamic scholars are now accusing the government itself of fostering extremism through official actions. The government interferes with religious issues to an extent unheard of in major Muslim countries in Asia such as Indonesia, Bangladesh or even Pakistan and many elsewhere such as Turkey, Egypt and Algeria.
Official Islam in Malaysia has become virulently Sunni, oppressive of the tiny minority of Shia in the country, who are sometimes viewed as kafir, or non-believers. Such interference in Islamic doctrinal issues makes Malaysia an informal party to the religious wars between Sunni and Shia taking place in Iraq and Syria. This provides an ideological basis for ISIS recruiters who urge Sunnis elsewhere to join the fight for their “pure” version of Islam.
Official Islam in Malaysia is also hostile to Sufism, the interpretation of Islam that relies more on the direct communication between the individual and his creator than on laws and rituals. Sufism has a long tradition in East Asia dating to the time when Islam first arrived in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula via traders mainly from India, but some also from Persia and Arabia. Sufism also has deep roots in Java.
In recent years, however, in Malaysia – and in Indonesia – the influence of well-financed Salafist preachers from Saudi Arabia has combined with the ambitions of politicians and the government’s religious affairs bureaucracy to impose a more formalist, dogmatic and exclusionist version of Islam on the people. Outwardly this is most apparent in female dress but extends to the power of sharia courts in Malaysia to deliver punishments for behavior that may be viewed as sinful by some but is not illegal in terms of the civil law applying to non-Muslims.
Another issue that arguably is both un-Islamic and encourages extremist ideology is the forced identification of all Malays with Islam. To many Muslims this is un-Islamic because it confuses faith with ethnicity when the first principle of Islam is universality. People are Muslims on the basis of belief in one God and that Mohammed was the prophet of that God. Malays were an identifiable ethnic and linguistic group originally from Sumatra long before the arrival of Islam and there are Malays outside Malaysia who are not Muslims. The racist nature of an automatic identification of a race with a religion can bring both into disrepute.
Official Malaysia is also now giving space to the introduction of Hudud, or supposedly Islamic penal laws, in the state of Kelantan. By allowing a bill for its implementation to be tabled in parliament by the Parti-se-Islam, the government is setting off alarm bells among the nation’s 40 percent non-Muslims and further dividing Muslims from each other. Hudud punishments such as chopping off limbs and stoning are not mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah (sayings of the prophet) but were only added later to so-called Islamic practices. Very few Muslim countries today use Hudud, so Malaysia is taking a huge step backward into a distant Arabian past by even considering the possibility. It is unlikely to become law but shows the lengths to which the government will go to appease radical and ultra-conservative groups.
Thus Muslim and non-Muslim friends and allies of Malaysia need to make it clear to Malaysia’s government that its abuse of religion for political purposes – as a distraction from evidence of massive top level corruption under Prime Minister Najib Razak, for example – is spurring just the kind of radical and divisive attitudes that it claims to be combatting. Watch what this government does, not what it says about “moderation.”