Islam, the State, and Freedom of Religion In Malaysia

Since September 2001 the struggle between militantly radical and progressive or democratic tendencies—between “ungentle” and “gentle” Islam—has become a matter of urgent importance not only among Muslims but to others beyond their faith community.

Some observers suggest that the course taken by this contest in Malaysia may be of more than local significance: because Malaysia has demonstrated singular success among Muslim-majority nations in achieving economic growth and the various worldly attainments associated with it; and because, in opposition to the new militant Islamism, its rulers have promoted and identified themselves with modern, progressive, and liberal forms of Islam.

Islam Hadhari

During his long premiership Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad opposed the Islamists with conviction, and a stridency that often served their political objectives more than his. With more convincing religious credentials, his successor Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has, in less contentious manner, pursued the same objective, now embodied in the project of promoting what his government terms “Islam Hadhari.” This approach not only sees how the Islamic faith has shaped the character and ethos of Islamic civilization. It also recognizes that, as it exists today, the Islamic faith itself, rather than having been given once and for all time in immutable form, has been shaped in its historical evolution by that of Islamic civilization generally in which the faith’s human history has been couched.

Such recognition of the “historicity” of faith, of the human history of whatever it is that a community of believers has received (or believes it has) from Divine Revelation—and therefore of the fact and legitimacy of continuing religious change and innovation faithful to the original divine inspiration—is the essential foundation, in all the religious faith traditions, of any coherent and persuasive “modernist” position.

So far, so good, and so encouraging, perhaps. Yet the outlook for modern understandings of Islam and their champions in Malaysia is not bright. Several disquieting indications and developments are undeniable. Malaysian Islamist activists have long targeted religious modernists and progressives, seeking not so much to argue with or against them as to stigmatize them as un-Islamic, apostates, and renegades. This is now the fate, too, of the proponents of Islam Hadhari.

Attacks from Without and Within

Attacks against this latest official restatement of Malaysian Islamic modernism, the new progressive démarche, have been mounted not simply by the militant Islamist radicals inside and beyond the Islamic opposition party PAS, or from their legions of sympathizers inside the bloated Islamic affairs bureaucracies, at federal and state levels, that have swelled in size and pretensions over the last twenty years as UMNO, under Dr. Mahathir, and PAS engaged in unrelenting competition to outbid each other, and to avoid being outbid, in an escalating “Islamist policy auction.” Such attacks have even been mounted from within UMNO, the dominant Malay-based party in the governing Barisan Nasional coalition, and from members of the Prime Minister’s own Ministry.

These attacks have been carefully directed not against the Prime Minister himself but against certain less “protected” and secure surrogates, such as the courageous and principled women’s and human rights NGO, Sisters In Islam. These onslaughts do not come only from the supposedly “backward” and “regressive” elements in Malay society situated well beyond the communicative reach of the Prime Minister’s party and the UMNO’s middle-class appeals. In September an organization known as the Muslim Professional Forum held an all-day event to give unbridled rein to such criticism of the Prime Minister’s religious orientation and supporters under the banner “Liberal Islam: A Clear and Present Danger.”

Meanwhile, driven by righteous local and state-level zealots and vigilantes, the hand of government was forced into official action in the state of Terengganu against the Sky Kingdom cult, a fringe syncretist community led by Ayah Pin, an amiable and apparently harmless old eccentric. Yet the underlying issues involved here are not of fringe but central concern to the nature of the modern Malaysian state and citizenship in it. Some of them, long unresolved, are now, arising from the arrest of Sky Kingdom adherents, before the courts.

Does the constitutional protection for freedom of religious belief and worship apply to all individuals? If so, how is this to be reconciled with the constitutional view that all Malays are by definition Muslims, subject to ensuing legislation placing all Muslims, their manner of life, and inner beliefs under the supervision of the religious [shari'a] courts and religious bureaucracies? Can one cease to be a Muslim, freely choose to leave the faith community of Islam? A recent court decision held that a person who purports to do so, renouncing Islam by deed poll, does not have the right to have the designation “Muslim” removed from their national identity card or in the National Citizen Registry System.

Freedom of Religion

Here lie profound yet long unresolved issues. Does the Malaysian constitution recognize, and do the state’s multifarious government instrumentalities respect and are they obliged to uphold, freedom of, from, and also in religion? Long obscured, that question is now before the courts. Civil, not religious, court judges will have to decide whether, in cases from actions against Sky Kingdom followers, people are first of all citizens and only then Muslims, or whether, in the “special” case of citizens from the majority population, they are in the first instance Muslims and only, subsequent to that, also citizens. The religious authorities understandably take the latter view; but presumably the view of the constitution, its laws, and its courts is, or ought to be, the former.

Will the judges see things that way and have the courage to say so? How far might any decision they make be appealed? And what will be the implications of the ultimate decision, whatever it may be, for one of Dr. Mahathir’s most fateful yet ill-advised innovations: his decision, via a constitutional amendment in 1988, to raise the status of the shari’a courts (and so, it was hoped, enhance his own standing in the eyes of Islamists eager for further state-mandating of Islam) to a “co-equal” status with the civil law courts, and so to make their decisions, in their own area of jurisdiction, unappealable in, and irreversible by action of, the civil court system?

Interesting times lie ahead, not least because faith itself, or rather the government’s ambiguous and even vacillating management of it, is now arguably on trial.

Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor, School of Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney. He has been researching and writing on Malaysian affairs, especially on Islam and Politics for more than 35 years. This article first appeared in Aliran Monthly, vol 25 no 9.