The role and impact of Islam in Malaysian politics
In his latest book, former law minister and current opposition party member Zaid Ibrahim explores the nature of political Islamisation and what it means for Malaysia. Photo: The Star/ Izzrafiq Alias
Assalamualaikum: Observations On The Islamisation Of Malaysia
Zaid Ibrahim is quite a character. Lawyer-turned-government-minister-turned-opposition-party-member, and he had time to head his own political party on top of that. That’s quite a CV. That’s someone worth having a teh tarik with.
For the time being, we have to make do with Assalamualaikum, his latest collection of essays exploring the contradiction between the laws of God and the laws of man in Malaysia. Subtitled “Observations on the Islamisation of Malaysia”, it gives a strong indication which side of the fence he sits on.
As with most books, it starts at the beginning, with a brief history of Islam in Malaysia. He focuses on some history in there, and says that Malaysia has now adopted “political Islam”, influenced by a Saudi Wahhabism style. He then contrasts this with practices and policies in other Muslim countries, some of which would also claim to be Islamic despite also seeming more liberal.
The impact of this politicisation is explored further in the second chapter entitled “Education, culture, economy”. It is a sober (some may say “cynical”) view about what happens when you mix religion and politics, and his points are fired as a broadside. “In Malaysia,” he writes, “Islamisation has been the main cause of the deterioration we have seen in our education standards.”
On the cultural transformation in Malaysia, he bemoans the loss of local cultures and festivals since they have been deemed “not Islamic”. He writes, “(Islamists in Malaysia) think that if Malays can remove all traces of the past and embrace Wahhabism, then their world will be truly Islamic. This is what Pol Pot in Cambodia believed too.”
The third chapter is on Shariah law in Malaysia and its apparent clash with the Federal Constitution. Being a lawyer, he delves into some detail in what he sees as a deterioration of the ideals laid out in the Federal Constitution, aided by the willingness of the courts to bow to their political masters (despite the theoretical separation of powers that exists). He posits that Islam has been used as a political tool, writing “it is clear that in Malaysia, the authorities have the power to use Islam as a means of controlling Muslims”.
By the time we reach the book’s conclusion, he presents a sentiment that could apply to any religion: “Islam is perfect, but humanity is not”.
As it is, this book gives a good overview of the role and impact of Islam in Malaysian politics, even if it is intrinsically biased. Unfortunately, in the same way that the author criticises some Islamists as being broad in their understanding but without much depth, Assalamualaikum doesn’t really give the reader great insight into its issues. Apart from some ideas in the chapter on law, things are just boldly stated and are expected to be taken at face value.
Perhaps this apparent brevity is understandable given that it is a collection of essays that cover many topics quickly. But what is truly unfortunate is that it feels like we have not been given the full benefit of the author’s political experience.
This is somebody who has stood on both sides of the political divide, and was even the Law Minister at one point. He would have been privy to a large number of internal debates on the issues and might even have helped shape policy.
From my experience working on projects involving government agencies, what most people understand of how public policy is formed is almost always wrong. What can seem callous and short-sighted is in fact usually tempered by a hundred factors – pressure from conflicting parties, horse-trading to gain benefits elsewhere, even sometimes just the accident of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Much happens out of view, and Zaid must have seen and argued about issues and policies. But he gives almost none of this away.
And when it comes to answering, “What next?” – when his experience would have counted for the most – he chooses not to say anything except to keep fighting the bad ideas and keep talking about the good ones. Apart from his encouragement to support Parti Amanah Nasional in the very last paragraph, there is nothing concrete about how to move forward.
Perhaps Zaid is silent about this because he feels constrained by decorum. Or the Official Secrets Act. Or because he has taken so many sides and seen so many contradictions, that the only opinion he can give with confidence is his own.
Perhaps this is not the last we will hear from him on the subject. I believe he has the eloquence and knowledge to better explain the state of Muslims in Malaysia than is shown in this book. I’ll happily take that, even if it is over a teh tarik.
Review by Dzof Azmi The Star
Zaid: We can be more moderate
Malaysia can be a Muslim country other Muslims can be proud of but first, that opportunity must be taken.
DATUK Zaid Ibrahim takes on critical questions with his latest book, Assalamualaikum: Observations on the Islamisation of Malaysia.
As promised in the jacket blurb, the former de facto Law Minister explores the nature of political Islamisation, its origins, its chief personalities, how it has grown and what it means for Malaysia.
Instead of introducing the religion’s true moral and ethical frameworks, he writes in the preface, Islamisation proposes “to replace them with harsh criminal punishments for Muslims whom the ulama regard as deviationists. Human rights and dignity suffer as a consequence.”
The founder of the largest law firm in the country told Sunday Star he doesn’t understand, for example, why the Syiah are treated as enemies of Islam and not proper Muslims, although they are allowed to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.
“I don’t remember Islam recognising all these categories,” he says. “A Muslim is a Muslim.”
And in the Quran, he points out, “there are a lot of verses about freedom of expression, which remind people that only God knows best. We must be humble enough to accept we can be in error.”
The only way to have a vibrant Islam is to allow an interflow of ideas, he says, but Muslims in Malaysia are not allowed to give public talks about religion without tauliah approved by the Federal Government.
“Even laws of Parliament can be questioned but you can’t do that with religious authorities,” says the lawyer with over three decades of experience.
And if there’s any action taken by any religious department or the syariah courts or there’s any violation of civil liberties or improper conduct, he adds, “the civil courts will not hear anything about it on the grounds that they have no jurisdiction”.
He lists the reasons cited: Islam is the official religion. Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution provides that jurisdiction of civil and syariah courts is separate. And the Constitution does say that Parliament can limit some of the fundamental liberties.
“Our Federal Court is no longer willing to look at whether those limitations are reasonable,” he adds.
Since Islam is a state matter, every state is allowed to legislate on Islamic matters but, Zaid says, “there is no common definition of what is unIslamic, what is hukum syarak”.
For example, Selangor and Penang have gazetted fatwa that smoking is haram and Selangor, Pahang and Penang have issued fatwa declaring Amanah Saham Bumiputra and Amanah Saham Nasional as haram.
“There is a lack of uniformity and yet these diverse personalities controlling the state can impact on your basic liberties and basic rights,” he says.
“There has to be precision and specific meanings. You cannot say it is whatever the authorities decide, because you also have a duty to protect the Constitution, human rights and dignity.”
Coming from Kelantan, Zaid writes about Puja Umor and Puja Pantai, which were later banned.
“If you want to insulate yourself against extremism and violence like Islamic State’s,” he argues, “you must allow people that freedom to cultivate and base themselves in their culture and tradition.”
He wrote the book, he says, in the hope of encouraging “an Islam which is kind, forgiving, compassionate, wants to live with everyone in peace and cares about the welfare of others and not only personal interest. That should be the guiding force of the country.”
If that kind of Islam shaped the laws, he says, “our laws would then become more open, liberal-minded and more inclined towards encouraging freedom of thought which is what Islam, at least in its golden years, is about”.
But so far, Malaysia has abandoned its chance to showcase a truly Islamic renaissance, Zaid believes.
“We could have built a moderate Muslim country other Muslims could have been proud of, but we have not taken that opportunity.”
By Santha Oorjitham The Star