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Malaysian politicians trying to ‘out-Islam’ each other

For religious minorities, the only hope is the Democratic Action Party, which has kept ruling coalition propped up
Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (center) gestures after the release of state election results at the World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 12. Malaysians in six states went to the polls to vote for state assembly members in elections widely seen as a barometer of support for Ibrahim's unity government

Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (center) gestures after the release of state election results at the World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 12. Malaysians in six states went to the polls to vote for state assembly members in elections widely seen as a barometer of support for Ibrahim's unity government. (Photo: AFP)

Published: August 16, 2023 04:01 AM GMT
Updated: August 16, 2023 05:33 AM GMT

The recently-concluded state elections show that Islamization will get more intense as parties try to woo Muslim-Malays, and in the process end up being even less tolerant of religious diversity.

The opposition coalition, Perikatan Nasional, or national alliance, is elated with its performance in the Aug 12 elections involving six of 13 states in Malaysia. They retained the governments in three states and with super-majorities in two and zero opposition in one.

They won 146 out of the total 245 seats in all the states, gaining ground in the other three states. The powerhouse in the alliance is the Malaysian Islamic Party, known by its Jawi-based acronym, PAS.

For Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, it was the urban and mix-race seats won by his left-leaning Democratic Action Party (DAP), the predominantly Chinese party, that had kept his ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (alliance of hope) propped up.

The DAP cashed in on non-Muslim fear of Islamization, while Perikatan played on Muslim suspicions of non-Muslims, claiming DAP/Chinese were controlling the federal government, including Anwar.

Pakatan Harapan is co-running the federal government with ex-nemesis and former ruling bloc Barisan Nasional. Barisan’s main component party is Umno, which at one time held the lion’s share of Malay votes. This time around, Umno failed. The party won just 19 of the 107 seats it contested.

"Our politicians are adding fuel to the fire by using race and religion to divide us Malaysians"

In 1982, then-prime minister and Umno president, Mahathir Mohamad, chose the party’s then-youth wing head Anwar to deliver their newly formulated Islamization policy.

Various aspects of life were Islamized and that included educational institutions, government agencies, and financial institutions. The revivalists who were then active in university campuses, mosques, and dakwah organizations now hold key positions in politics, the civil service, think tanks, and universities.

The Islamization policy was to counter the growing influence of the PAS in the wake of Islamic revivalism in the Muslim world and for political legitimacy. That started the holier-than-thou battle in politics.

Apart from non-Muslims, moderate Muslims also want politicians to stop this. Former ambassador Noor Farida Ariffin said after the elections, “Our politicians are adding fuel to the fire by using race and religion to divide us Malaysians. They are the problem, not the solution.”

Concern over institutionalized Islamization was the topic of a forum by women's rights group Sisters in Islam last month. One of the speakers, activist and Muslim feminist Zainah Anwar said, “After decades of Islamization, Malaysia is lost. What we are seeing today is the willful and destructive tearing apart of Malaysia’s social fabric by politicians who only care about getting or staying in power.”

These voices have and will unlikely be drowned by politicians’ boisterous shouts for Muslim and Malay supremacy. Muslim Malays form a big chunk of the electorate. They had kept Barisan in power for nearly 50 years and in 2018 they were the ones that brought it down.

Despite Anwar’s role in the country’s Islamization 40 years ago, he does not have strong Malay support now. His attempts to show that his government is not anti-Islam have fallen flat.

Some of them are the Islamic Development Department or Jakim having a say in formulating national policies, more funding for Islamic institutions, and a plan to harmonize civil and sharia laws.

Two days before the elections, his government made owning an LGBT-themed Swatch a crime. His government earlier canceled a concert after two male band members kissed on stage.

These did little to erase Muslim-Malay resentment towards him for allowing the “infidel” DAP to be in government. With Muslim-Malay support waning by the day, Anwar may be tempted to up the ante but this can backfire. He risks losing the non-Muslim support that is keeping him in power. 

"Sarawak can be carved out of any law or measure that pander to Muslims and eats into the rights of religious minorities"

He also cannot afford to upset the Christian-majority state of Sarawak whose 23 members of parliament have helped give him his two-thirds majority in parliament (148 out of 222 seats).

Sarawak has always maintained that it will not tolerate political Islam. Their leaders, both Muslims and others, are likely to block attempts to introduce the Islamic hudud laws or those that restrict non-Muslims in their state. They can because they have the bargaining power.

This is why Anwar said the government ban on the use of “Allah” in Christian publications was not applicable to Sarawak.

In May, his government decided not to appeal against a court decision that said the ban was illegal and this decision riled Muslims. He had to appease them and at the same time keep Sarawak contented because the plaintiff in the case was a Sarawakian. Hence, the damage control statement.

This has set a precedent. Sarawak can be carved out of any law or measure that pander to Muslims and eats into the rights of religious minorities. Lucky Sarawak.

As for the religious minorities in the peninsula, their only hope is in the DAP. Will the party have the political will to stand up for the religious minorities even when faced with the possibility of losing their positions in the government?

To be fair, the DAP did put its foot down in 2015 when it was an opposition coalition partner with the PAS and its president Abdul Hadi Awang wanted to push the hudud laws at the federal level. The DAP severed ties and vowed never to work with the PAS again.

Meanwhile, the PAS has already started planning for the next general election which needs to be held by 2027. Hadi said they planned to take control of as much of the country as possible.

There are calls asking Anwar to resist the temptation to out-Islam the PAS, and build the economy and fight corruption. Maybe it’s time politicians took the path less traveled.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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