Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Islamic Republic of Malaysia?

Visits to Malaysia are always enjoyable. My recent visit to Kuala Lumpur (KL) was no exception. Food is high-quality, the nightlife vibrant, people friendly and the infrastructure is world class.

An uncommon combination of characteristics, especially difficult to find in a developing nation.

Malaysia is a special place for me. The country provides a ray of hope that a (majority) Muslim country can internalize modernity and adapt to a 'twentieth century way of life' which is in consonance with its religious beliefs. It reinforces the notion that Islam does not have to be hijacked by extreme reactionaries who are opposed to modernity. The same reactionaries who tend to 'pseudo-intellectualize' their opposition to change via obscurantist reasoning.

Reactionaries whose authority and ability to interpret Islamic thought seems to rest only on the length of their beard.

Make no mistake; Malay-Muslims are typically religiously conservative. Islamic scholars and pious people have always been respected within the Malay culture.

However, since I first started travelling to KL / Malaysia in 2001, I have noticed several subtle changes over the years. Visible forms of religiosity among the Malays have increased. A slow but perceptible 'Islamization' of Malaysian society seems to be taking root.

Two of Malaysia's thirteen member states are now ruled by the Islamic opposition party. In these states the trappings of secular rule are slowly disappearing.

Pause to consider some of the intellectual debates that have recently captivated the country. Is the practice of yoga by Muslims un-Islamic? In the opposition ruled states, the deliberations are more indicative of Iran or Saudi Arabia than Malaysia. Is it permissible for females to wear make-up? Can they wear shoes with high heels that may attract attention by making a noise when they walk?

UMNO, the traditional ruling party in Malaysia, is even talking to the Islamists about joining hands in a coalition. (UMNO is a broad multi-party coalition which has ruled Malaysia since 1957, the year the country won its independence from Britain.) Such (controversial) coalition talks show how far the Islamists have penetrated the political mainstream.

The goal posts of political debate have shifted decidedly to the right and in favour of the Islamists.

To be fair, Malaysia benefits considerably from its 'Islamic Connection' in many ways.

Tourism links between the Arab world and Malaysia have increased dramatically in years following 9/11. Visitor numbers from the Gulf countries are noticeably higher. Flights between KL and major Arab cities are plentiful. (See also my blog entry entitled '9/11, Malaysia, Tourism and Islam' of July 17, 2009.)

Business links have also thrived. Arab capital has poured into Malaysia. The new trend is best represented by financial firms like the Saudi Al-Rajhi Bank trying to establish a retail presence in Malaysia. Walk around prime areas in KL and you will almost certainly come across a spanking new Al-Rajhi branch, complete with Arabic livery.

KL has successfully established itself as an international center for Islamic finance. Malaysia is a pivotal player in the development of Islamic financial instruments and institutions. KL is a mandatory stop for any road show peddling Islamic bonds.

As Islam wrestles with the many internal contradictions created by governing ideologies that range from the rigid Turkish secularism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to the stern Shariah implemented by Saudi Arabia, Malaysia cannot be ignored. Surely, it has issues concerning the allocation of economic resources among minority groups, about the role of English in its society, but it is a relatively peaceful and affluent society. A fact which, sadly but arguably, makes it a successful nation in today's Islamic world.

If an Islamic society is about providing an enabling and positive environment for believers and unbelievers unlike, then one can do much worse than looking to an Asian Tiger for a few of the answers.

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