A cogitation on the politicization of Islam in the country – what spurned its coming to being, it’s manifestation and how it is adversely affecting Malaysia and her citizens, in particular the ordinary Muslim citizen. This is the first of 4 parts.
Twenty three years ago, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, the well respected social scientist and Muslim thinker, wrote in his book Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia (Fajar Bakti Sdn Bhd, 1987) that the signs of “Islamic resurgence are everywhere”. In this excellent book, he analysed objectively and clearly the primary and secondary causes of the resurgence, the reaction of the political players (primarily PAS and UMNO) and the general reactions of the Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
It is interesting that he decided to explain in his book why he chose the term “Islamic resurgence”. I would like to quote one of the reasons he cited at page 2:
… resurgence as a term embodies the notion of challenge, even a threat to those who adhere to other world-views. Many Muslims themselves would regard the espousal of an Islamic alternative as a challenge to the dominant social systems. Groups outside Islam, including those who are being challenged, would similarly perceive the rise of Islam as a threat to the position they hold.
I recall as a young student in UKM in 1984, I was part of the “Islamic resurgence wave” with the determination that before I graduated, I must organize at least one “Islamic programme.” I did manage to organize the first international seminar of its kind organized by a student body in the country then – “Seminar Sistem Kewangan Islam.” A seminar to discuss various “Islamic financial institutions.” At the time, “Bank Islam” was still in its infancy and there were hardly any other “Islamic financial institutions.” The event was a success if measured by the attendance of international speakers, and it was officiated by YM Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah who was the then Finance Minister. (Of course I never realized then the metamorphosis of such institutions today labeled “Islam”)
I recall too that the main challenge in making the seminar a success was the management of my project committee. In UKM then, the student body was divided into two – one pro-PAS and the other pro-UMNO. The Economics Society was controlled by the pro-UMNO group. Normally, whenever any project is carried out by pro-UMNO, they will only select their own kind. Likewise with pro-PAS, they will also select their own. When my proposal for the project was accepted, I had insisted that I had the sole discretion to select my committee without any interference from the Economics Society exco, which they agreed.
My committee was made up equally of pro-UMNO, pro-PAS and non-Muslims! Though I am considered to be part of the pro-UMNO group, I was among the rare ones who could mingle easily with the pro-PAS group. However, in the eyes of the pro-PAS group, I was considered “dangerous” because while my dressing is western (shirt tucked in, belt, long pants and black shoes!) I could debate and argue with them. Those were the days when even UMNO leaders (with the exception of Dr. Mahathir) would not dare to argue about Islam with PAS or pro-PAS groups.
Hence, some of the pro-PAS members of my committee were actually trying to scuttle the project. Student leaders like me should not be allowed to succeed because that would give me an “Islamic credential” when in some of their eyes, I do not deserve that. That was my first lesson of “religion being a tool of politics.” Some groups feel that Islam is their sole property and only they can dictate what is and who should talk about it. As a young student of course I was shocked that a “noble intention” and the willingness to work towards the success of the project was insufficient. I had to look and talk like them.
I had to make a decision because there were real sabotages done that could actually derail the seminar. That’s when I decided on a few things in my life:
1) I will forever refuse to look like an Islamist (not to be confused with “Islamic”). I do not live this life for fools/hypocrites who conjecture and treat God’s religion as a club membership. My life is Allah’s.
2) I will maintain the members and will not sack them unless they themselves do not want to be part of the seminar. They will be my test of fairness.
3) The non-Muslim members will remain unless they too do not want to (there was opposition to their inclusion too.) I am a Muslim and no one will convert me into a racist.
Finally, I called a meeting and spoke at length about the importance of the seminar, asked everyone to cooperate, those who wanted to leave could leave but I preferred them to stay and help. Those who want to stay and try to scuttle the project too are also welcome to remain behind because I too want to know what was God’s ultimate plan for the seminar. I told them that I hold no grudges against any of the scuttlers and that they are a test to us and to themselves. I told them each of them are answerable to God, not to me. By the end of the meeting, some of the committee members cried and from that day on, generally, we were “smooth sailing.” Generally.
I read Dr. Chandra’s book in 1988 because I was amazed how accurately he analysed the events that I saw then in UKM. He was talking about Malaysia and I was thinking that UKM in 1982 is the future Malaysia. Today, I think I am correct.
While I too was very happy with the rise in “Islamic consciousness”, I cannot help worrying about mass hypnosis and indoctrination, preoccupation with form rather than substance and the political hijacking of faith which to me is personal. It worried me that we may become a society where there is “religious oppression” and in the process, we are left with the “Law” but the death of “the spirit of Islam” in our society.
In 1984, the wave of “Islamisation” was strong for both the “right and wrong reasons”. The reactions to this wave were both “right and wrong.” My own impression was that the embracing of the resurgence was not altogether due to the love of God but other factors too, including the need for identity. However, while everyone was espousing the “Islamic” nature of UKM, I was seeing something else.
I saw that there was a rise of racism under the guise of “Islam.” For instance, until 1985, if I recall correctly, there were no non-Malay students who stood as candidates in the University elections. The logic then (and I am sure still is now among the conservative quarters) was that non-Muslims cannot be leaders for Muslims. Hence a Muslim should not vote for non-Muslims. You may recall that at one time, PAS was criticizing the Barisan Nasional for working with MCA and MIC. Heavens! This is not the mercy to humankind called “Islam” that I understand.
As a senior student in UKM, when I was put in charge of the campus election machinery, I argued along Quranic principles why we must field non-Muslim candidates too. For the first time, one Chinese and one Indian student stood for elections in UKM. This is Islam as I understand from the Quran. I learnt also that I will have to prepare myself for the conflict between those conservative groups who want to impose their views on me and my own understanding from the Quran. I am, at the end of the day, accountable to Allah for my deeds. No one will be my advocate.
From UKM in 1984 to this day, “the conservative outlook of Islam” is the dominant outlook in our society. This is largely due to the political positioning and competition between PAS and UMNO as both try very hard to get into the hearts of the Malay voters. This I call the “politico-Islamisation process” – where political considerations determine the “type of Islam” in the country. Political considerations usually consider what is pragmatic, popular and expedient – not necessarily what is “right and correct.”
The politico-Islamisation process in this country took on a serious evolutionary process because both PAS and UMNO seem to want outdo each other with who is more “Islamic.” In the process, the UMNO led government is the one that gave momentum and force to this process, albeit unsuspectingly, by its Islamisation programme in 1982 with the subsequent sprouting of many institutions “Islamic.”
I think somewhere along the way, everything got out of hand. The man or the group of men who started the “Islamisation programme” were not there forever to control or manage it. It began to have a life of its own and began to mutate into something else altogether. Politics and the fight for prominence in matters “Islamic” took precedence over the education, discussion and understanding of Islam by Muslims themselves. The very political structure of our society seem to make the State and its apparatus the sole decider of what is “Islamic and what is not.” For example, there are set syllabi in primary schools which are compulsory for all Muslim students to attend. All these which involves matters of faith and personal accountability to God are decided by a group of paid civil servants and politicians for the rest of the Muslim populace.
The rest of us will simply have to submit to them. This is a point which I have to return to later.
Loyarburok Editorial Note: This post originally appears in the author’s blog, Rapera.