IT was to be expected that the cabinet decision on unilateral conversion of minors to Islam by a Muslim-convert parent would be opposed. Indeed, less than a week after the cabinet decision, the coalition of Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs) known as Pembela criticised the decision.
Abim logo Pembela comprises more than 50 Muslim NGOs, and was spearheaded in 2006 by the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) to protest against apostasy, specifically in the Lina Joy case. “It is good to see more Muslim NGOs emerge,” says Abim’s vice-president Azril Mohd Amin.
While that may be the case from a Muslim’s perspective, the proliferation of Muslim NGOs should be assessed beyond just numbers. How exactly are Muslim NGOs shaping the landscape of not just civil society but also politics in Malaysia? What influence do they wield and who are they politically aligned to?
Since there are champions of Islam and Malay rights in both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR), both NGOs and political parties meet on issues that mutually enhance their leverage.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the agenda of political parties is dictated wholesale by the Muslim NGOs, or vice versa. Indeed, the NGOs interviewed by The Nut Graph were quick to assert their independence from political parties.
Still, considering the multiplicity of Muslim NGOs in operation, the pressuring of government leaders and policy makers is potent, especially when the NGOs demonstrate strength in numbers.
Consider also the vast range of issues that these NGOs agitate on — more than just conversion issues such as M Indira Gandhi‘s plight, and the plight of other non-Muslims before her. Pewaris Permuafakatan Islam, a coalition of more than 30 Muslim NGOs, has been in the spotlight since 2008, speaking out against pig farming, among others. Majlis Permuafakatan Ummah (Pewaris) has advocated for the use of the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial by the state.
Many other Muslim NGOs and coalitions have emerged, and the issues they highlight have largely revolved around defending the status of Islam and Malay rights.
Almost unanimously, the rhetoric adopted by each of these NGOs is coloured by fear.
Azril AminAccording to Abim’s Azril, Pembela coalition members were compelled to get together because they were “deeply troubled by the tendency to use court cases to emasculate the status of Islam, particularly through applications for apostasy.”
Rahimuddin Md Harun, Pewaris’s second deputy chairperson, says that Malay Malaysians are still in disarray after the March 2008 general election. “Why are politicians like Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, Datuk Tan Lian Hoe and Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon no longer respectful of Islam and Malay rights?”
In their 29 April press conference to protest against the cabinet’s decision on unilateral conversion of minors, Pembela said it would not remain quiet if certain parties continued to “challenge” the Federal Constitution. Its spokesperson suggested that the issue of Indira Gandhi’s children being converted to Islam without her consent was being politicised and was raising temperatures among different faith adherents.
Professor Dr Norani Othman, a sociologist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, describes these NGOs as “highly politicised entities”. “I wouldn’t say they are actually civil society organisations,” she says.
Norani OthmanAccording to Norani, who is also co-founder of Muslim women’s NGO Sisters in Islam, civil society has several defining features, including the scope for deep and sincere discussion “within an atmosphere of principled openness.” Civil society should not be constrained by authoritarianism, or motivated by forced conformity or uniformity in the interpretation or implementation of laws and policies.
“Civil society is actually supposed to be independent of the state, and nonpartisan,” she says in a phone interview.
Norani says that civil society groups should ideally push for more inclusiveness in society and challenge conflicts of interest between political parties and government.
“In the case of these NGOs, they are motivated by very specific interests tied to their collective identity as Malay Muslims,” she says. Hence their affiliations, overt or otherwise, with political parties that share the same purpose of promoting Malay Muslim interests.
According to Norani, these Muslim NGOs should more appropriately be labelled “special interest” or “pressure” groups.
It is no secret that many Malay Muslim NGOs act in ways to promote a specific agenda that only promotes the interests of the majority community in Malaysia, instead of a larger principle that benefits all.
“We act as an intermediary for people to lodge complaints and lobby or pressure the authorities on the issue of Muslim consumers’ rights,” says Noor Nirwandy, the Muslim Consumer Association (PPIM)’s project director.
For example, he says PPIM has, for years, been advocating for a Halal Act. PPIM will also interface with political parties “as long as it empowers Malay Malaysian consumers.”
Ultimately, he says PPIM aims to activate the purchasing power of Muslim Malaysians, who have a collective purchasing power of more than RM1 billion a month, according to Nirwandy.
Noor Nirwandy “But because there is no awareness among Muslims of their purchasing power, they get taken advantage of,” he says.
“Muslim entrepreneurs and companies still find it hard to penetrate the market, and this is because there is no acknowledgement of Muslim purchasing power,” he adds.
However, the Muslim NGOs also have to grapple with the fact that they operate within a very multiracial, multireligious environment. There is, therefore, some level of awareness that an outlook or approach that is too insular will only backfire in the long run.
“[W]e would like to see more of these Muslim NGOs work with other non-faith based NGOs, and on other civil society issues apart from [the] religious,” Abim’s Azril tells The Nut Graph via e-mail.
Even though the NGOs’ rhetoric is very much about defending the Muslim ummah, they seem reluctant to band together under a single, united banner. Dr Mazeni Alwi, chairperson and co-founder of the Muslim Professional’s Forum, says, “To confine ourselves to one or two NGOs is limiting. We need a spectrum of views on any issue.”
Why is there this division? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that many of these NGOs conflate issues relating to Islam and Malay rights. Article 160(2) of the Federal Constitution defines “Malay” as “a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, [and] conforms to Malay custom.” Muslim activists often juxtapose this against Article 3(1): “Islam is the religion of the Federation.”
Thus, there appears to be a supreme, combined identity that needs to be defended: that of the Malay and the Muslim. This is why, when PAS, and to a certain extent PKR, leaders talk about elevating the status of Islam, the subtext remains that this naturally entails a support of Malay rights. Conversely, when Umno intensifies its racial grandstanding, the issue of Islam also gets dragged into the arena in a highly emotive manner.
And when the tussle for power between PAS and PKR on one hand and Umno on the other results in a shift in the political landscape, it is natural that Muslim NGOs will be split as well.
But at the same time, the post-March 2008 social and political environment has seen more and more critical voices emerging in civil society, including those of Muslims who do not agree with the status quo on Islam. The question is, can Malaysia accommodate the democratic participation of each citizen regardless of religious or racial difference?
See also: Agitating Malay Muslims