Malaysia: Pak Lah's Islamic Challenge


James Chin

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is supposed to be politically supreme-after all he won the UMNO presidency post uncontested and led the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to its biggest win in the 2004 March General Elections. The opposition is divided and cannot even hope to provide a dissenting voice in a parliament where more than ninety per cent of the seats are held by the BN.

But his real challenge may come from the Islamists. In the past several weeks, they have flexed their muscles to show that they are not too happy with Badawi's push for Islam Hadhari. 'Moderate' and 'progressive' are keywords, for Islam, according to Islam Hadhari, must be relevant to today's world. Many Islamists, especially those trained in the old school, reject this approach and prefer the conservative version in which political power and the right to interpret Islam lies solely in the hands of the ulama (clergy) class.

Last month, the Mufti of Perak (the state's top Islamic official), issued a fatwa (religious edit), which proclaimed that the 'Sure Heboh' open-air concerts (staged at different times in cities around the country) were 'haram' (forbidden) under Islamic law. He claimed that the concerts were corrupting the Malay youth, fostering the mixing of the sexes and encouraging Muslims to neglect their religious duties such as praying. These are strong words given that the Mufti is a paid servant of the state and is supposed to support the official line on Islam. What was really interesting was that a few days earlier, the National Fatwa Council issued a fatwa declaring that contests requiring SMS (Short-Messaging-Service) audience responses were 'haram' because they contained elements of gambling. At stake is millions of ringgit in investment by telecommunication companies.

In both cases, the companies involved are closely associated with the ruling UMNO party. TV3, the promoter of the 'Sure Heboh' concert, is often called 'TV UMNO', while many of the companies running SMS contests are linked to senior UMNO figures. Several of the telecommunication carriers affected by the ruling-such as Celcom-are, in fact, owned by the government.

The danger here is pretty obvious-if the state sponsored ulamas begin to issue fatwas impinging on business practices, this will have important implications for the economy and the current Malaysian way of life. Moves for greater public segregation of the sexes in cinemas, concerts, supermarket queues and swimming areas may well dampen Malaysia's big push to be a major tourist destination in the region.

At present the state still has the upper hand-all fatwas issued still have to be approved by the government.

The bigger picture of course is that the battle for meaning in mainstream Islam in Malaysia is still raging despite the massive defeat suffered by Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) in the March elections. Liberals had concluded that the strong vote for BN was also a vote for Badawi's Islam Hadhari and a rejection of the more dogmatic Islam propagated by PAS. While this may be true, the Islamists are not taking their defeat lying down.

In addition to the fatwas mentioned above, a school in Kuala Lumpur tried to ban students from bring non-halal food onto the school premises on the basis that Muslim students may come into contact with non-halal food. A letter from the headmaster also stated that non-Muslim students were forbidden to use the utensils in the canteen and to dump food into waste bins. The problem is that sixty per cent of the students in this school are non-Muslims and that the school is located in a Chinese area.

One upcoming case, which may severely impact on the workings of the government, is an application by a group of former Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees to get the Malaysian Council of Muftis to declare detentions and torture under the ISA as 'haram' under Islam. If this happens, it will present the government with a major dilemma. The ISA is the government's most effective tool against its opponents and religious extremists, but on the other hand, the government cannot be seen to be doing something against Islam.

Pak Lah came into office with strong Islamic credentials. He majored in Islamic Studies at university and his father and grandfather were famous religious teachers in Penang. He is widely seen as someone who can bridge the religious divide in Malaysia and keep the Islamists at bay. This is the reason why Islam Hadhari must succeed. Malaysia simply cannot afford divisiveness over issues relating to religion.

WATCHPOINT: PM Badawi will officially launch the Islam Hadhari concept in the near future. Expect the mainstream media to go overboard in promoting this concept and under-report opposition to the concept, especially any opposition from PAS.


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