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Religion and Politics in Malayisa PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay Safi   
Dec 02, 2000 at 07:00 PM

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, the famous Andalusian Muslim mystic and scholar who lived in the fifth century of the Islamic era, the twelfth century of the Christian era, wrote the following statement in his voluminous work, Al-Futuhat al Makkiyyah [Makkan Insights]:

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, the famous Andalusian Muslim mystic and scholar who lived in the fifth century of the Islamic era, the twelfth century of the Christian era, wrote the following statement in his voluminous work, Al-Futuhat al Makkiyyah [Makkan Insights]:

None of the conceptual knowledge is acquired by pure reason. For acquired knowledge is but relating one concept to another. Indeed, relating [one concept to another] is in itself a conceptual knowledge. Therefore when it appears that acquired knowledge is conceptual, this is because when one understands the meaning of a coined term, one must already be familiar with the referent of the term. When one inquire about a term whose meaning is not apparent, a satisfying answer must relate the term to something known [to the inquirer]. The inquirer will fail to understand the meaning if the term cannot at all be related to something already familiar. It follows that all meaning must be first internal, before it becomes luminous bit by bit.

The above statement points to, among other things, one important dimension of knowing and understanding, viz. that understanding the meaning of a term presupposes an experience of sorts of the object to which the term refers. The relationship between knowledge and experience gives rise to a series of questions with regard to understanding the two grand concepts of “religion” and “politics”, and the way one relates to the other.

In the light of the above statement about knowledge one should ask: Can a person who has never had to endure poverty appreciate the pain of deprivation? Can an honorable person understand treason? Can an honest individual understand wickedness? Can a child understand sexuality? Can a living human being understand death? Can a person who has never experienced affection understand the meaning of compassion? Can a self-righteous community ever recognize the equal freedom of others? Can a people who never fought tyranny understand the meaning of democracy?

What I am referring to above is not simply the problem of incommensurability among different worldviews, but the issue of process and maturation as well? Can a person mature without going through adolescence? Is interdependence possible prior to independence? Can there be a true unity prior to plurality?

I am not suggesting here that Muslims and Westerners cannot understand each other without sharing an identical consciousness. Nor am I claiming that Muslim Society must arrive at political participation or economic development by emulating Western experience. I am rather saying: terms such as religion, state, and politics are not fully interchangeable across cultures and civilizations, and that misunderstanding results from extrapolating one’s experience across cultures. I am also saying that superimposing the experience of a historically determined being on another—be it an individual or a culture—is bound to stifle or even destroy the latter’s chance to develop and mature.

In addressing the issue of Religion and Politics in Malaysia, I first explore briefly, and in general terms, the meaning and interplay of the two. I then examine the consequences of superimposing modern structures on traditional consciousness within the context of Malaysian. I finally analyze both the significance and limitations of leadership in social reform.


Although a deep understanding of the interaction between the political and religious spheres requires a systematic and elaborate examination of their meaning, I will limit my analysis to delineating their boundaries and identifying few areas of friction between the two.

Religion refers to those aspects of life that relate to the determination of the total meaning of existence. It is concerned, in particular, with three grand questions about human existence: its origin, its purpose, and its destiny. Although the above three questions can be raised from a philosophical point of view, the religious response to them is distinguished from the philosophical by the degree of conviction one enjoys over the other. That is to say, religious conclusions with regard to the above grand questions are not only supported by rational arguments, but by emotional attachment as well. This difference gives religion an advantage over philosophy in that it makes religiously based convictions a better spring for action. It is a fact of history that peoples with deep religious conviction are willing to endure greater difficulties and make greater sacrifices in pursuit of their religious ideals than those whose attachment to their ideals is based on purely rational demonstration.

Paradoxically, though, religion’s source of strength is also its source of weakness. For it is always easier to dissuade people from erroneous convictions when the latter are based on theoretical arguments rather than religious convictions. And while shared religious conviction can create more harmony in the public sphere, the possibility of interpersonal and inter-communal conflicts are bound to increase in multi-religious societies.

The question we need to address hear is not whether religion and politics stand in conflictual or harmonious relationship, but rather how and under what conditions religious commitment can strengthen and improve the quality of social life?


Politics is about organizing the public sphere, i.e. regulating actions and deciding direction. As such both the convictions and interests of a people influence public regulations. In its drive to develop a social order in which religion and politics strengthen each other without suppressing individuality and creativity, Europe went through two interrelated processes:  religious reformation and secularization.  Reformation involved a struggle to liberate the individual from the control of religious authorities, viz. the Catholic Church. Secularization involved the liberation of the state from control by particular religious groups, to ensure that public policy is based on rational arguments, rather than religious injunctions.

But while religion ceased to have a visible influence in the public sphere, it continued to be an important force in shaping public policy and public life. This is true because rational arguments about the nature of pubic order have to start from a transcendental understanding of the meaning of public life and social interaction. The notions of right and wrong, good and evil, and the tolerable and the intolerable are the result of both religious conviction and political compromise.

It is important to realize that secularization is multi-faceted phenomenon. One facet of secularization, and the one that was initially intended by its early advocates, is the separation of state and church. But because it was achieved by negating history and tradition, it gradually led to the “death of God” in Western society by the turn of the 20th century, and to the "death of man" at the dawn of the 21st century. The secularism of the post-modern age is ruled by the ideas of self-interest, self-indulgence, and excess.


In the Muslim world, the relationship between religion and politics has not been articulated in a clear and un-ambiguous terms, but is still a matter of experimentation and debate. Historically, Muslim political order was established by a community that rejected the idea of conferring any religious status on the head of the state and political authorities. Political succession was based on a notion of choice (ikhtiyar), but this was later transformed into a de facto domination by powerful clans beginning with the Umayyads. This prompted Muslim scholars to limit state power to the realm of defense and maintaining intercommunal order.

The rise and expansion of the West has created a novel situation in Muslim society. Modern political ideas have displaced traditional views of politics. This ironically has not generated modern political practices and institutions in the Muslim world. Democracy, constitutionalism, and the rule of law are no more than a show, a political façade. The roots of the problem can better be understood when one realizes that modern political structures are superimposed on an intrinsically traditional political culture.


Malaysia gives us a good glimpse to the complexity of religion-politics interplay in contemporary Muslim society. Malaysia gained independence from the British rule after almost two centuries of uninterrupted colonial rule. The independence was negotiated by Malay bureaucrats who were groomed within the British colonial administration. The new political elites presided over a multi-religious and multi-ethnic population that was artificially created by the British commercial interests. The Malay resistance to the British colonial power took the form of quiet and peaceful withdrawal of cooperation, refusing to work for British plantations and mining. The British administration retaliated by importing foreign workers from Southern India and China.

The anti-British movement was led by Malayan National Party (MNP), established in 1945 and later became known as Partai Al-Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), and its rival UMNO (the United Malay National Organization), founded a year later in 1946. Anti-British sentiments were sparked by, among others, the growing economic power and influence of ethnic Chinese under the British rule. In the course of reasserting the Malay rights and interests the two parties were confronted with the question of “who is a Malay?” Whereas UMNO chose race, language, and custom as the criteria of Malayness, MNP opted for the criteria of religion, race, and language. The choice of Islam as a fundamental criterion for Malayness set MNP apart from UMNO, and soon became a defining element in the evolution of its identity. MNP twice changed its name before settling with its current one. The Party was renamed Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP) in 1951, and again Party Al-Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) in 1973. The adoption of a Malay name was meant to underscore its commitment to replacing the English with Bahasa Malayu, the Malaysian language, as the official language of the country.

Indeed, Islam and its impact on Malay identity and future have been the overriding question confronting Malaysian Muslims. The question may be stated thus: How can the Muslim community develop without giving up its Islamic identity and character? The way PAS and UMNO answer the above question set them apart. UMNO’s answer often comes at the side of attaining economic power and strength. UMNO’s position has been articulated by its president, Mahathir Mohammad, who argues that the only way for the Malay to maintain their distinct Islamic lifestyle is by attaining economic power. PAS leaders, on the other hand, insist that the development agenda advanced by UMNO is gradually eradicating the Islamic core of the Malay.

A stumbling block in the face of PAS’s efforts to promote a distinctively Islamic agenda has been its failure to relate Islamic precepts to modern life. PAS, for instance, has repeatedly failed to articulate a model for inter-religious cooperation in the context of the multi-religious and multi-cultural Malaysian society. Its cynical manipulation of Malay-Chinese cooperation for electoral gains is a case in point. PAS’s failure to relate the universalistic vision of Islam to its sociopolitical situation has alienated the non-Muslim communities and strained its relationship with Chinese-based political parties. PAS’s parochialism and its inability to forge a working relationship with non-Malay political parties continue to be a stumbling block in its efforts to gain wider support among the Malaysian electorate, both Malay and non-Malay.


A creative synthesis between UMNO and PAS came to the fore in 1971 through the formation of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, better known by its Malay acronym ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia). ABIM, established by Anwar Ibrahim along with a group of university graduates, advanced a vision of an Islamic society that combines scientific and technological efficacy with Islamic values. ABIM attracted many educated Muslim Malaysians who were eager to develop themselves, their country and community, without sacrificing their Islamic identity.  Between 1971 and 1981 ABIM grew rapidly to become a power to be reckoned with, partially due to its non-political status at a time of state intolerance toward Islamic political organizations, and partially due to the charismatic and dynamic character of Anwar Ibrahim who served as its president from 1972 to 1982.  It is estimated that the movement grew from about nine thousand in 1972 to thirty five thousand by 1980. Anwar’s resignation from ABIM in 1982 to run for public office under the banner of UMNO rather than PAS, through the movement into disarray, took the steam out of it, and practically put an end to its rapid growth.

All through ABIM has been nonpolitical only in the sense of not contesting for public office. In practice, though, it exerted tremendous political influence and was able under the leadership of Anwar to place great pressure on the government and to some extent influence the shaping of public policy.  ABIM’s commitment to the Islamic principle of enjoining the right and fighting evil and corruption led it into a head on collision with UMNO. The climax of ABIM’s political activism came in late 1970s when the organization, under the leadership of Anwar, rallied in support of the poor Malay farmers in the state of perlis, against the government’s plan to force them out of their land without offering adequate compensation.  Anwar was arrested and spent the next two years in prison under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) which permits the police to detain persons accused of endangering national security up to two years without trial.

The Islamic movement has been an essential force in the development of Malaysian society. PAS, ABIM, and the array of smaller organizations and groups have been actively involved in molding social values and attitudes, and shaping public institutions and policies. Islamic organizations and groups have been, however, reacting to policies and actions taken by UMNO leaders rather than playing a proactive role. The posture adopted by Islamic groups is very often apologetic, aimed a mitigating the negative influences of the developmental policies promoted by the government, rather than advancing an alternative developmental vision of their own.

But while Islamic groups in Malaysia have not succeeded so far in advancing concrete and sufficiently detailed proposals for the realization of the Islamic ideals they advocate, their emphasis on empowering the poor and the disadvantaged, and their vigilance against economic and political corruption, have helped curtail unscrupulous behavior.


The question of whether socio-historical reform is effected by individuals or collectivities, heroes or traditions, creative actions or inherited conditions is perhaps the most intriguing question for historians. I personally do think that the answer to this question should take the form of and/or, rather than either/or.

A close examination of the visions and struggles of Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Muhammad underscores the difficulties facing Islamic reform, and points out to the limit of the courageous and creative act of leadership in attaining profound political reform in the absence of a critical mass of people who share the courage and creativity of outstanding leaders.

Anwar’s influence on Malaysian politics in general, and the shaping of the Malaysian Islamic movement in particular, is quite profound. Through his work with ABIM, Anwar was able to bring direction and vigor to the Islamic movement and to broaden the aims and concerns of its leaders. His resignation from ABIM in 1982 to contest in the national elections on an UMNO ticket led to the reorientation of the two major Malay political parties, UMNO and PAS. PAS underwent a profound change under the leadership of two of Anwar’s former lieutenants, Fadil Nor and Hadi Awang. Fadil and Hadi left ABIM in 1982 to join PAS shortly after Anwar embraced UMNO. Many Malaysian Islamists were troubled by Anwar’s move to join a party they all despised for tolerating political kickbacks and corruption, and for prosecuting Islamically-oriented groups.

Anwar’s joining of UMNO created a new political atmosphere in Malaysia, reducing the tension between the ruling party and the Islamic opposition. The new atmosphere further invigorated Islamic programs and activities, and turned the government into an active participant in a series of programs that were intended to bring Islamic values to bear on public policy. In early 1983, Mahathir Muhammad’s government embraced over fifteen Islamic programs, including the founding of an International Islamic University, an Islamic Bank, and Shari’ah courts

Anwar’s joining of the Malay ruling party, and his rapid rise within its ranks has brought a period of détente between the government and the Islamic opposition, and created a significant political space for the latter. Even the Islamic Party leaders, who were ardent critics of Anwar siding with UMNO, realized the gravity of the loss they had incurred as a result of his sacking, and put their full weight behind him. It is quite apparent that the Islamic movement in Malaysia has suffered a tremendous setback.

 Mahathir has contributed positively to the economic development of his country, and succeeded in building self-confidence and a “can do” attitude among his people. But in his zeal to instill self-discipline and accelerate progress, he managed to eradicate the political power of his rivals and critics, often resorting to questionable means. In the process he not only weakened the constitutional and legal foundation of Malaysia’s political institutions, but even succeeded in subordinating the judiciary to his office. He forced, for instance, the resignation of Malaya Chief Justice Yahya Saleh because the latter refused to dance to the political tone of Mahathir’s government. The latest sacking of his deputy was intended to guarantee that no one should dare to oppose his decisions and policies. Few people with authentic values and independent minds remain in the government today. Undoubtedly, this has dire consequences for the post-Mahathir era.

Although both Mahathir and Anwar are committed to the modernization and development of Malaysian society, they differ drastically in their developmental visions and leadership styles. Mahathir has been all along committed to creating a Malay business elite that can compete with the Malaysian Chinese flourishing business community, and has insisted that Muslims must modernize quickly to catch up with the industrialized world. To do that he has relied on a core group of ambitious technocrats and business oriented individuals. In his push to achieve rapid development of the Malay community, Mahathir has been willing to use all means in his disposal to eliminate, even crush, those who stand in his way. He has also been willing to overlook unethical and corrupt practices of party supporters so long as they do not go out of hand and become news headlines.

Anwar, on the other hand, pays more attention to moral practices, and has emphasized the need to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich, and to ensure that the pace of technological and economic development does not exceed the country’s capacity to maintain smooth social development, so as to avoid erosion in the moral and social fabric of society.

It seems that for now Mahathir’s vision has prevailed, albeit at an exceedingly high social and political price. But it might well be that the triumph of Mahathir’s vision is only temporary, since it took an extra ordinary tour de force to achieve it. A vision that resorts to deception and the use of force to suppress its rivals is indeed a bankrupt vision.


Malaysia provides us with a fascinating case study for understanding the struggle of contemporary Islam to reform historical distortions inflicting Muslim cultures, to relate Islamic values and ethos to modern setting, and to overcome challenges posed by a globalizing modernity. The future of the Islamic movement in Malaysia hinges on its ability to creatively reapply the intrinsic values of Islam and its willingness to do away with traditional cultural modes. It also hinges on its ability to overcome the parochial expressions of Islam and its use as a rallying cry to advance the interests of Muslims. Islam’s balanced representation of man and society can potentially reach far beyond its current boarders, but for this to happen its values must be expressed in universal terms. Given the multicultural and multi-religious nature of Malaysian society, the Islamic movement of Malaysia would ill-afford to ignore that.


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