Exploring Malaysia’s unique Islamic heritage and society

Malaysia is the favourite Muslim country for many Western Muslims. The reasons were not difficult to see when this writer visited the country last month; Malaysia can perhaps be characterised as Muslim but not too Muslim. You can eat halal food wherever you go, there are suraus (prayer rooms) in malls, hotels and most other public buildings, and virtually all Muslimahs wear hijab. But in terms of their development, modernity, looks and general atmosphere, Kuala Lumpur and surrounding urban areas such as Petaling Jaya feel more like Islamised versions of cities in the West than Muslim cities like Cairo, Damascus, Tehran, Karachi or Jakarta. Malaysia’s economic prosperity as an “Asian tiger” with considerable natural resources and a relatively small population (24 million compared to 200 million in neighbouring Indonesia) is certainly a part of this. Another factor is the large non-Muslim population (approximately 40 percent), consisting mainly of Chinese and Indians. These communities are both relatively westernised in lifestyle, giving Malaysian society a sense of cultural mix familiar to Western Muslims, but with the subtle difference that Muslims are in the majority rather than the minority.

Islam is, nonetheless, central to Malay identity; to be Muslim is to be Malay, regardless of ethnicity, and vice versa. Before leaving in 1957, the British defined it as an “Islamic State” and established the Malays in power in order to ensure that it did not fall under the influence of communist China. One Malay, however, told us that Malaysia is a “Muslim state” rather than an Islamic one, meaning that it affirms its faith without practising it. The United Malay National Organization (UMNO) that has ruled the country since independence has traditionally kept Islam and politics separate, out of sensitivity for the country’s non-Muslims. However, the growth of non-UMNO politics during the Reformasi period, prompted by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed’s persecution of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, has seen PAS, Malaysia’s Islamic party, emerge as the leading opposition party. There is also an impressive range of Islamic cultural and intellectual institutions, whose sophistication and work reflect the country’s relative stability and prosperity, and the increasing levels of education among Malays. These include groups such as ABIM (the Islamic youth movement), the Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), the International Islamic University, and smaller community groups such as the Muslim Professionals Forum.

One thing that emerged very clearly from talking to people in these institutions was awareness that all is not well behind Malaysia’s shiny facade. Recent controversies over Muslims apostasising have apparently been grossly overblown, but there are certainly concerns about moral and lifestyle problems among young Muslims because of the influence of non-Muslim society, which connects seamlessly to the global hegemony of Western culture and social norms. This is responsible for much of the pressure on UMNO to do more to reflect Muslim concerns and interests in the country (see p. 14 below), but few in the country believe that UMNO is capable of addressing these problems effectively.

At the same time, Malaysian Muslims are becoming increasingly aware of themselves as part of a global Ummah, and that many other parts of the Muslim world are in far more difficult circumstances. Although insulated from many of the problems of the Ummah, they are not unaware of them. Given the peace and stability that they enjoy in Malaysia, Muslim organizations may prove able to make a particular contribution to the Islamic movement at the intellectual level, doing work that is more difficult for Muslims facing more direct political oppression in other countriesto do. To achieve this, however, Malaysian Muslim organizations have to establish better communication with other parts of the Islamic movement elsewhere. In particular, they must be aware of the dangers of dealing with “moderate” Muslim institutions promoted by the West and Muslim states. Another problem that they must resolve is a tendency to sectarianism; virtually all Malaysians are Sunni, and in this area they are no more mature than most Muslims elsewhere, Sunni and Shi’a alike.

What is encouraging is the way Malaysian Muslims identify with the global Ummah and their willingness to play a full part in the global Muslim struggle for liberation from Western hegemony and the establishment of Islamic institutions and social norms in Muslim societies. There can be no doubt Malaysia is a country with tremendous potential to play a key role in the Islamic movement, for the benefit of Muslims all over the world, insha’Allah.