Notes from the Field

Malaysia Launches its First Public Dialogue Series on Islam and Democracy

September 2, 2009

Malaysia is among the most successful middle income nations in the world. Fuelled by export-led economic expansion with GDP growth rates between 4-8 percent sustained for 30 years, Malaysia now has a substantial middle class and a relatively well established institutional infrastructure. The country’s population is both ethnically diverse (Malay 50 percent; Chinese 24 percent; Indigenous 11 percent; Indian 7 percent) and religiously diverse (Muslim 52 percent, Buddhist 17 percent, Taoist 12 percent, Hindus 8 percent, Christian 8 percent, and Tribal 2 percent), and relatively peaceful co-existence has been maintained among religions and cultures. Malaysia’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, though proselytization of Muslims is illegal.

Central to Malaysia’s long period of peace and prosperity has been a political arrangement, enshrined through the New Economic Policy (NEP), following the race riots in 1969. The NEP – originally established as a limited program of affirmative action from 1970 to 1990 and extended through the New Development Policy (1991-2000) and National Vision Policy (2001-2010) – is intended to elevate the situation of the economically disenfranchised communities in Malaysia, which is mainly the Malays.

Virtually all ethnic Malays are Muslim, and reflecting their dominant role in the polity, the official state religion of Malaysia from its inception has been Islam. Over the past two decades there has been an increasing politicization of Islam. There are at least two dimensions to this development. First, since the 1980s, religion has been used by the political opposition to challenge the electoral dominance of the secular United Malays National Organization (UMNO) coalition that has long ruled the country. In response, there has been a tendency of the state to respond by championing Islamic causes to secure its credentials among Muslim voters. The result has been a growing Islamization of society, driven primarily by components within the state administration.

Second, personal identity for many Malays has undergone a subtle shift in recent years from being primarily Malay to being primarily Muslim. In part this reflects the perception of erosion of Malay preferences and a renewed justification for special status of Malay Muslims as Muslims. But it also reflects a growing sense of membership in the broader global Muslim community. What this means in terms of the content and role of Islam in Malaysian society, and what it means for non-Muslims, is still unfolding. Given Malaysia’s unique history of peaceful diversity and rapid development under a policy with Islam as the state religion, Malaysia’s evolution as an Islamic nation amidst racial and religious diversity reflects the imperatives of Islam’s engagement with the world. Malaysia has the potential to serve as a positive example of stability, pluralism, tolerance, and democratic governance within an Islamic framework.

Despite this potential, one worrying trend in recent years has been the deterioration in religious and racial harmony. Ever-present tensions between the Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities have been exacerbated by post-9/11 Islamic revivalism in Malaysia. While there is no significant jihadist movement or terrorist threat, Malaysian Muslims are increasingly sympathetic to their Muslim brothers – in neighboring Thailand and Indonesia (with whom they share strong cultural and linguistic links), as well as further afield. Islamists are exploiting these sympathies to rally Muslim Malaysians to support an Islamic state with Shariah as supreme law. Proponents speak of “Islam under siege” and portray non-Muslims and progressive Muslims as posing a threat to traditional Islam and as dangerous “liberals” subservient to external, secular forces. Civil society groups and activists that work to promote universal human rights, justice, and equality are being branded as being anti-Islamic. Political parties and politicians are using religion to advance political agendas, playing the race and religion cards to mask governance problems and a restrictive political environment: corruption, tightly controlled media, a weak and partisan NGO sector, and limited citizen engagement in governance and public policy.

To counter this growing intolerance and extremism in Malaysia, in 2001, former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi introduced the concept and program of Islam Hadhari (literally, “Islamic civilization”). Islam Hadhari is a loosely-articulated paradigm for establishing a moderate, inclusive Islam-based society that enhances every citizen’s quality of life regardless of his or her religion. In sharp contrast to an aggressive and narrowly conceived conservative Islamic vision, Islam Hadhari offers an alternative vision of Islam for Muslims in Malaysia and beyond, a vision that, in Badawi’s words, will “enable Muslims in Malaysia to become the vanguard of a new civilization that can bring about progressive and comprehensive change.”

Under the current Prime Minister Najib Razak, the concept of Islam Hadhari has been given a new breath of life through renewed focus and programming of its key components rather than broad discussions under a general framework of Islam and Democracy. Najib’s Islam policy is also expected to be articulated through a more prominent multi-ethnic, multi-religious consideration, which will in return promise the formation of an inclusive vision or policy for the nation. Thus the current government’s pursuit to strengthen the nation’s understanding of Islam and democracy offers a strategic opportunity to advance the elements that promote the principles of democracy and human rights, such as good governance, anti-corruption, minority and women’s rights, religious tolerance, and pluralism, that impact all Malaysians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Based on these conditions, The Asia Foundation together with its local partners in Malaysia, namely the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), the Merdeka Centre, the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), and the International Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) are launching a national dialogue on Islam and Democracy to promote vibrant public discussions on democracy and human rights under the context of Islam. Through the public forums, this program is expected to develop a public definition of an inclusive, practical, and legitimate vision of democracy and human rights in Malaysia to be placed before the government. In short, the specific objective of the program is to facilitate public dialogue among Malaysians and provide policy input to the Malaysian government on ways to advance democracy and human rights in Malaysia.

Herizal Hazri is The Asia Foundation’s Program Director in Malaysia. He can be reached at herizal@asiafound.org.

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