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Intellectual Framework on the Politics of Identity Is Relevant In Malaysia

By Hilman Fikri Azman

January 25, 2019

One issue that has been cropping up in the Cameron Highlands by-election is whether or not the position of Islam and the Malays is under threat post GE 14. To answer this question, we may need to glean some lessons from history.

Conventional theories of social change place economic factors as the primary drivers of change. The rise of bread prices, for instance, played a pivotal role in sparking the French Revolution of 1789.

Economic pressures and seizures of goods also compelled Mohammed Bouazizi to immolate himself in Tunisia, setting off the “Arab Spring” in 2011. In this incident, economic factors played a key role in triggering monumental change.

However, Francis Fukuyama has challenged this conventional school of thought. In his book ‘Identity’, Fukuyama explains how recently, identity has replaced economic factors as a major driver of change.

Fukuyama’s intellectual framework on the politics of identity is relevant in Malaysia because recently, the politics of identity has taken centre stage in our political landscape – in particular, Malay-Muslim identity.

Malay-Muslim identity has played a significant role in defining the Opposition post GE-14. It has been effective enough to bring together two Malay parties that used to be enemies to the point of supporting each other in a number of recent by-elections – most recently in Cameron Highlands.

In the Cameron Highlands campaign, PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang said that Muslims in Malaysia suffered a crippling blow following the change of government in GE14. Acting Umno President Mohamad Hasan meanwhile has accused Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad of being a DAP puppet.

Has this approach succeeded in appealing to the people? The initial impression is that this narrative has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the rakyat. A large number of Malaysians, especially amongst the Malays, have expressed fears and discomfort regarding the position of Islam and the Malays.

Here, the politics of identity in Malaysia is different from the politics of identity of groups such as the Black Lives Movement in America and the LGBT, because it does not arise from a history of oppression. Rather, it arises from rhetoric about how Islam and Malays are threatened by the new government.

But, how are they under threat? More accurately, what does it mean for Islam and the Malays to be under threat from the new government?

If we analyse this question in detail, we can evaluate each issue more justly and objectively. Threats and fear mongering should not cloud our understanding of current issues.

When threats and fear mongering are mixed with politics, the result is instability and discontent – especially among those who might fall prey easily to such tactics.

Islam explains clearly the role that fear should play in an individual. Ibn ‘Ata’illah mentions in his Sufi book al-Hikam (The Wisdoms) that fear and hope should only be directed to Allah Taala.

According to Ibn ‘Ata’illah, fear and hope should be cultivated in an individual to the point of Ihsan – the stage where an individual feels that they are being constantly watched by God. That is what leaders should be promoting; not shifting that fear to identity.

When fear is used in a political context, this is putting something in an incorrect place. Putting something in an incorrect place goes against the concept of justice in Islam. Therefore, political fear mongers are running afoul of principles of justice that should be practiced in political Islam.

On the topic of fear, the Prophet (pbuh) says in one of the Hadith narrated by al-Bukhari: “cheer the people up by conveying glad tidings to them and do not spread fear”. In this spirit, Muhammad ‘Imarah concluded that the preservation of peace and elimination of fear is the highest goal of Islamic governance.

Why is fear such an important element then, as seen in the campaigning in Cameron Highlands? Because it is fear that makes the politics of identity relevant.

We can see clearly that while change may not be driven by economic factors but by identity, in the end, the politics of identity is still practiced for utilitarian reasons.

This is normal in politics, and political parties need to be pragmatic about evolving political landscapes. In this matter, identity and fear are tools that can ensure the survival of PAS and Umno.

Idealism without pragmatism cannot see a political party through the challenges and strong currents of politics. Those who are not fit and not pragmatic will perish in the cutthroat mire of politics.

The question is: how should the government respond towards these identity-based narratives? Should they be reactionary regarding the ‘threatened’ identity? Is it right for discourse about economics and ideas to be drowned out by the politics of identity and racism?

Sociologist Malik Bennabi has emphasised that building a new civilisation must be based on ideas and a culture of discourse. If we want to maintain the spirit of new Malaysia, we should champion political discourse that is based on economics and ideas, to the point where it should overcome the domineering politics of identity and fear.

An approach to politics based on ideas is the best way forward for Malaysia, because of its universal nature, which cuts across race and religion. If this culture can be expanded and accepted by Malaysians, all issues that are said to threaten Islam and the Malays can be discussed in a mature and objective manner.