Rising Islamic conservatism in Malaysia

FORMER premier Mahathir Mohamad believes that Islam is under siege in Malaysia. He is not alone.

With religion fast becoming the most contentious source of disputes in Malaysia, this perception has given rise to a host of conservative Islamic groups becoming more vocal.

At the root of their grievances is their belief that non-Muslims and "liberal" Muslims are attacking the dominance of Islam in Malaysia, and Malays in general.

For them, the "Allah" issue - where Christians want to use "Allah" to refer to their God - is simply the last straw.

Since the 1970s, Malaysia has had many Islamic groups which have taken conservative stances on issues relating to human rights, women's rights and homosexuality, and in their relations with non-Muslim groups.

Probably the most well known, started by a young Anwar Ibrahim in 1971, is Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, or Abim, which pushed for more Islamisation of public life including legal and financial systems.

Today, however, some groups have become much more vocal, and more political. Several appear to target opposition politicians; Four-year-old Perkasa, for example, has a membership that overlaps with the Prime Minister Najib Razak's Umno party.

One group, which calls itself the "Council of Islamic NGOs" and emerged early this year, recently made the news for slaughtering two chickens to protest against a satirical video by opposition MP Teresa Kok, a move which suggested a threat of violence.

They had accused Ms Kok of being anti-Malay and anti-Muslim. They said she had run down Malay leaders in her video, which poked fun at national issues such as rising inflation and featured a personality said to resemble the wife of a top Malay politician.

Such sensational protests have come after the 2008 election, as Malays are increasingly split between the ruling Barisan Nasional and opposition Pakatan Rakyat. As the old race-based parties from independence days have lost their appeal, and political parties have become more multiracial in their outlook, these Muslim groups have come to fill the radical space that has been left empty.

Lawyer Azhar Harun, who writes socio-political columns for the online media, said while there was nothing racial or religious about the Teresa Kok video, it was not surprising that many Malay-Muslims bought the claim that it was insulting to them.

"That's how it's become in Malaysia. Everything has become wrapped with a religious fervour, from TV shows to festive celebrations, that people come to see everything through those lenses," he said.

He gave another example: the Malaysian couple on trial in Sweden for beating their children. Some Malaysians said that beatings are allowed by the Malay-Muslim culture, while others warned of danger to the children's faith because they were living with a Christian foster family.

In such an environment, said Mr Azhar, it is easy for the conservative Muslim movement to thrive. "That's where we are now," he said.

Not all Muslim groups are created equal.

Some appear sporadically, and little is known about their membership or leaders. This includes the group that protested against Ms Kok although it claims a membership of 30 NGOs and 500,000 Muslims, according to its spokesman Zulkifly Sharif.

Others, like the Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), are more established.

Analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who runs the Ideas think-tank, said Isma is actually part of the wider Islamic movement in Malaysia inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.

Other groups of a similar nature, he said, are Abim and the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). Compared with the newer Islamic groups, PAS - which is part of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat - and Abim are relatively moderate in their outlook.

Mr Wan Saiful said Isma's members come from all segments, from the civil service to professionals. He said it was likely that Isma became more vocal as it truly felt that Islam was under siege. "I do not doubt their sincerity but they are wrong," he said.

Many have claimed that these Islamic groups are offshoots of Umno, or its "subcontractors" to expound views that Umno cannot.

But Mr Wan Saiful disagreed. He noted while the memberships of Isma and Perkasa may overlap with that of Umno and PAS, Isma and Perkasa do not see themselves as subservient to a political party.

"In fact, they see the political parties as a political vehicle to carry out their agenda, as they see themselves as representing the true Malay voice," he said.

Some say these groups are more noise than substance. Perkasa, which has dominated headlines since 2008, saw two of its top leaders losing dismally in the last general election.

Still, their brand of ultra-conservatism has spread to the mainstream, said Mr Azhar, especially when someone like Tun Dr Mahathir declares that Islam will lose its dominance if Malays lose political influence.

"This is dangerous, and we should be worried about this," he said.


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