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Malaysia, the model Muslim country


BACK when he was deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak pledged that Malaysia would become “a role model to the Islamic world”. He said this in the middle of the 2009 Kuala Terengganu by-election, which Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) eventually lost to Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

Najib’s pledge was poetic, since a “role model” is supposed to be an outstanding example of its kind, or an example of excellence that others might want to emulate. Could Najib have foreseen events such as the infamous cow-head protest, the “Allah” controversy, the ensuing arson attacks on churches and other houses of worship, and the syariah caning of three Muslim women when he promised this? It would be unfair to expect Najib to be clairvoyant. Still, he is now the prime minister.

And as premier, surely Najib has to reconcile these events which happened under his watch with the lofty promise he made more than a year ago. After all, a model Muslim country cannot be one where citizens’ rights and liberties, including the right to be safe from violence, are trampled on by the state or non-state actors in the name of Islam.

Violence and silence

Malaysia, land of violence in the name of Islam, a role model to the Islamic world?

Malaysians had a taste of violent threats in the name of Islam in August 2009 when the cow-head protesters threatened bloodshed over the planned relocation of a Hindu temple to a Muslim-majority area. And then in January 2010, several churches, and also other houses of worship, became targets of arson and vandalism in the midst of the “Allah” controversy.

It could be argued that these violent incidents were the work of fringe community actors, which exist even in the most democratic of countries. The troubling thing is that Malaysia’s state authorities, too, appear complicit, or at the very least immobile in handling violence in the name of Islam.

Take the legitimate public outcry over the syariah caning of the three Muslim women for “illicit sex” including in the media. The Star‘s piece by one of its editors, P Gunasegaram, was one such example of the media voicing out concern over how religion was being used by the state to perpetuate violence and compulsion. For speaking up, several police reports were lodged against Gunasegaram for “insulting Islam“, and not just by fringe community actors.

Indeed, even state bodies descended into the ring. The Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) was one body that lodged the report. The Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) upheld Mais’s actions via Friday sermons in mosques all across Selangor.

If one were to be cynical, perhaps Malaysia truly has become a model for other “Islamic countries”. In an electoral democracy and plural society such as ours, it is an achievement indeed for Islamic religious authorities to increasingly influence the justice system, government and public opinion.

But on the other hand, this influence has not spread as a result of reasoned and open public debate. It has rather been the result of Islamist groups — both within state and community spheres — telling all those with doubts or differing opinions, “Shut up, or else.”

Happy Kelantan

We could put this down to the BN government’s authoritarian strategy. But are the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-led states better Islamic role models for Malaysians? Take the Selangor government. In 2009, state religious exco Datuk Dr Hassan Ali wanted mosque officials to nab alcohol-consuming Muslims. He also tried to squeeze the minority Ahmadiyah community out of its Selayang headquarters.

Nevertheless, the PR maintains that it can be a better role model than the BN when it comes to Islamic governance. Take the PAS-led Kelantan government. During the 2009 Bagan Pinang by-election, PAS held an expo, Kenali Kelantan, to sing the praises of happy, Islamic Kelantan. According to the expo, Kelantan is peaceful, corruption-free and devoid of immoral activities.

Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat

And yet, strange things in the name of Islam have been happening in Kelantan, too. Although Menteri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat questioned their motives, two under-aged Muslim girls were married to adult men in Kelantan recently. In 2005, Kelantan was also in the headlines when it emerged that a 20-year-old Muslim woman was taken away by a bomoh after she was allegedly forced to marry someone else. In 2000, a 17 year-old girl, raped by her 36 year-old father, was prosecuted by the Kelantan Syariah Court for zina — the court considered her a willing partner rather than a rape and incest survivor.

Surely there is a disconnect here somewhere. After all, the Kelantan government has not let up in strictly policing personal morals, especially of women. Yet these disturbing instances of violence against women and girls — Muslims at that — continue. Incidentally, Kelantan also has the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in Malaysia, although the link between this and the state’s Islamic policies remains unproven.

Real Islamic role models

Advocates of greater Islamisation in Malaysia will likely see this analysis as an attack on Islam. It is not. All across the Muslim world, we can witness inspiring, or at the least encouraging, developments where Muslim governments and societies have elevated the rights of their citizens with Islam as their inspiration.

Take the sweeping, egalitarian reforms to Morocco’s Islamic family law in 2004, or the pronouncement by Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti in 2005 that forced marriages are un-Islamic. And even as syariah advocates in Malaysia defend child marriages in Islam, the Yemeni government is trying to eradicate the practice despite staunch opposition from Yemeni Islamists.

Certainly, if Malaysia were at the forefront of these bold, Islamic reforms to make society more just, we could pat Najib on the back for a promise well kept. Sadly, we are not.

The reality is that Malaysia’s version of Islamisation is leaving too many of its citizens out in the cold. What’s worse, Malaysia’s nascent Islamic state is actually propagating violence and discrimination against Muslim girls and women. And yet, non-Muslims are expected to trust and have confidence in an Islamic state.

And to top it all, when these instances of violence, coercion and injustice in the name of Islam are highlighted by concerned sectors of civil society, they are told, “Shut up, or else.” Even when their criticisms are about the human application of Islamic laws and policies, and not about insulting or slandering the religion itself.

(pic by circo de invierno @ Flickr)

Perhaps that is just the Malaysian way, for now. Church arsons, child marriages, canings, and threats against public debate notwithstanding, we are a role model Islamic country. Agree, or else…

Clearly, calling Malaysia a model Muslim country is off the mark, no less because the intensifying Islamisation of Malaysia has been accompanied by divisive controversies and even threats of violence towards dissenters. And those who continue to insist that we are a model Muslim country are not just disingenuous. They are also complicit in perpetuating the perception that Islam is a religion that exhorts violence, discrimination and hatred.

For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Political Islam

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15 Responses to “Malaysia, the model Muslim country”

  1. Azizi Khan says:

    Brilliant article as usual.

    One of the fundamental problems with Islam in Malaysia is that the proponents of Islamic society (whether it’s JAIS, MAIS, IKIM or a gazillion other Islamic bodies who have mushroomed under BN) have been deviating away from Islamic principles.

    In Malaysia if you were to wear a kopiah, sport a beard and long skirt – you’re considered a holy man. For a more extremist look go for a turban or a songkok. That is about as Islamic as most people get in Malaysia. Added to this is that the general Malay Muslim does not understand what is written in the Quran and solely depends on Friday sermons.

    UMNO has been using Friday sermons to brainwash Malaysian Muslims for decades. So inherently it’s UMNO’s fault that Malaysian Muslims are so deviant and corrupt!

    So while Muslims elsewhere in the world are becoming moderate, successful and educated – the average Malay Muslim looks forward to becoming a [more regressive]. After all, this is the only way UMNO is going to keep Malay [Malaysians] under their thumbs.

    Oh you thought I’d forget about PAS. I haven’t actually. PAS while sticking to a more realistic approach to Islam still deviates from Islamic norms. Over the decades its insistence on a Malay Muslim Menteri Besar still reeks of its ultimate desire to have an Islamic [state] in Malaysia. There lies the fundamental problem with PAS. The Islamic nation only worked while the Prophet was alive. Islam is far too segmented and civilisation has moved too far forward to implement archaic laws. Look at Saudi for a fine example of this. While the country’s poor are subjected to harsh Islam, its royalty is often seen indulging in various “sins”.

    So long as PAS insists on not recognising the consitutional law of Malaysia as a whole where every citizen has his [or her] place – they too make a mockery of Islam. Its Islam by technicality not Islam by principle.

    Having said that – I do admire PAS sticking by DAP through thick and thin, and this is due to a mutual promise they made. Perhaps there is hope for them after all.

  2. Sonic says:

    Malaysia is definitely a model. It’s just that a model could be a model other countries should imitate or stay away from. Current model of Malaysia is a model that every other (Islamic) country should stay away from.

    The government of China spends so much time each year to talk about how good its system is and pledges not to ‘copy’ the system from foreign countries. The fact is that the US is influencing the mindsets of many citizens of China. The government of China is aware of that influence and trying to block or reduce the influence. Do not agree with me? Just look at the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’ for the internet and you will know what I mean. The US system is definitely not perfect. But just look at the influence it has around the world. If you have that much influence, you don’t even need to mention it.

    The Islamic community is a big community. There are billions of Muslims out there on earth. If Malaysia is truly a role model, we shall then expect our head of state to be an influential figure on earth. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, head of government of Malaysia should have much say with the global community. The fact is far from that. Many people on earth know or have heard about the British monarch. Even within our own borders, many citizens can’t even spell the name of our king. So, you can always pretend to be a ‘role model’. But this self-deceiving act is just a joke.

  3. Timothy Philipp Gan says:

    Ouch! That’s a really sharp, biting analysis which I hope will gain the attention of the government. Rather than spearheading Islam forwards, they’re setting progress back to the Dark Ages! Things are spiralling out of hand, the actions of the cow-head protesters and the arsonists are not Malaysian culture, and it will never be. Radical Islamists should be shipped out of this country to places like Iran where they belong.

  4. phillip wong says:

    Malaysia of Tunku Abdul Rahman’s, Tun Abdul Razak’s and Tun Hussein Onn’s era was a model Islamic nation. Period. After that, a gradual Wahabi nation. Islam and Wahabism are not the same. Wahabism has poisoned the minds of far too many Muslims over the centuries and it has poisoned both sides of politics.

    I salute you Shanon for being one of the many unsung Muslims who strongly opposes […] Wahabism. Wahabism has to be defeated by a united front of Muslims and non-Muslims. If it is not defeated Islam will never recover from this ‘cancer’. Some say we must declare all Wahabis apostates. That is not wise. We must declare only the most extreme Wahabis and violaters of human rights apostate. We should unfurl the banner of the UDHR to define what Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism or any religion is.

    Only versions of religion which are interpreted based on the UDHR should be upheld. All versions of religion that are not UDHR friendly should be scrapped for eternity and their followers sent to rehab (not Gitmo but the one in mainland USA). As it is, the ‘mainstream’ Islam we see is thoroughly Wahabised. That’s the road to perdition for poor Islam. I can’t imagine a world without a beautiful Islam. [A world] without Islam is like without water (that is if every religion is an element of nature).

    Muslims and non-Muslims of the world should rally strongly behind the Unitarian Universalists Church. They are a congregation of truly liberal Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. They have the key to what a true Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism is. Religion is reason, heart and faith. Anything less than that is not religion. Wahabism is cancer. Not only Muslim Wahabism, but also Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh Wahabism. Wahabism is Literalism. […]


    Thanks, Philip. However, as a Muslim, I also think it’s a bit too convenient to make Wahabism the scapegoat. It is a sect, perhaps more puritan than other Islamic sects, but an Islamic sect nonetheless. Perhaps the issue here is also that Wahabism has become the state religion for an extremely rich and powerful US ally, Saudi Arabia. I believe – and I am open to being proven wrong – that Wahabi Islam can and should be held accountable, fairly, the way we’d hold accountable the practices and applications of all other belief systems.

    But if you are talking about the larger oppression of religious texts in the name of religion, then I think that’s a separate, but even more important issue. I worship regularly and read the Quran constantly and do not find in it any excuse to be “insulted” or to try to silence and censor views other than my own. But perhaps that is just my *personal* encounter with the Quran as a lay Muslim.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  5. Hamid says:

    There is no such thing as “the model Muslim country” or any other religious model country! If you want to have a good country, you must practice good “human rights”. Afganistan is an example. Get what I mean!?

  6. sunny bunny says:

    It is interesting to note that Malaysia did not start out as a Muslim country. It was supposedly a secular country. Somewhere along the way, it became a Muslim country. Maybe that’s why it cannot be a “model” Muslim country as its rise to being a Muslim country was out of fear and necessity by the ruling class.

  7. Farouq Omaro says:

    When it comes to a model Muslim country, it depends on whether we are talking about the government, the society or everything in general. Many do not realize that Islam thrives when it has no role whatsoever in the government and also when the government has no role whatsoever in Islam. Just look at India, in 1964, the government of the state of Kerala agreed to carve out a Muslim-majority district called Malappuram. And also in the UK, they have this thing called the British Muslim parliament! The more the government and religion mix together, the greater the threat to religion. Just look at what happened in Europe.

  8. patrick c says:

    Well written. And a very brave article, in view of existing climate of fear in our country. Let’s hope the government will take this as constructive criticism.

  9. hypocrite says:

    We all like the way FORM takes precedence over SUBSTANCE here in Malaysia. What a bunch of munafiq!

  10. Liberal Man says:

    Model. Definition: A cheap imitation of the real thing.

  11. Andrew says:

    Good, well balanced and well written.

  12. Norbaini Hassan says:

    How can we become an Islamic role model country when our country’s leadership does not demonstrate or reflect the traits of the greatest Islamic Khalifah, which is our Prophet Muhammad? Where is the amanah (trustworthiness)? Where is the fatanah (wisdom)? Where is the sidiq (truthfulness)? Where is the tabligh (full disclosure)?

    The best of leadership is by example as decreed by the Prophet Muhammad. We currently have a crop of leaders that is fractured, and as long as we continue to have them as our leaders, do not talk about being an Islamic role model country because we are not!

  13. Ong Keng Lee, Kelvin says:

    Dear Shanon,

    As a non-Muslim, it is obvious to me that as long as Malay [Malaysians] are born Muslims and the education system remains status quo, we’ll be talking about this subject till kingdom come.

    Until Malaysia can truly separate religion from politics, we’ll never be free of this plague.

    Najib and the rest of the talking heads can promise us heaven and earth, but the reality is that we’re the fools that continue to even begin to believe.

    I, for one, have truly given up.

  14. SM says:

    Good article Shanon…I guess I can sum it up as follows:
    Bolehland ain’t no model Islamic country!

  15. Puteh Jerineh Ramli says:

    Put it this way. I am a Muslim woman and I would stay in Malaysia because my rights are protected.

    Malaysia is a role model of an Islamic country. We are comparing Malaysia with other Islamic countries as is [the] reality today. We are not talking of an ideal Islamic country that does not exist except in our imagination. Imagination does not count because it is only good for imagining.

    Do not make the mistake of selectively picking on some traits and conveniently ignoring others when comparing Malaysia with other Islamic nations. […] There is no black or white in this world. Learn to recognise the grey.

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