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Agitating Malay Muslims

OVER the past year, several Malay-Muslim groups have been in the headlines.

From lawsuits filed against the DAP’s Teresa Kok for allegedly insulting Islam, to campaigns responding to the crisis in Gaza, the defence of Islam and Malay rights has occuppied the national attention, sometimes in frightening ways.

Just what are these groups about? What motivates them? And do these non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which have mushroomed very quickly overnight, really express the will of the majority of Malay Muslims in Malaysia?

Defending Islam

The emergence of Muslim groups is not a post-March 2008 phenomenon. In 2006, a coalition of NGOs called Pembela was spearheaded by the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim). Pembela was formed to counter “the tendency to use court cases to emasculate the status of Islam, particularly through applications for apostasy.”

According to Abim vice-president Azril Mohd Amin, “At that time the Lina Joy case was being highlighted and could have provided an opportunity to alter the privileged status of Islam as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

“Pembela received all kinds of support, including speaking platforms at mosques and association premises, and was supported by more than 50 Muslim NGOs nationwide,” he says in an e-mail interview.  “This demonstrates how close this issue is to the hearts of Muslims in this country.”

In 2006, aside from Pembela’s protests, more than 200 Muslim protesters disrupted a forum in Penang on constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, organised by Article 11 and Aliran.

A year before, the Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs (Accin) alleged that the Inter-Faith Commission (IFC) proposal by civil society, and initially supported by the government, was anti-Islam and threatened communal harmony.

Occasionally, protests in the name of defending Islam turned ugly. In August 2006, one of Lina Joy’s lawyers, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, became the target of e-mail death threats from likely but unknown Muslim sources.

Later in 2006, 300 Muslim protesters ambushed a church on Jalan Silibin, Ipoh, because they mistakenly believed Muslim Malaysians were being converted to Christianity inside. The rumour was spread by an SMS which implicated Perak Mufti Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria.

And in August 2008, a 300-strong demonstration consisting of Muslim NGOs, and leaders from PAS, Umno and Parti Keadilan Rakyat stormed the Bar Council during its forum on conversions to Islam.

Some of these incidents have naturally caused fear among many Malaysians, and some Muslim NGOs have condemned the use or threat of violence.

“The way the protest against the Article 11 forum in Penang was done was not good,” says Dr Mazeni Alwi, chairperson and co-founder of the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF). “There were certainly grounds for protests, but they should have been more civic,” he says in a phone interview.

“Although Islamic groups in Malaysia do not usually resort to overt violence in their protests, the language some of them use could be better,” says Mazeni.

Conflating Islam and Malays

One other thing is clear when speaking to some of these groups. Both Islam and the notion of Malay rights are often conflated to be one and the same.

Noor Nirwandy
“When a vocal minority among non-Malay Malaysians challenges Malay rights, of course they will meet resistance,” says Noor Nirwandy, the Muslim Consumer’s Association (PPIM)’s project director.

“A section of the silent Malay Malaysian majority will be activated to respond,” Nirwandy tells The Nut Graph. “This is healthy because this ensures the country’s equilibrium and racial harmony is not disturbed.”

Even though Muslim consumer rights cannot be equated with the privileges of being a Malay Malaysian, that distinction seems lost on PPIM.

But PPIM is not the only NGO that folds in Islam, like flour into icing for an irresistable cake, into the discourse of fighting for Malay rights.

Rahimuddin Md Harun, second deputy chairperson of Pewaris Permuafakatan Islam, tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview: “The demands made by non-Malay Malaysians after the March 2008 elections became too unreasonable.”

He says that, for example, Umno’s Datuk Ahmad Ismail’s “pendatang” remarks were taken entirely out of context — Ahmad Ismail was essentially telling Malay Malaysians to work hard and buck up. However, he said, non-Malay Malaysian leaders, including Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, started making unreasonable demands for equality.

“This country is too young to talk about blanket equality,” Rahimuddin says. “Where were these people’s parents and grandparents when the Malays’ ancestors were fighting for independence from British colonial rule?”

And this, says Rahimuddin, is why Pewaris was formed. Pewaris is a coalition of more than 30 Muslim organisations that came together after March 2008, because “there were no political leaders who dared to challenge the extreme demands of some non-Malay Malaysians.”

Differences and similarities

Assembling the puzzle of the emergence of Muslim NGOs in Malaysia is complicated. On one hand, it is easy to identify surefire issues that ignite passions — freedom of religion, gender equality and sexual rights, moral policing, and the Islamic versus secular state debate, to name a few.

On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to identify what exact incident is going to cause an eruption, and which party is likely to erupt — the NGOs are too numerous.

The NGOs themselves do not seem to want to speak on a single platform. “If we unite under a single umbrella group, our individual voices might not be congruent with that of the overall umbrella,” says Pewaris’s Rahimuddin.

MPF’s Mazeni says, “It is not good for all the NGOs to unite under a single banner, because different issues need different views.” He says the public needs to give a wide spectrum of views sufficient hearing.

(Pic by atomicjeep)

One major dividing line among the Muslim NGOs seems to be the Internal Security Act (ISA). While Pewaris and PPIM support the ISA as a legitimate law to defend the status of Islam, Abim and MPF have been publicly opposed to it. Abim calls the act “draconian”, while MPF says the ISA as presently applied is a “political tool which has nothing to do with protecting national security.”

These differences could indicate which political coalitions these NGOs are hedging their bets with. MPF admits that its members have personal, but not official, ties with members of PKR and PAS. Pewaris, however, is clearly critical of the Pakatan Rakyat.

Nevertheless, the NGOs strenuously argue that they are not aligned to any one party and are non-political in nature. However, PPIM at least is upfront about being a pressure group that tries to influence government policies on Islam.

Mobilising potential

Professor Dr Norani Othman, a sociologist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, says that regardless of their political alignments, the social formations of these NGOs are based on a limited worldview.

“They are still caught within certain exclusivist boundaries arising from not seeing the world as one,” Norani, who is a co-founder of Sisters in Islam,  says in a phone interview.

“They seem unable to cast a wide net to be inclusive,” she says. “Their net seems to cover more primordial borders, and they often resort to ethnocentric rhetoric around Malay and Muslim identity.

“They certainly have potential for mass mobilisation, and this is not a phenomenon exclusive to Malays, Muslims, or Malaysia,” says Norani. “Groups that want to protect their own interests, especially in appealing to a particular race or religion can mobilise very effectively because their soundbites appeal to raw emotions.”

It is instructive to note that Abim has 80,000 registered members, according to Azril, and that PPIM has 100,000 registered members, according to Noor Nirwandy. To put things in perspective, however, Umno Youth has 700,000 members.

One thing is for certain — issues revolving around the status, interpretation and practise of Islam are going to dominate public discourse for a while yet in Malaysia. As will Malay Malaysian rights.

MPF’s Mazeni says this is why strategic positioning is important. For example, although MPF joined the Pembela coalition, it declined the invitation to join Accin.

“We want to maintain our distance from dominant perceptions of Islamic NGOs, that they are obscurantist and extremist,” he says. “In some instances we may be deserving of this, but in others we are not.”

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17 Responses to “Agitating Malay Muslims”

  1. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear people,

    I am so very glad that I am a Singaporean! Malay Malaysians must open up. No one stops the Malays from acquiring technology. Yet Malaysia with all its flora and fauna – does not have much to show for science and technology. The world will move forward. It’s up to the Malays to catch up. If they fail – they only have themselves to blame.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  2. zazaland says:

    Malay Malaysians must not waste their time on trivial issues or to protest just because they need to protest. They should use their time and energy to galvanise the country, if not, they will be left behind. Time waits for no man, people.

  3. NurulHuda says:

    Amen! Dr Syed Alwi …

    True-bred Singaporean here supporting your views.

  4. sharifah mazwin says:

    Maybe that is why we have a Singaporean Malay woman marrying a Buddhist Indonesian man.

  5. Chen says:


    1. How does forcing someone to stay in a religion they have no faith in qualify as “defending” that religion?

    2. Which demands made by non-Malay Malaysians are “too unreasonable”?

    3. In regards to this quote;

    “This country is too young to talk about blanket equality,” Rahimuddin says. “Where were these people’s parents and grandparents when the Malays’ ancestors were fighting for independence from British colonial rule?”

    (a) Does this mean we should start going back to check for name lists stating the name of each and every soldier/warrior who apparently fought for independence from British colonial rule? And those whose ancestors are not found in this list, are they then disqualified from the “special bumiputera rights”?

    (b) History tells us there were weak sultans, greedy sultans, and of course, treacherous, power-hungry courtiers. They are all Malays, I presume? Were they not the ones who brought cracks to the system, allowing foreign infiltration in the first place? And shouldn’t the Orang Asli be the only bumiputera? How are they being treated?

    (c) Prior to independence, Malaya was also occupied by the Japanese. Did the non-Malays not fight alongside their Malay comrades against the Japanese then? During those times, anti-Sino sentiments were running high, so what are the chances of a Chinese being recruited as a Kempeitei compared to, say, a Malay? And there were a good number of Kempeitei running around. Should we not take this betrayal into consideration as well, if “fighting against colonialisation” was a qualifier for equal rights?

  6. NurulHuda says:

    sharifah mazwin Posted: Maybe that is why we have a Singaporean Malay woman marrying a Buddhist Indonesian man.

    I see nothing wrong with it. At least we do not force people or throw them in the dungeon or separate the family, which is more evil and inhumane.

  7. Dhanen Mahes says:

    Nurul Huda, I think you’re in danger of being labeled an infidel by our rather agitated friend there ๐Ÿ™‚ But yes, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Indonesian Buddhist men either ๐Ÿ˜›

    Dr Syed, I agree with your comment that Malay Malaysians need to open up, but this is also true of all Malaysians. Alas, a large majority of Malaysians are stuck in a mindset of conformity and unquestioning obedience.

    Chen, killer questions bro. I think Dr Norani has shed some light on the answers. But here’s my opinion:

    1. It doesn’t. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with herd mentality, etc. But in an exclusivist, primordial view (As the Dr puts it), leaving the religion is like leaving the “herd”, or betraying the group – which is what makes these people quite angry.

    2. The general vibe I’m getting is that “equality” is considered as too unreasonable. So is minority rights and freedom of speech. Oh, and religious freedom. Can’t have that.

    3. A very good point here Chen. Also, we “pendatangs” did fight the British. A fair number of non-Malay Malayans were part of the anti-British resistance and were hanged. I’m not sure of the details, would someone better versed in history point out the details, please? Oh and don’t bother referring to your Malaysian history textbooks. It’s been censored. I actually came across this bit of history while watching a documentary about the British occupation of Malaya.

  8. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Reply to Sharifah Mazwin,

    Dear Sharifah Mazwin,

    That’s why we have no racial or religious problems in Singapore. Apparently in Malaysia – you have all sorts of racial and religious problems 24/7.

    Ask yourself – had you been born into a Buddhist family in Tibet – then what are the chances that you would be Muslim today ?

    I am a moderate, modern Muslim living in a cosmopolitan non-Muslim society. For us Singaporean Muslims, we must accept a moderate interpretation of Islam because we are a minority. We cannot follow a highly orthodox interpretation because it is too difficult to implement in a non-Muslim society like ours.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  9. Karcy says:

    Dr Syed Alwi,

    I think it would be hugely wrong (or naive) to say that Singapore has no racial or religious problems, as I heard plenty of them when I visited Singapore. Part of the reasons why Malaysia seems to have problems 24/7 is because we are also more vocal about them. We’re also bigger, and we do not live in a sense of perpetual siege worrying that one of our larger neighbours will commit military action against us, which means that we allow our problems to rock us a bit more. Compare the kind of freedom experienced in Malaysia to the one in Indonesia, and you’ll see what I mean.

    There are many reasons why I admire Singapore, and many reasons why I disdain Singaporeans who come over to lord their economic or socio-cultural superiority over us. Singapore is an island. The geographical aspect influences the cultural and political aspect powerfully. Malaysia is a confederation of several ancient Malay kingdoms (states) across a Peninsular and over two states in Borneo. Not all parts of Malaysia are cosmopolitan. Provincialism and the desire for protectionism can emerge very easily in certain locations.

    In the same way, a Malaysian who lords over Indonesia and forgets how immense it is, is acting out of blatant ignorance of simple facts. Managing an archipelago is more difficult than managing a peninsular (and two other states), and managing a peninsular is more difficult than managing an island.

  10. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Karcy,

    Singapore hardly faces the kind of racial and religious problems which Malaysia faces. Ours is very small scale compared to Malaysia’s colossal racial and religious problems.

    This has nothing to do with size; it is about ideas. In Malaysia, ketuanan Melayu and hak keistimewaan Melayu – coupled with Islamic ambitions – has divided Malaysian society.

    If Malaysian society is less agitated or sensitive regarding racial and religious issues – then there will be less racial and religious problems.

    We in Singapore are rightly concerned about our Malay-Muslim neighbours. After all – it is Umno Youth that waves the keris – wanting to bathe in Chinese blood. Not China or Vietnam.

    What if – one day – Malaysia is run by racial or religious fanatics who are willing to destroy Chinese-dominated Singapore ?

    Therefore I think that Singapore’s worry about her Malay-Muslim neighbours is well justified.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  11. menj says:

    Singapore has an authoritarian one-party system that shuts out the opposition by suing prominent and vocal leaders just because they disagree with the government of the day, legalised prostitution on the streets of Geylang, English-ied surroundings to the extent that the environment feels too European (even though the faces around you are Asian) – there is no cultural identity in Singapore.

    For all the problems that Malaysia has faced during these times, democracy is starting to appear. I am so glad that I am a Malaysian!

    – MENJ

  12. nurulhuda says:

    Dhanen Mahes Posted: Nurul Huda, I think you’re in danger of being labeled an infidel by our rather agitated friend there ๐Ÿ™‚ But yes, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Indonesian Buddhist men either.

    I am an infidel, have been and will always be. Do they have any problems with this?

  13. nurulhuda says:

    Dr Syed Alwi Posted: What if – one day – Malaysia is run by racial or religious fanatics who are willing to destroy Chinese-dominated Singapore? Therefore I think that Singapore’s worry about her Malay-Muslim neighbours is well justified.

    What irritates me more is Malaysian Malay/Muslim use Malay Singaporeans as scapegoats to justify their own insecurities. I’ve heard so many times the statement, “We should not become like the Singapore Malays.”

    We did not choose to be the minority. Remember what happened? It is Malaysia that made us the minority group. But we survived under difficult situations and we will continue to survive. Events unfolding in Malaysia have embarrassed the Malays in Singapore. It shows that Malays are not competent to rule.

    At least in Singapore I can exercise my right to choose my religion. Does Malaysia allow such a choice? One of your own judges stated during a conference: there is no such thing as religious freedom of choice for the Malays. Is this democracy?

  14. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Nurul Huda,

    Mahathir himself says things like that. “We do not want to be like Singapore Malays.”

    What’s wrong with being a Singapore Malay? Our achievements are based on meritocratic competition. They are for real. In Singapore – we do not have “quota bumiputeras”. In Singapore – we do not believe in race-based programs like the NEP. In Singapore – we have freedom of choice. We are proud of our meritocratic tradition.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  15. Allanwee says:

    I think the great tragedy is that there is currently no good, able and compassionate Malay eaders – devoted gentlemen – not interested in power, wealth or titles.

    I am sad that there are none of the likes of Ghafar Baba, Tun Dr Ismail, Khir Johari, Ghazali Shafie with us now. TDM would have been really great had he not been so overzealous.

  16. nurulhuda says:

    Allanwee Posted: I think the great tragedy is that there is currently no good, able and compassionate Malay leader – devoted gentlemen – not interested in power, wealth or titles.

    A great leader is someone who is able to rise above it all. Especially the religious element. I echo the sentiments of my fellow traveller in this fight for religious freedom. Quote, “As I see it, not until the Malays come to term this idea that there are Malay Christians, Malay Hindus and Malay Buddhists etc. and are able to stand beside them on the same platform just like the Chinese and Indians did, Malays can never said to have advanced. We are stuck at the spiritual level. We are not matured enough. They are the other Malays we choose to ignore, but they are out there. You cannot try to silence the voice of the minority, because the minority will eventually rise to be the majority. Many may hate me for saying this, but this is how I see it.” End quote.

  17. Dhanen Mahes says:

    Friends, let us not descend to bickering about “who is better – Malaysians or Singaporeans”, as this is unproductive. May I offer an insight – I think all nations and peoples have their own set of problems and shortcomings regardless of size or population.

    What I admire in Singaporean Muslims is the sense of tolerance and inclusive thinking. Granted, as Dr Syed points out, it has been borne out of need – due to the fact that Malay Muslims are the minority in Singapore. But is indeed a mindset that should be the goal of all societies – inclusive, and tolerant thinking.

    Lest my fellow Malaysians feel that I do not pay them due respect, it is true that we are bigger, have more people and thus social complexity. But this is no excuse ๐Ÿ™‚

    p.s. Nurul Huda – I personally believe you have the right to your own beliefs and views. Many of my own race and belief system would and do consider me an “infidel” as well. We’re in the same boat ๐Ÿ™‚

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