By Tajuddin Rasdi
October 19, 2018
Many thought that Malaysians won a great victory by throwing out the repressive Barisan Nasional (BN) regime and ushering in a new government under Pakatan Harapan (PH). What they do not know is that this new era of open discussion, free flow of information and new-found strength and confidence in civil society will not necessarily pave the way for a more peaceful and harmonious Malaysia.
What we have now is a Malaysia at a crossroads, like a stream that is split between moving rapidly and vigorously into a monstrous waterfall, or flowing gently with ripples and gurgling over small rocks and pebbles into a vast and calm ocean.
The conflict between Melayu and Melayu in the Reformasi movement of 1998 has turned into a Muslim against non-Muslim conflict as well as a Muslim against liberal-Muslim confrontation. These conflicts and confrontation are, in one way, a natural necessity of growth in society, but they could also develop into a raging fire of destruction.
I feel that the problems of these conflicts and confrontations lie in the language of discourse as well as ignorance of the historical narrative of Reformist Islam in Malaysia. This problem can best be exemplified by the fact that the minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Mujahid Rawa, has been hit hard from all directions. On one hand, he is criticised by conservative state religious officials as well as the opportunistic PAS and Umno for being “too liberal”, but on the other hand, he is also hit by Muslim and non-Muslim activist groups for being “too conservative”.
I do not see the well-intentioned minister being able to make much change in the country. We need a new historical perspective on understanding this discourse and debate as well as a new language of conflict resolution if we hope to breach the impasse that we are now in.
Let me start with my own perspective of the Islamic Reformation narratives that I understand, beginning in the 1980s. Malaysians must understand the various narratives and their development to the present one in order to engage with Malay-Muslims in Malaysia. But first, I would like to caution that I am not a scholar in Malaysian politics or history. What I present is a personal experience of events and my thoughts on them from the time I was in my 20s until now, three decades later.
Growing up in the police barracks of Butterworth and Taiping in the 60s and 70s, I do not recall any mention of Islam other than it being a cultural feature of Malay society. The narrative of Islam then was simply a borrowed narrative of being a Malay. Many Malay adults did not pray regularly, some drank alcohol openly and the women wore tight kebayas and selendangs, following the style of famous actresses Saloma and Sarimah. This was the age of P Ramlee. If you watch the famous films “Anak Bapak” or “Masam-Masam Manis”, P Ramlee plays the character of a man who frequents nightclubs as part of his social life. I love all the films of P Ramlee and recommend them to the non-Muslim youth as they are not only entertaining but also portray Malay morality, values and concerns. This would help them understand the Malays in this country better.
Islam in the 60s and 70s was relegated to ceremonies like marriage, circumcision, funeral rituals and the many social kenduris of Yaa Sin, Doa Selamat and the Prophet’s birthday. Non-Muslims were never considered a threat to Islam in any way and the populace lived peacefully side by side.
Social Islam or Islam as a complete way of life
In the 80s, all this changed. Cultural Islam with the Malay narrative was attacked by a wave of Islamic Reformation. The most influential and strongest of all was the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim), led by Anwar Ibrahim. There was also a few other Islamic NGOs but they were not as significant. There was also the Al-Arqam group with its Sufi-based approach, the Tabligh group with its travelling missionary approach and the political ideology of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). What was the Islamic-Malay narrative then?
Abim brought about the idea that Islam is Ad-Deen or a way of life, not just cultural rituals. In order to be a good Muslim, it was not enough to pray five times a day, go to haj and fast during Ramadan. Abim brought about the idea that one must be fully involved in “Amar Ma’arof Nahi Munkar” or the encouragement of good and the forbidding of evil. Muslims must be involved in social and political development and educate themselves in all disciplines in order to be strong. Muslims must also emulate the Prophet Muhammad in all things and not emulate a Malay or a Muslim leader who does not follow the Prophet. So was born the long beard or goatee and what people would dub the “Anwar Ibrahim” look. Muslim women began to don the hijab and forego the selendang as it was deemed inadequate. This is where Malaysians misunderstand the Malay-Muslims wearing the jubah or tudung. They think the Malay-Muslims have gone overboard and become Arabised when in fact they are merely trying to be as close to the personality and the characteristics of the Prophet as they can.
PAS has always pushed the concept of Islamic governance. In the 90s, it gained traction amid the work of Abim and the Iranian Revolution. The narrative of Islam as a way of social life developed into Islam as a political movement to gain power in governance. The rationale of the narrative was that since Allah created man, who would know better than Allah himself the main principles of governance. Man is deemed easily corruptible, thus democracy and popular debates about laws are deemed too whimsical and animalistic. Since the Quran is the Word of Allah, the hadith corpus is the guidebook of Muslims and the historical ijtihad of many schools throughout Muslim history contain many rulings to draw upon, there are enough religious sources to usher in a Utopian ideal of governance by Allah.
The important thing to remember here is that the Islamic narrative was always the enlightened Malay-Muslim group against the narrow-minded traditional Malay-Muslim one. The narrative of Malay-Muslims against the rest of the Malaysian citizenry was not heightened as the fight was about Melayu lawan Melayu.
Malaysians must understand that the Malays were not trying to be extremist or Arabised, but were consciously going through a new understanding of what being a true believer in Islam was. Many Malaysians are unhappy about the Islamic Reformation as they believed it to be restrictive and even regressive. Malaysians must understand that Reformist Islam offered an opportunity for the Malays to leave the confined narrative of “race” and move into a broader and more civilisational or even universal discourse of justice and fair governance.
Pious Muslims would rule under the ever-watchful eyes of Allah and they would all be accountable in the hereafter if they selfishly ruled for their own personal gain or comfort based on the great examples of the first four khalifah and the Prophet himself. Many Muslims, including me, thought this was a wonderful idea then. What many like me did not consider was the problem of who interprets the word of Allah. When I realised that the traditional educated ulamak had claimed the right to interpret, I began to get nervous because most modern reformations of Islam are pioneered by non-clerics with professional and academic backgrounds.
Mahathir’s hijacking of Islamic reform into civil governance
In the 80s and 90s, Dr Mahathir Mohamad saw the rising tide of Islamic reformation and adopted it in his administration to give the civil servants a new identity and a new work culture. Doing work was ibadah, or another form of worship – one must be honest and dutiful as well as efficient.
Mahathir believed in the Islamic code of ethics but he had no qualms about interpreting justice in his own way, as can be seen in Operasi Lalang and the Anwar saga.
The narrative then was Islam as a progressive and output-oriented individual worship of God in duties at work. The idea of Islam as a form of governance was thwarted by Mahathir by making Umno more Islamic looking, thus the red tudungs of the Wanita and Puteri Umno. Most Malay women donned the tudung as a sign of piety and part of a new group identity.
Malaysians must understand that the Malays were trying to find a new identity and a way to merge the world and the hereafter in a more productive and non-restrictive manner. The many tudung fashions and crazes are testament to the “unrestrictive” nature of the new Malay lifestyle.
Under the Mahathir-Anwar-inspired rule of the 90s, Malays began to frequent mosques, and a new personality emerged, to determine the discourse and narrative of Malaysia. Thus began the ustaz era. There were frequent lectures in mosques, and television and radio stations began airing religious talks and lectures by the bucketful. Cassette tapes and books containing religious advice were sold in a commercial boom, and personalities like Ustaz Badrul Amin outshone any superstar.
The Nasyid groups like Nada Murni of Al-Arqam produced a new culture of “halal” music, and the groups of singers conquered the music industry. Malays were into Islam from every aspect: social, political, educational and even musical. Tahfiz and religious schools mushroomed everywhere like nobody’s business. Parents wanted their children to be pious Muslims on top of becoming doctors, lawyers and architects. Better yet, they could become ustazs! Islam was not just a pious way to the hereafter – it was business, entertainment, education and politics. The Malays had finally found a new value system, away from the I-adore-the-Raja values to the I-love-Allah-and-the-Prophet values. What Malaysians must understand is that the Malays and many Muslims around the world do not wish to turn the clock back to the “westernised” days of P Ramlee although all Malays, including me, still love him – make no mistake about that!
The rise of civilising Islam or Islam for all
Now we come to an interesting era of the Islamic Reformation: the Anwar saga. When Mahathir stripped the Malay and Muslim dignity from Anwar on the national and international stage, the Malay-Muslim populace reacted by abandoning Umno. PAS took centre stage with DAP following behind. Mohamad Sabu, Fadzil Nor and Abdul Hadi Awang travelled the breadth of Malaysia to carry on the ceramah tours started by Anwar.
When he was arrested in a commando raid on his residence, his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar forewent her young adulthood and his wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail left her housewife world to trudge across muddy fields in ceramah after ceramah, reminding the Malays of the injustice shown to Anwar and preaching the idea of Islam and justice for all.
PAS and DAP were helped by Abim and the Ikram groups of Muslim NGOs. I would like to state that the first decade of Reformasi was fuelled by a new Islamic narrative of justice for all after the shocking Mahathir-Umno style of Islam. It was now a battle between federal Islam and civil Islam. Civil society had yet to be born into significance.
Now, in the era of the new Malaysia, civil society can tick off a minister over the colour of school shoes, or over the caning of lesbians, but they must know that civil society and the new Malaysia would never have seen the light of day without the Islamic narrative of justice for all, and especially not without Anwar and his family. So for those who love to knock on Anwar’s family and scorn the Reformasi or Islamic movement in Malaysia, please take heed: we would not be here at all if not for these factors. Civil society only came to the fore during Anwar’s second sodomy case.
In the 1999 election, Umno lost badly and was saved only by the non-Malay citizenry which propped it up. Tajuddin Abdul Rahman and Rahman Dahlan should take note of this fact when uttering their rhetoric of abusing the non-Malay citizenry.
The rise of mainstream Islamic extremism
The final development of the Islamic narrative occurred after the 2013 general election. Even before this, the non-Malays who supported BN began to abandon the coalition and jump onto the Reformasi bandwagon. A day after the election, Najib’s statement took centre stage in all media: “Apa lagi Cina mau?” This statement, crafted in diplomatically vulgar language, was the start of a dangerous narrative of “Islam against the other” which is still here today.
Before 2013, there seemed to be no significant issue aside from a few that never flared up into a matter of national concern, threatening the nation’s security. There had always been non-acceptance, suspicion and even “hatred” of Malays against the non-Malays, perpetuated by Umno and traditional religious lectures, but these were all “respectably” quiet.
After the 2013 election, the Bible-burning incident due to the Allah-Malay-Bible issue, which began in 2012, exploded. Then came the cow head issue and the Alvin Tan issue. Suddenly, small issues were made into gigantic matters discussed on social media. They brought out the worst reactions of Muslims in terms of anonymous postings. Even the “I want to touch a dog” event and a non-Muslim praying at a resort surau were played up.
To me, this was no longer Muslims searching for a pious life. It was Muslims defending their identity against non-Muslims.
Before May 9, civil society voices like Sisters in Islam and the Islamic Renaissance Front defending the LGBT and against oppressive Islamic laws began to incur the ire of state Islamic officials and Jakim. Certain Malay and Islamic NGOs fuelled the narrative of Islam against the “other”, staging protests and internet postings supported, I assume, by a host of paid cybertroopers.
After the May 9 victory, the voice of civil society was seen as on par with, if not overwhelming, the voices of state religious officials. The same discourse which would not flare up exploded after the 2018 election, and this firestorm will only become worse if the parties concerned do not understand the history of changing Islamic narratives.
Three of the recent by-elections saw the vote bank of PAS, which warped into a racist party just after the 2013 election, relatively unchanged. PAS will undoubtedly fan the narrative of Islam against non-Malay “infidels” and Islam against liberal Muslims as well as Islam against the “kafir” United Nations.
In conclusion, I wish to say to Malaysians that for the greater part of our history, the Islamic narrative was always about reforming other Muslims. There was no identifiable conflict or narrative of “Islam against the other”.
Most Muslims are sincere about finding a path to spirituality through their worship, practices, social interaction and entertainment. These Muslims mean no ill will to anyone.
However, after the 2013 general election, I have found that there are some Muslim parties who incite the narrative of “Islam against the other”. This narrative is gaining acceptance by state religious Islam and the general Muslim populace, especially public universities.
Muslim NGOs deemed “liberal” and non-Muslims in this country must understand the historical narratives of Islam in Malaysia before embarking on engagement with Muslim bodies.
Non-Muslims and civil society Muslims must understand four fundamental facts for any future engagements. Firstly, there are no Muslims who want to turn the clock back to the “good old days” of westernised, P Ramlee-style culture. Secondly, it was the Islamic narrative that carried the Reformasi movement until the people’s historic win on May 9. Thirdly, no one can change the Muslims except for the Muslims themselves. Fourthly – and this is the most important thing – there is a brand of civilising Islam promoted by Anwar and Abim which has now found a new proponent in Amanah under the concept of Islam Rahmat-al-alamin as a most viable approach to neutralising any Islamic or racist extremism by Malays or Muslims. The work of the Islamic Renaissance Front must also be mentioned and can be parked under this narrative.
Malaysians and civil society members must understand the different narratives of whoever comes to the table for discussion, as well as the media news about such and such an issue that is Islamic in nature. Anyone who wishes to engage with Muslim authorities or civil society must bring those who can speak and understand the different languages of Reformist Islam.
Waving the constitution in front of state religious officials, public university academics in Islam, or PAS simply reinforces the “Islam against liberal Muslims or kafir” conflict. Perhaps with this explanation, a new path of conflict resolution can emerge to lead the way towards a more amicable Malaysia.