Malaysia is a multi-cultural multi-ethnic and multilingual society with Malay, Indian and Chinese being the major races in the population. There are also other indigenous tribal groups and Bahasa Malaysia is the country’s national language although such other dialects like Mandarin, English and Tamil are widely spoken especially in the commercial and business sectors.
The country’s official religion is Islam; practiced by majority Malayans but other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity are also practiced (Verma 96). Malaysia is made up of two major regions that have been separated by South China Sea and consists of a federation of thirteen states and 3 federal territories. Although little interaction is notable, the communities are said to coexist in harmony regardless of their religious and cultural differences (Hussain).
In Malaysia like in any other state that is predominantly Muslim it is hard to separate religion and state matters and much attention is paid to the manner in which Islam is represented in the socio-cultural and political spheres. It is no wonder then that in Malaysia, religion has become very much politicized while contentiousness marks the secular state (Lahoud 40, 43). In a multi-ethnic country that is on the modernization path like Malaysia the implications and reality of a government whose policies are rooted in Islam has begun to sink in the minds of most people.
Such issues like Islamic state, freedom of religion, the hudoud law and freedom of expression have spilled out into the public arena as the two major Islamic political parties, the opposition PAS (Party Islam se-Malaysia) and ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organization) continue to struggle for political dominance in this nation. UMNO is the major political party and has dominated Malaysian politics for decades.
After Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came to power in 2003, there has been notable attempts to force Islamic values on non-Muslims and his attempt to promote traditional Islam (Islam Hadari) has turned Islam into the integral part of all government policies (Esposito et al 94-103). The imposing of the Hijab on non-Muslim women in the police force and those working in restaurants, and the ban imposed on couples not to hold hands in public are clear indications of the way Malaysian government policies continue to affect the non-Muslim population.
But PAS is opposed to Islam Hadhari and aims at establishing a state of Malaysia based on a theoretical approach of Islam as provided for in the Sunnah (way of the prophet and Quran) (Hussain). In view of the fact that Islam and Malay identity are so intertwined, there is a tough contest between the PAS and UMNO parties as they try to out-do each other on the political and religious arenas and win the role of Islam’s standard-bearer, and in such a way, the vote of the Malay constituents.
UMNO has frequently been accused by PAS of failing to uphold Islam and its values while UMNO accuses PAS of being fanatical and led by conservative traditionalists who pose a threat to the economic growth of the country. PAS goes on to criticize UMNO of practicing uneven development and in this way has managed to attract the appeal of the Malay Muslim. The PAS party has diverted its political propaganda from Malay nationalism and value of Islamic law and now stresses that is it’s committed to authentic Islam.
The party leaders are using their position to transform social-cultural life among the Northern states governed by PAS (Esposito 94-103). Islamic institutions and mosques in opposition strongholds such as Selangor have been banned from any promotion of Islam Hadhari arguing that it is distorting the religion of Islam by including non-Muslims in its laws. PAS which is an opposition party goes on to argue that Islam Hadhari is leading to a loss of spiritualism in the Islamic religion and that Islam is being misused to promote economic development.
Other opposition parties like the people’s Justice Party (PJP) and Chinese dominated Leftist Democratic Party (CDP) have not opposed this ban. Various Muslim groups have also been debating over the role that Islam should play in Malaysian society, be it in relation to religious freedom in such a plural society, democracy or rights for minorities and women (Lahoud 40-43). In Malaysia, ethnic and religious diversity is prominent and certain religions are identified with certain ethnic groups for example Malays with the Islamic religion, and ethnic Chinese tribes with their traditional religions.
The communalization of Islam by the Malays through their approach that ethical and religious interests are equal does not go well with non-Muslims who hold a view that Islam is to blame for underachievement in Malayan society (Verma 94). The Malaysian constitution defines all Malays as Muslim irrespective of their ethnic background and states that Islam should not be challenged either constitutionally or conventionally. Introduction of religious discourse in national identification defining a Malayan as either Muslim or non-Muslim has not gone well with non-Muslims who view this move as discriminative.
Although Islam puts emphasis on such principles as tolerance, peaceful co-existence, human brother-hood and respect for all, the Muslims in Malaysia like in any other Muslim dominated country seem to enjoy special rights and this status-quo is bound to continue until such a time that Islam gets modernized or reformed. Muslims in Malaysia have proved very reluctant to extend equal rights to the minority non-Muslim community and although other religious groups have been given freedom to practice their beliefs, this practice is limited and building of places of worship is sanctioned by the state.
Demolition of some Chinese temples and several Hindu temples in 2004 and 2005 raised uproar within these communities leading to discontentment with the authorities. Worship places for Muslims are also built from public funds while others are privately funded. The non-Muslim tax-payers are certainly not happy about this and view such a move as exploitation of the minority (Verma 94-103). Traditional Chinese’ view about Islam has however been more bent towards indifference rather than hostility.
Ethnic Chinese are far above the Malays in the fields of trade, modern education and business and they find no good reason to show any interest in Islam because of its identification with inferior ethnic groups. The Malays on the other hand question the Islamic worth of ethnic Chinese cultural practices such as use of chopsticks for eating although this practice has been traditionally unacceptable to the Malays. Because of the attitude the Malay Muslims hold towards Chinese culture, the ethnic Chinese has got all the more convinced that Islam is not suitable for the Chinese people.
Most of the Chinese oppose radical Islam because as they argue, it poses political opposition to Malaysia’s economic transformation. Non-Muslims and liberal Muslims accuse Islam of being intolerant to secularism and trying to interpret any issue on the basis of Islamic religion. They argue that Islam tends to be too rigid and fails to consider that social situations continue to evolve and change with time and that such interpretations as were used in ancient times re not compatible with the changing social situations (Esposito 92-107).
In Malaysia, Muslims have all long enjoyed special religio-ethnic privileges at the expense of the Indians, Chinese and other indigenous communities that practice other religions. The non-Muslims are subjected to discrimination in the government-supported sectors such as education (scholarships, schools and universities) as well as in businesses and employment sectors. They are also subject to religious discrimination such as use of the Islamic Sharia laws to settle any religious disputes between the Muslims and non-Muslims, a practice that is done in Islamic courts which remain inaccessible for non-Muslims.
In the recent past, Shariah court rulings in marriage, conversion, child custody and divorce cases involving non-Muslim have also drawn much criticism from the non-Muslim community because the verdict is passed based on Islamic laws (Peletz 3-6, 12). But non-Muslims still continue to convert to Islam for marriage purposes and because they want to enjoy the special privileges accorded to the Muslims. A non-Muslim cannot be married to a Muslim unless the former converts to Islam first. But it is unfortunate that one cannot convert back to their original religion after a divorce because Islam gives no room for someone to desert the faith.
They propagate that once a Muslim always a Muslim and those who have tried to change have only changed their belief but legally remain Muslim. In most cases in Malaysia conversion from Islam to another religion is not allowed especially for the ethnic Malay and such an offence will lead to a jail term or fine or in some cases both. Most public institutions are Muslim dominated and non-Muslims normally convert to Islam to be included in such institutions. The minority ethnic tribes of Malaysia also identify with Islam as the only means of being recognized by the state and benefiting from state programs (Esposito 92-96).
Islam can be a blessing to all Malaysians if it is practiced the proper way. But the fact that the Muslims want to persuade the other communities into living an Islamic kind of life which according to the Muslims is the only acceptable way, has led to a lot of discontentment among the non-Muslims. Muslims forget that Islam is a religion and should not be forced upon others in a multi-racial country that advocates religious tolerance. It should therefore not determine the way of life of a different religious group or even determine the political system in such a multi-ethnic country like Malaysia.
In a society where everyone pays tax irrespective of their ethnic or religious background, it is most unfair that tax-payers money is only used to pay Islamic teachers and maintain Islamic institutions at the expense of others (Hussain). Views about Islam are also diverse among the Muslim believers and radical groups propagating for reform such as “Sisters in Islam” have become very strong in Malaysia. They are calling for more rights for women such as being allowed to learn and become judges in the countries judicial courts, and are also calling for an end to the outdated practice of polygamy.
Such groups are fighting against religious radicalism that has been fighting to put the woman back to the confinement of the home in a society where formal education has been extended to every gender (Anwar). There is increased awareness that using Islam to design laws and public policies that will be used to govern private and public live in this country, will lead to a situation whereby it becomes very important to determine who is responsible for defining the role Islam plays in society.
In Malaysia, women’s groups, political parties, NGOs, the Media and human rights organizations have began to engage in public debates on several such issues and the role that religion should play in political life. Most of these people feel that the state of Malaysia should be one in which there are equal rights for every citizen but not rights based on gender, ethnicity or religion (Hussain). Opinions about Islam in Malaysia therefore vary in different places depending on the ethnic and religious composition of the population and also depending on the political party that has its stronghold in a particular region.
Different political parties, even those that are Islamist have had contrasting secular and Islamist stands. Such parties as DAP and PAS are extremely opposite in their view about Islamic law and practices where PAS takes a radical approach while DAP has a more secular approach. The struggle to attract the Muslim vote that is going on between UMNO and PAS has however only led to a society where Islam is now more and more being used directly to define the way of life of the Muslims and indirectly that of the non-Muslims (Lahoud 40-43).
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