Malaysia’s United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) held its general assembly last month. It was the first such gathering for the ruling party since Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over the helm in October 2003. But as usual there were no elections for the president’s and deputy president’s posts. This unwritten law of no contest for the top two posts has been the practice since then-president Dr Mahathir Mohamad nearly lost in a presidential ballot in 1987.
Since early this year, Dr Mahathir, who dominated Malaysia’s political landscape for more than two decades, has been breaking his silence too often. That was until he was rushed to the hospital on November 10 and survived a heart attack. It was one of the rare occasions in the post-Mahathir era when Malaysian newspapers published his photographs on their front pages. Clearly the man who dominated the media for more than two decades is finding it difficult to seeing someone else in ‘his’ prime ministerial chamber. His heart attack could not have been handier for the current UMNO leaders attending the congress: his doctors apparently advised him to stay away. This spared the general assembly from being distracted by issues such as Abdullah’s ‘weak leadership’ and cancellation of mega projects, things that Mahathir would have wanted to discuss as top priorities.
UMNO had other issues which are of more concern to Muslims and Malays. During the Mahathir era, UMNO meetings are usually marked by a blend of anti-opposition speeches and praises for the leader. Not much substance comes out of such assemblies, and participants go home happy that Malay ‘supremacy’, the cornerstone of UMNO’s struggle, was well sloganeered during the speeches. This time round, no one held their breath for UMNO delegates to come out with useful insights about where the party should be heading post-Mahathir. However, something else can now be observed: the blurring of the political and ideological line that demarcates UMNO and Islamic-based politicians, namely those from PAS. Many of the issues – most notably those revolving around the secular lobby and its zeal to push forward its ‘de-Islamisation’ agenda – have now found a new home even at forums that cannot obtain any political mileage from discussing them.
Since the end of Mahathir’s era, during which the opposition enjoyed Mahathir-bashing, many Muslim organisations have emerged from their political hibernation. Some have more or less had to rethink their raison d’etre as merely ‘charity organisations’ or ‘intellectual clubs’ in order to tackle head-on the challenge posed by secular fanatics. When the anti-Islam rhetoric of the ‘liberal’ lobby packages itself as ‘pro-freedom’ discourse and ‘intellectual discourse’, the Muslims had nowhere to turn except to the political arena. In Malaysia, however, that risked pushing the issue into the party-political domain, and in the end electoral realities that require ‘pragmatism from politicians finally make the politicians try to ignore these issues.
As a result of this revivalism in non-party-political Islamic activism, many of the issues no longer risk being politicised through polemics and parliamentary politics between PAS and UMNO. As such, these issues have been pushed into the forefront of the Malaysian Muslim agenda, and politicians, even from UMNO, find it hard to ignore Muslim causes.
Although UMNO’s perspective is more ‘Malaycentric’, the reality in Malaysia is that ‘Malayness’ is closely connected to the Malays’ sense of identity with Islam, and therefore issues affecting Muslims are naturally taken up as Malay issues. On November 17 a delegate addressing the UMNO congress highlighted several attempts to undermine the status of Islam in the country, and named a western-funded NGO with close ties to individuals in high places who put on their Muslim garb to accuse other Muslims of intolerance.
"They produce books about liberalism and religious pluralism. This is supported by the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation," he said. "The problem we now face is threats towards the stability of Islam in Malaysia, not from within, but from abroad through systematic means using Malays and Muslims," he added.
His complaint reflects the wide uneasiness among Muslim activists over the way a group of Muslims are using the Malaysian media to air what are called ‘minority’ grievances. Their campaign targets everything from child custody cases between Muslim and non-Muslim parents, always sympathising openly with the latter, the right of Malay Muslims to contest in the civil courts their right to leave Islam.
Although Malay and Islam are considered synonymous because of the constitution’s definition of a Malay as a Muslim, there have been a small number of cases of Malays apostatising, often as a result of one of their parents being a non-Muslim, or as a result of spending their entire lives in a non-Muslim country. The fact that such cases have existed in the past without public tensions resulting shows that Muslims have been tolerant towards freedom of religion. But such tolerance can have reach a limit if others seize the opportunity to bring these apostates into the open, and exaggerate the significance of such cases, in order to drive home the point that their actions are perfectly legal. For this, the anti-Islam lobby, backed by foreign church groups and ‘democracy think tanks’, finds support among non-Muslim politicians and a tiny group of Muslims who work in the legal field.
The sensitivity involved on the question of religion is best illustrated by an example: recently hundreds of Muslims, having read mobile text messages to the effect that a group of Muslim children would be baptised at a church in Perak, gathered and caused a tense standoff with Sunday church-goers. It later turned out that the text message was a hoax. Still, it underlines the fact that Malay Muslims, whose tolerance and accommodation of other races and religions are legendary, have not lost their love for Islam despite hundreds of years under colonisation, followed by secularisation.
It is an open secret that children of government ministers, as well as non-Muslim politicians with an anti-Islam agenda, have been vocal in their anti-Islam activities. One of their complaints has been the ‘Islamic threat’ posed by UMNO and PAS as a result of each competing with the other to ‘Islamise’ the country and score political points among Muslims. Such fears from these individuals, who hitherto have not been bothered by politics, are understandable. Their hedonistic lifestyles can only survive in an equally hedonistic climate, and one of the hurdles to that is the various Islamic institutions in the country which are operating side by side with the secular system.
The level of influence that these individuals have mustered is perhaps overrated, even if their arguments are deliberately highlighted by their friends who occupy prominent positions in the mainstream media. The post-Mahathir ease of obtaining large amounts of space in the newspapers has also been taken advantage of by this group, relegating Muslim views to the periphery.
While the apostasy issue occupies a central place in the whole debate, what worries Muslims – politicians and NGOs alike – is not the instances of apostasy itself. Studies have shown that the number of apostates may be exaggerated, partly because of the desire of some Muslims to bring the phenomenon to the attention of their religious and political leaders, and partly because of Muslims falling prey to the Christian missionaries’ propaganda about their success in converting born Muslims. Muslims are more concerned with the fact that their natural dislike of apostasy is now being openly challenged by the so-called ‘secular’ lobby, who are not happy with the loyalty of the Malays to their Islamic identity. When a small group of opinionated Muslim women, calling themselves Sisters in Islam, swam into the debate and offered support to the secular lobby, the situation transformed into one of showdown between the Muslim intelligentsia and the ‘liberal’ idealists who articulate their views with a legal twist, often succeeding in portraying whoever opposes them as emotional and intolerant.
Malaysia’s multi-religious population, of whom 40 per cent are non-Muslim, offers a fertile ground for western agencies and missionaries to shift their focus from Indonesia. The failure of the Christianisation/de-Islamisation campaign during the Suharto era, in which western church groups played a major role, clearly failed to convince them of the Muslims’ unshakeable loyalty to their faith, in spite of their tolerance.