Malaysians Exiting Pt. 2: Opiates for Islamism’s Masses

In mid-2015, news broke out that 1MDB, a massive, state-owned sovereign wealth fund set up and chaired by Malaysia’s current Prime Minister, Mr. Najib Razak, was not just crippled with debt after six years of operation, but that hundreds of millions of dollars were alleged to have been channeled from the fund into the Prime Minister’s own personal bank accounts.

Locally, the news was reported by The Edge (a financial and investment newspaper), and internationally by the Wall Street Journal, both based on (pending) investigative documents that were leaked to the press. Within weeks, the current administration suspended The Edge’s publication, and the PM threatened the WSJ with a criminal defamation lawsuit. A third medium, the Sarawak Report, a blog known for its critical reporting against corruption within the Malaysian administration, was outright blocked from access within Malaysia. The British journalist behind this blog sought police protection after Malaysian authorities issued a warrant for her arrest and she was subject to malicious surveillance.

The incredible story of how the administration then replaced the Deputy Prime Minister, the Attorney General and arrest key investigators from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) overnight is summarised here. As much as it sounds like a tale from a despotic hermit state, this has actually ocurred in my country.

More than the blatant suppression of the press and the indiscriminate dismissal of some of our highest leaders however, are the reasons released by the administration for why huge sums of money were transferred into the PM’s private accounts. First, the claim was that the money was donated by a “brotherly nation” in the Middle East, and thus was not taken from 1MDB’s coffers. It was later elaborated that the RM2.6 billion donation came from Saudi Arabia to thank Malaysia for its fight against Da’esh. By this line of thinking, Malaysia was one of ‘two or three’ countries given donations, including Muslim communities in southern Thailand and the Phillipines.

More recent headlines add a little more flesh on the bone, clarifying that the donation came before the 2013 General Election as political seed money to fight the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), which was secretly funded by Jews.

Which Jews? The DAP is among the oldest multi-racial political parties in Malaysia, an oddity in our traditionally race-delineated government. And yes, Malaysia has historically been home to a small but understandably quiet community of Jews. But saying that a Jew or a group of Jews funds the DAP is singularly so ridiculous, I won’t even bother trying to unravel this statement.

So let’s take the earlier explanation at face value: Saudi Arabia made a donation to Muslim communities in Southeast Asia to help them fight Da’esh/Islamic extremism. Some immediate contradictions come to mind. The first is the assumption that Saudi Arabia is a moderate Muslim country. This claim showed up in President George Bush Jr.’s terms as US President, and again under President Obama.

The state Islam of Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism. This is an orthodox strain of Islam, on a similarly ultraconservative footing with the orthodox Jewish communities of Israel. It is an austere philosophy that strives to purge Islamic practice of ‘idolatrous’ habits, e.g. pilgrimage to tombs of important religious figures and celebration of saints.

Wahhabism obsessively excises anything it considers an innovation of popular Islam, from the colourful spirituality of Sufism, to practices that are not literally read from the Quran or one of the four sanctioned schools of Islamic jurisprudence. On the matter of idolatry, Wahhabis are willing to salt the earth they stand on. In the early 19th century, when Ibn Saud conquered Mecca and Medina with the aid of the Ikhwan (a Wahhabi-aligned tribal militia), they immediately began demolishing the tombs of Muhammad’s family members. It was only criticism from other Muslim nations that prevented them from also demolishing Muhammad’s tomb.

This urge to selectively destroy history also extends to non-religious structures in general. Mecca and Medina have seen explosive redevelopment at the expense of its historic buildings, including structures that were raised when the first Muslim community was still alive 1,000 years prior. While a great deal of these spaces were cleared under the auspices of accommodating more pilgrims, their replacements, among others a gigantic European-style clock tower, a variety of luxury hotels and a 5-storey shopping mall — should raise eyebrows. If some of the world’s oldest mosques did not survive Wahhabism, any history pre-dating Islam is just idolatrous nonsense.

There’s a resemblance between this blatant whitewashing of history to the way the Malaysian secondary school History syllabus was cherry-picked of most non-Muslim-related, non-Malay elements I spoke about in Part 1. Wahhabism has no place for heterogenous Islams, and no patience for diversity. As the de facto faith guarding the holy pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina, not to mention the authority on who and how many pilgrims get to set foot there, the example set by Wahhabism has a great deal of clout in the Muslim world. Even if other Muslim nations are not Wahhabi per se, the practices in these two cities have historically been the ‘gold standard’ by which jurists and scholars formulate Islamic thinking.

Taking this into account, we now need to consider the immense wealth petroleum has brought to Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi thought in general. Wahhabism is a generous faith, and Saudi donations have funded thousands of mosques, Islamic schools and publications around the world. State-sponsored publications of English-translated Qurans are distributed free outside of Saudi Arabia and to pilgrims who visit the country. The latest version of these sponsored English translations, often referred to by the last names of its translators, i.e. “Hilali-Khan”, have come under fire for their distinctly extremist doctrine and anti-Semitic voice. Part of this appears to be its interpretive stance, which is the emphasis on abrogation (later verses overrule earlier verses). But most of this appears to be the colouring of a xenophobic, fundamentalist worldview.

In current Muslim culture, interpretations of Muslim law and matters of faith are usually relegated to the ‘trustworthy’ hands of Islamic scholars (ulama), whose opinions carry varying degrees of legal effect. Virtually everywhere there is a Muslim community, there is an advisory council of scholars for that particular sect or diaspora. Malaysia, of course, has its National Fatwa Council under the federal Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM).

The fatwas issued by ulama, medieval and otherwise, are not just for difficult legal subjects. Topics extend to a variety of mundane, everyday questions, like the permissibility of yoga to the more obscure, like whether jinns could marry humans (Heaven on Earth, Sadakat Kadri, 2012).

On the surface, trusting questions of religion to the experts makes a certain sense. Unfortunately, its cumulative historical effect has been to mainstream the demonisation of personal (interpretations of) faith. That is, many ordinary Muslims prefer to leave the theological issues that dictate their lives to a “more learned” class, one whose authority is often beyond scrutiny, much less criticism. Again in Malaysia, we call this not knowing why something has to be done, only that since God said so, it must be for our own good.

Islam is often touted as a way of life, because its reach goes from the nitty gritty of daily behaviour to the way people are governed. All of this, at least for Sunni Islam, refers to the Quran and the collected traditions. The latter emphasis, on traditions close to early Islamic Mecca and Madina, is a hallmark of Wahhabi and by extension, Salafist literalism.

First, a definition of the Salafi movement: people who seek to emulate the example of Muhammad and the first Muslim community (al-salaf al-salih; the pious forefathers). In this sense, Salafism has historically been a form of protest against perceived deviations and innovations, usually by establishment Islamic authorities, that are seen as leading the Muslim community astray. Salafists are not necessarily followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, i.e. Wahhabism, which is largely restricted to Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf states — although medieval Salafist scholars were a large influence for him. Salafism as an idea gained particular fervour during the Islamic revivalism movement of the 60s and 70s, influencing Muslim politicians across the diaspora, many of whom hold power in national governments today (more on that later).

One particular organisation synonymous with Salafist thought is the Egyptian (original) Muslim Brotherhood. Author and professor in women’s history Leila Ahmed, who came of age during the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in her native Egypt, writes in her seminal Women and Gender in Islam about how the initial appearance of Islamic revivalist (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood) culture was alien to the local practices of the time. This alien-ness from local culture in the Arab world is a theme that shows up repeatedly in works by correspondents and authors who live or have lived in the region. If anyone were to assign a cultural theme to the Islamist movement (Wahhabi, Salafi or any other), it would perhaps be pan-Arabism. However, it is vital to recognise that this is and was a new interpretation of Arabic culture in the Arab heartland. It is not traditional to the region, no matter how much Islamic reformers want to ape the first Muslim community.

In a place far removed from the Middle East like Malaysia, pan-Arabic, pan-Islamic culture should be viewed as an even more alien influence. Some readers might rightly note that Islamic revivalism is a good counterpoint to Western cultural influence. This is a valid point. The Islamist movement in general did arise as a reaction to Western colonial influence between the late 19th and early 20th century. Yet, none of this circumvents the fact that jilbabs and turbans are as foreign to Malaysia as jeans and tank tops.

If any Malaysian wants to fight the onslaught of “Western” culture, they should be promoting the traditions of Malaysia, not the Arab world. Certainly, they should not be promoting an idealised form of what a few modern scholars think is how the first Muslim community lived.

When right-wing Malay activists raise the banner of Allah, they are not raising the banner of Malay culture. Nor are they speaking for all Malaysians. Instead, they are dividing the Malaysian electorate into Muslims and non-Muslims, a denomination as exclusive as Malay, Chinese or Indian. This is no way to create or uphold a plural, multicultural country.

And yet, this past year has already seen a split in Malaysia’s leading pan-Islamic political party between its traditionalist faction and “modernists”. The latter recently emerged amidst much fanfare as a new Islamic political party, calling itself Gerakan Harapan Baru (lit. New Hope Movement). An op-ed in the Malaysian Insider dated August 4 (link is in Bahasa Malaysia) gushes about how the GHB breathes new air into local politics, by uniting the people under the fair and righteous principles of Islam that “Rejects all manner of ethnic polarisation and racism.” While highlighting the inherent inclusiveness of Islam, the article goes on to say how GHB’s approach encompasses the entirety of the ummah (Muslim community) and the people (of Malaysia) across ethnic, religious and cultural lines. [Italics added for emphasis.]

I cannot underline enough how inconsistent it is for a political party to say on the one hand, it embraces plural society, yet on the other, explicitly defines this plural Malaysian society as Muslims and non-Muslims.

There already exists a platform that upholds the fabric of our nation as a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society — our Constitution.

Tellingly, while the op-ed above cites spiritual influences from the late Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat (up to his death the head of the Pan-Islamic Malaya Party from which GHB split off) and well-known Muslim Brotherhood affiliated theologian Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al-Qardawi, at no point does it mention our Constitution. How is this not raising a red flag?

This harks back to the gradual work of the Islamic revivalism movement in Malaysia to normalise its ideal Muslim state among mainstream Muslims, as well as open-minded and well-meaning segments of their non-Muslim neighbours. The task took decades to bear fruit, effectively and irreversibly hollowing out our culture of separating personal moral compasses from blind, communally-enforced dogma.

Here, we need remind ourselves of a once young, vociferously pro-Malay political leader called Mahathir Mohamad, who stridently defended the Malay community against pro-Chinese sentiment. And we must remember his protege, a once young, popular student activist and co-founder of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) named Anwar Ibrahim. When Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister in 1981, he co-opted Datuk Anwar Ibrahim and his Islamic revivalist philosophy into popular support for pro-Malay economic development.

It bears repeating that the boom years of the 80s and 90s saw a general uplifting of Malaysians across all economic classes and racial lines. For the generation of us who profited from the foreign degrees, opportunities for good-paying jobs at home and abroad, and the chance to develop a worldview bigger than ourselves, that promise was true.

This is in fact the entire problem. Islamism crept up while Malaysians were busy raising their standard of living. If anything, it preyed on an uprooted Malay population trying to make sense of their new and lonely suburban environment, particularly the waves of young people confronted with middle class, pro-Western modernity for the first time.

When we did think of conservative Islam, we thought of people on the outskirts of urban centres, poor villagers and country folk, segments considered the traditional UMNO stronghold. Yet it is no small accident that the Salafist-strain of Islamism attracts well-educated professionals.

Throughout our rapid urbanisation, young Malay adults led the vanguard in our universities, some of them the first generation of their families to pursue tertiary education. Even then, it was not difficult to sense our impending prosperity gap. Faced with the rigours of an alien environment and sterile modernity, turning to the ideal of a socially just Muslim nation is a rational reaction. This is a philosophy where class barriers are broken down by an egalitarian religion and the rule of law is certain, based as it is on an unwavering god.

As a movement, Salafism’s strong commitment to education and charitable work thrives on uplifting previously disenfranchised populations, all the while indoctrinating their ideal Muslim state to make it a reality. It works with and strives for democratic government, and is capable of mobilising to participate in popular elections. This gives it wide appeal across classes, but particularly in the lower, middle and nascent upper-middle bracket. Wahhabism, in contrast, is supported by and largely contained in authoritarian governments. Its intense conservative rule is enforced top-down, making the latter movement risk averse and historically unsupportive of democracy.

This does not, by the way, make Salafism a somehow kinder option. Both Salafism and Wahhabism ultimately strive for rigidly Muslim societies. In the wake of the Arab Spring, it is clear that Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political parties, whatever may call them, are just as determined to stifle liberal or diverse voices once they come to power. These are not forces capable of creating lasting alliances with secular political parties. Because Salafists almost always seek to impose Shariah law as a prerequisite for their Muslim utopia, secular law and plural society are not readily acceptable concepts.

Dividing Malaysia between the Muslims and unbelievers is no standard for national unity. Dividing the rights of Malaysians into itty bitty cultural parcels, be they ethnic or religious, is equally unjust however we look at it. But peeling away the taint of Islamism from our political discourse and cultural identity is a long-term project, at the same time an elephant in the room many people prefer to sidestep.

That said, if Islamism was introduced into our culture, it can be removed. First, there needs to be the political will to admit that being given Saudi oil money to fight extremism is like being given wood to stoke a fire. There then needs to be a realization that rallying citizens under religious law or governments is not a guarantee of social justice. It will never be social justice if it holds half the population to a different rule of law.

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