Categorised | Columns, Commentary

Enter Islamism

A CORRUPT and lavish ruling elite. A police force with unlimited powers. An unpopular, despotic leader who uses the constitutional monarchy to subvert the democratic process. An increasingly angry population that rallies around a charismatic, religious opposition leader who espouses the ideals of democracy and justice.

Sounds like Malaysia? Well, it’s not — this was Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Like present-day Malaysia, the twin headlines that danced hand-in-hand in pre-revolutionary Iran were increasing state repression and intensifying, Islam-inspired opposition.

Mass demonstration in Tehran on 2 December 1978 (Pic by XcepticZP / Wiki commons)

But will Malaysia go the way of Iran? In almost all societies that have faced rising fundamentalist Islamism, there is one common ingredient — an embattled, and increasingly repressive, “secular” regime.

When civil society groups finally overthrew the Shah of Iran, a new constitution was drafted. It guaranteed the fundamental liberties of all Iranians. The draft was revised by an assembly of experts which effectively turned Iran into a theocratic Islamic republic.

During the remainder of 1979, under Ayatollah Khomeini’s instructions, the religious establishment carried out a series of executions. The first wave targeted remnants of the previous secular dictatorship — military officers, members of the Shah’s court, and capitalists. The second wave aimed to “cleanse” the new Islamic republic of other “impurities” — sex workers, adulterers and homosexuals. The last phase of executions was targeted at crippling the Islamic-socialist Mojahedin-e Khalq.

Perhaps it sounds far-fetched that this could also happen in Malaysia. Malaysia is indeed undergoing a huge political shift — some call it a crisis, some call it democratisation. But perhaps our multiracial and multireligious population will prevent us from descending into religiously inspired tyranny.

The headlines speak otherwise, however. From fatwas banning tomboys and yoga, to the banning of the use of “Allah” in Malay-language Christian publications, a particular discourse on Islam is being shaped in Malaysia.

Repressive secularism

In Algeria, the post-colonial ruling elite cultivated a system of political and economic patronage that excluded large numbers of citizens from a share of the state’s wealth. Citizens were forced to develop their own systems of economic independence, and lived in crowded, unplanned, and underprivileged housing areas.

FIS logo (Source: / Wiki
Due to the lack of space, and the desire for a sense of cultural and religious continuity, young people started hanging out at mosques, where leaders and supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) gathered as well. The state tried its best to open up political participation, but it was too late. In 1991, when the general elections were held, it was almost certain that the FIS would win a two-thirds majority and turn Algeria into an Islamic state. The military then cancelled the elections, and this triggered a bloody civil war.

A similar pattern of economic and political marginalisation is also observed in Egypt. In fact, a major cause of discontent among the youth there is graduate unemployment. The problem of overcrowded dwellings in unplanned housing areas is also prevalent. And like the FIS in Algeria, this is how the Muslim Brotherhood has amassed popular support in Egypt.

The Egyptian state, though repressive towards the Islamists, has not employed the same tactics as Algeria. Rather, the Egyptian state, which is supposed to be secular, uses the offices of the Grand Mufti and Sheikh of Al Azhar to manipulate discourse on Islam.

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt
(Public domain; source: Wiki commons)
Egypt’s official censors also rigorously monitor films, television programmes, and publications in much the same way the Malaysian censors do.

Perhaps Malaysia is slightly more complex. The revolt against the Barisan Nasional (BN) government manifested itself quite clearly through a democratic process in March 2008. Clearly, the notionally secular, Umno-led BN has itself manipulated the discourse on Islam to justify its excesses and repressive policies. And also, the gains made by the pre-Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition at the ballot box came from the support of Malaysians of all races.

But the PR parties themselves, if not the rest of Malaysia, are struggling to find sustainable, common ground in search of authentic democracy. Every which way they turn, they inevitably hit the looming wall of the Islamic state, as demonstrated during the 55th PAS muktamar from 5 to 7 June 2009.

Besides, the PR has yet to effectively address PAS vice-president Datuk Husam Musa’s Freudian slip on hudud in January 2009. The PR has also not publicly addressed Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Member of Parliament Zulkifli Noordin’s public announcements about Islam.

Non-Islamist members and supporters of the PR are also now reluctant to bring up these issues, perhaps because the BN is pulling out all its knives to rip the PR apart. And to make matters even more complicated, in the middle of all this, PAS and Umno are still flirting with each other very, very openly.

So how different is Malaysia from these other “Islamic” regimes? Perhaps now it would be instructive to look at the remaining ingredients — other than a repressive state — that catalysed the rise of Islamism in countries like Algeria, Iran and Egypt.

Torn fabric

Firstly, there were serious ruptures in the social and economic fabric in Algeria, Iran and Egypt, which led large sectors of the population in search of money and, more importantly, identity.

Since the 1970s, Malaysia has experienced phenomenal urbanisation and industrialisation. This has destabilised cultural and economic connections between, especially, Malay Malaysians in the rural areas and their urban counterparts.

Thus, a longing for cultural authenticity in the 1970s led to the appropriation of dakwah (Islamic outreach) as a unifying force among Malay Malaysian youth. This is the movement that gave rise to numerous Islamic NGOs, intellectuals, and artists, and this is what eventually gave the Malaysian bureaucracy its Islamic sheen.

Secondly, in countries like Algeria, Egypt and Iran, frustrated masses rallied around charismatic leaders to oppose unpopular dictators. In Egypt, the iron-fisted secular nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser found formidable opposition in Sayyid Qutb. In Algeria, the weak President Chadli Bendjedid proved no match for the FIS’s charismatic preachers in the overcrowded urban quarters. And in Iran, even audio cassette recordings of Khomeini’s speeches while he was still in exile were enough to mobilise the masses to rise up against the despotic Shah.

(Top) Gamal Abdel Nasser (Public
; Chadli Bendjedid (Source:
Wiki commons)
In Malaysia, both former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak seriously lack the charisma of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, and numerous other Islamist leaders from the PR. Even a charismatic authoritarian like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was shaken when Anwar’s Islamist supporters were activated during reformasi in 1998.

The third ingredient that oppositional Islamists share across the board is a desire to impose transparent, accountable governance. But “governance” for Islamists also includes rigorous moral policing and, in particular, restrictions on freedom of religion and sexuality. This is especially true of Iran, but also at the local level of government in Egypt and Algeria.

Thus, while Islamists have a proven track record in stamping out corruption and abuse of political power, they have also applied harsh, even violent standards against women, sexual minorities, religious minorities, and dissenting Muslims. For example, Iran’s execution of gays, lesbians, and adulterers is now legendary.

Not a Muslim problem

The rise and politicisation of religious fundamentalism is by no means a Muslim monopoly. After all, the Christian Right’s successful maneuvering to get George W Bush into the White House in 2000 is another example of how religious fundamentalists have subverted democracy. Another example is the Hindutva-backed Bharatiya Janata Party‘s success in wresting federal government away from India’s Congress Party in 1998.

And certainly, there have been examples where Muslim-led governments have administered Muslim-majority countries in less repressive ways. For example, former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur)’s administration, and incumbent Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s mildly Islamist and hugely popular administration of avowedly secular Turkey.

The downer is that both Gus Dur and Erdogan inherited governments that have a history of being overthrown via military coups. Furthermore, Gus Dur, perhaps the first democratically elected ulama-cum-intellectual president of a secular state, was impeached by the People’s Consultative Assembly for alleged corruption in 2001. Erdogan’s party was nearly banned by the Turkish Constitutional Court in 2008 for allegedly anti-secular activities.

And so the question now is: can Malaysians get rid of the current repressive regime without substituting it with an Islamist one that is just as repressive — if not more so?

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6 Responses to “Enter Islamism”

  1. walski69 says:

    Perhaps we can still look at Indonesia and Turkey. In fact, if it were not for corruption, Indonesia would probably be far ahead of us economically and socially. It is a living proof that a secular government is what’s required to properly manage a diverse society. And let’s not kid ourselves – Indonesia IS diverse, and not the monolithic society the majority of Malaysians are led to believe.

    The first order of business, however, is to gradually remove religion from the public sphere. Secular, contrary to popular propaganda, does not mean anti-religion – rather, it is the non-inclusion of particular religious tenets, opting instead for universal values.

    Honesty, forthrightness and transparency are all good values, and are not the monopoly of any one faith.

    In fact, when one religion is used as the axis of governance, it is usually at the detriment of other faiths. We are starting to see that happen here in Malaysia, increasingly over the last decade or so.

    History is useful for the now to learn the mistakes of the then. Unfortunately, history too is constantly being used to promote specific political agendas, which end up strangling and impeding us from moving ahead into the future.

  2. islam says:

    Keep attacking Islam, and PR will end up losing the next GE.

  3. Sonia says:

    Is the endgame a PR government or a more democratic Malaysia?

    And this article attacks authoritarian regimes, corruption and abuse of power. That these things are carried out in the name of Islam is surely where the real attack on the religion is taking place.

  4. kamal says:

    At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be quick to fall into the convenient argument of religion and governance. Probably many more examples exist of perfectly secular governments that are mismanaged and corrupted.

    The question with Malaysia is not religion (neither is it in my opinion about race/ethnicity). As much as PAS and BN rhetoric over the last twenty years appear to reflect a growing Islamisation, in reality we are too entrenched in a secular context that is far more diverse.

    We also need to read more closely in specific incidences to understand violence and religious conflicts, especially where media reports sometimes are rather superficial. Not everything is as what they seem. A lot of our conflicts are entrenched in very contemporary sentiments and issues. The question perhaps, what then is the role religion can play and why are religions such important social markers to audiences?

    I suppose we have to start being clear about what is Islamic; repression in my opinion is not Islamic, even if the man wielding power wears a robe.

  5. Hong says:

    Social/economic upheaval, no doubt, has the potential to propel dissent into the realm of revolution, but while it is germane to reference the rise of the Islamic Republic in this discussion regarding the future of Malaysia as a secular nation, it might be more useful to look at the general rise of extremist ideologies, religious or not, arising from such upheavals.

    The deep uncertainty caused by rapid change for the worse is often the primary reason populations shift towards ideologies with simple, direct appeal – national identity, ethnicity, religion – that act as a bulwark against external insecurity. Nothing like clinging onto something intrinsic and inviolable in times of doubt, as evidenced by the rise of (invoking Godwin’s Law here) National Socialism in pre-WWII Germany, the explosion of white supremacists in post-Soviet Russia and the current swing in Europe to the far right.

    Malaysia has yet to experience the sort of convulsive experience that can create the opportunity for PAS to widen its support. Even if that requirement were to be fulfilled, Malaysia lacks the ethnic and creedal homogeneity that will make it possible for the party to get very far beyond its traditional hardcore of rural Malay supporters. The recent gains the party made at the national level have more to do with anti-BN sentiment and the faith PR supporters placed in the opposition coalition’s united front. Voters bought the unified message, as it were, and not the now-resurfaced individual message of PAS, which violates the democratic, secular and race-blind nature of PR’s platform and goes against the coalition’s position on BN.

    To walski69, whether or not a government is secular has nothing to do with the economics of that country. It has to do with the presence of structures with which to tackle corruption and other kinds of administrative funny business, and the presence of these structures does not presuppose that the state is secular. Myanmar is a good example of a secular state with low levels of economic development. They also handle their minorities rather badly. If secularism were the only requirement, countries like the Philippines would have outpaced us long ago.

  6. Reza says:

    Damn, Shanon. This is probably one of your best articles. As you know this subject is very close to my heart. A very good analysis.

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