Politics and Islamization in Malaysia


by Claudia Derichs



The ruling party in Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has set up a website showing the party’s various jihad efforts. The mere act of setting up such a website - regardless of its contents - reveals much about the competition in “being more Islamic than thou” in the country these days. Since it is primarily political parties who are the protagonists in this competition, one can guess that Islamization in Malaysia has become a highly political issue rather than a straight outcome of Islamic social movements.


It cannot be denied though that there is an underlying societal demand for stronger Islamic commitments from Malay politicians. The term “Malay” should be stressed in this context, because it is primarily the ethnic Malays (55% of the Malaysian population) who are considered the Muslims in the country. Among the other ethnic groups – Chinese (30%), Indians (7%) and other indigenous peoples - Muslims form a minority. A Malay is defined by the Malaysian Constitution as a follower of the religion of Islam, and since political power is in the hands of the Malays, Islam has been declared Malaysia’s official religion. The ethnic constellation and the fact that the government prefers a soft authoritarian type of rule to a liberal democracy, has led to an interesting formation of coalitions and competing groups. The semantics of Islam have transcended the aura of Malaysia’s mosques, suraus, and private Muslim spaces and entered the realm of the political public as a whole. The reader may judge whether Malaysia is undergoing the politicization of Islam or the Islamization of politics.


So, why is UMNO carrying out a jihad? The first time the term caught my eye (when used by the ruling party) was in August 2000. While doing field research in Malaysia, a headline in the (government-friendly) mainstream newspaper The Star struck me. The headline blamed the Islamic Party (PAS) for committing a disservice to Muslims with its jihad.[1] In the accompanying column, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was quoted as complaining that what PAS members were carrying out was not a holy war but activities which would split the (Malay) community. On the other hand, UMNO’s struggle could be considered a real jihad   since it was “more structured and long term in nature, and aimed at developing both the country and empowering the community with the latest knowledge and skills to ensure that Muslims were respected by others.” (The Star, 12 August 2000) The confrontation, one can assume by now, takes place between the two parties UMNO and PAS, and the reason for hoisting the battle flag is the fear of disunity among the Malay community. A disunited Malay community poses a potential threat to political stability and hence to the balance of ethnic power relations. The question arises as to why many members of the Malay Muslim community, who used to vote overwhelmingly for UMNO, have suddenly switched to supporting the Islamic Party.


The change of tide is due to recent domestic developments which have affected the Muslim as well as the non-Muslim public. The sacking of and verdict pronounced on former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim provoked a huge cry of indignation. When Anwar was co-opted into UMNO in 1982, he was regarded in the country as an extraordinarily charismatic leader of the Islamic Youth Movement ABIM. The Prime Minister (Mahathir Mohamad) could not involve himself too much into Islamic affairs, for he had to mediate between a commitment to the plural society as prescribed in the constitution, and the commitment to Malay-Islamic interests as expected by the Malay voters. It was thus logical and beneficial to co-opt somebody whose Islamic credentials stood beyond question. Since Anwar had been educated and influenced by the respected Islamic scholar Syed Naguib al-Attas, his bias towards the internationally initiated project called the Islamisation of Knowledge had become strong. Al-Attas had founded the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), one of several research institutes established with Mahathir’s consent to promote modern Islam in Malaysia. Accompanying this new Islamic awareness was an appreciation of Islam as a way of life, as a comprehensive system and model of behavior, not merely as a religion, let alone an old-fashioned orthodox religion. A whole generation of Malay entrepreneurs, privileged by the Malaysian version of an affirmative action policy in favor of the Malay community, associated entrepreneurial skill and economic success with the behavior of true and good Muslims (Sloane 1999). Within such a political and social mood and atmosphere, Muslim youth leader Anwar could be integrated perfectly into the program of modernization and Islamization the Malaysian government sought to carry out. Until Anwar’s sacking in 1998, Mahathir and Anwar seemed to be performing a mutually beneficial political duet. By the time of the mid-1990s then, Malaysia had become considerably Islamized without getting caught in the trap of Islamist extremism. Compared to many Arab and African Muslim states, Malaysia’s Islamization policy appeared to be reform-minded and progressive. It is not difficult to guess that Anwar’s religious and moral convictions included some really popular reformist ideas. In view of the multi-ethnic society in Malaysia, Anwar introduced a model of a civil society which was fully devoted to the acceptance of the diversity of religious traditions. The Malay term chosen for the translation of “civil society” is masyarakat madani, an Arabic term emphasizing that a multi-ethnic nation-state like Malaysia needs civil and societal integration, and at the same time emphasizing Anwar‘s personal affiliation to Islam which has played a pivotal role for his political career.


The core arguments of Anwar‘s vision of the masyarakat madani are embedded in a secularist and democratic framework that will provide for a responsible and accountable civil society – a civil society that is also responsive to the state’s agenda. When Anwar joined UMNO, the dominant point of reference in the state’s agenda was a combination of “Malay” and “Islamic” with a developmentalist orientation. It was urbane, progressive, modernist and democratic in character, and at the same time bound to an Islamic and ethical framework. So the ouster of Anwar from the government and from UMNO is regarded by many until today as a dismissal of all these reformist Islamic and democratic principles. And even worse: Muslim morale has been severely hit by the accusation of Anwar’s sodomy. Malays cried “Shame!” on Prime Minister Mahathir for this accusation – regardless of whether it has any merit - and non-Malays joined in because Anwar had been the most integrative figure of the ethnically heterogeneous society.


The rest is not history, but rather a snowball effect of the events in 1998, when Anwar was ousted from his government post and party membership for not fully comprehensible reasons. As long as UMNO could count on Anwar Ibrahim, he served as the party’s “Islamic conscience”. Putting him into jail for 15 years was seen as the burial of political change embedded in Islamic moral principles. Doing field work in Malaysia two years after this watershed incident makes obvious that change has taken place, but in quite another direction than it was intended in the late 1990s. Observing the scene at public universities, the drastically increased number of female students wearing the tudung (headscarf) and male students wearing the kopiah (skull cap) immediately strikes the eye. Teachers admit that the trend of demonstrating one’s Muslim identity has become popular and that it has become even exceptional for female Malay teachers not to wear the tudung. Campus occasions like annual convocations are accompanied by loud nasyid music, i.e., the Malay version of Islamic pop music, whereas proposals to celebrate the Chinese lantern festival on the campus are turned down by university authorities. The “new juvenile theocracy” at the public universities, as political scientist Farish Noor has dubbed them, mirror the general atmosphere of a rapidly growing Islamic assertiveness and assertion among the Malay populace. In a do-it-yourself manner – instead of letting others like Anwar do it for them – radical Muslims seem to be determined to counterbalance the indecent liberties that are expected to come along with uncensored use of IT and the internet. In a predominantly Malay primary school, new rules on non-halal food have been declared which remind the non-Muslims not to bring in such food during break time. It went to the extent that reminder notes were stuck to the canteen pillars. Conversely, nothing is mentioned when Muslim pupils happily munch their beef sandwiches while sitting next to a class-mate of Hindu-Indian origin.


More such examples of spreading orthodox mood and assertion could be cited, and they all reflect the same phenomenon: the lack of a spiritual rhetoric of politics in order to respond to non-material demands of a society which has become increasingly aware of the arbitrariness of state power in times of crises. When young urban Malays are asked why they are fond of the Islamic party, the reply is that PAS leaders are able to attract the people spiritually - a capability the Prime Minister and his party obviously do not possess in abundance. The physical and material side of development is just one area of people’s demands, hopes and wishes. The other and at least equally important area is spirit and belief. Spiritual inspiration can translate beliefs into action, and for many Malays this is exactly what is required to lead the nation out of its crisis. The attractiveness of an Islamic political rhetoric would by no means be exceptional for the Malaysian case, if it were only Muslims who followed the path. Far more interesting for the external observer is the fact that some non-Muslims appreciate the rhetoric of PAS too, despite some highly provocative remarks of party leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat. Nik Aziz almost regularly draws the attention of the nation and the media towards himself with remarks such as pretty women should not apply for good jobs because they can be married to rich men who are able to care for them, or that women who expose their belly buttons in public must not be surprised when they are raped by men. He does not have to wait long for voices of protest, but still his party enjoys an increasing number of followers and huge audiences wherever PAS leaders talk to the people. The saying goes that UMNO leaders pay the audience for attending a convention, whereas in the case of PAS the audience pays for attending.


But besides the spiritual attractiveness there must be something else that makes even non-Muslims turn to listen to PAS. PAS never talks politics, PAS only talks religion, according to one Malaysian. Like reading between the lines, the political content is transmitted through this rhetoric, and people understand it well. Drastically speaking, about the only places where a fruitful, pluralist political debate can take place are the mosques, suraus, and PAS conventions. For those who want to discuss and want to be informed but do not have access to non-mainstream media, let alone the internet, the mosque is the place to go. Censorship is hardly extendable into the mosques, and if it were to be so, a mass substitution of Imams would have to take place to replace the current ones with exclusively “unpolitical” ones. The humiliating fate of Anwar Ibrahim and the consequent formation of a large opposition movement has given birth to a coalition of forces opposed to the government; and PAS is an important part of it. They call themselves the “Alternative Front” (Barisan Alternatif) and are composed of, among others, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), the multi-ethnic People’s Party (Parti Rakyat Malaysia, PRM) which is preferred by many intellectuals, the National Justice Party (Keadilan) which is led by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and of course PAS. The glue that holds the coalition together is the opposition towards the ruling coalition (of which UMNO is the de facto ruling party), and the struggle for an accountable, transparent, pluralist political system, allowing the participation of civil society in the political process.


Holding such divergent parties together is not an easy task, especially when multi-ethnicity is to a large extent associated with a multi-religious setting. The most logical thing to do for the government camp is thus to take advantage of the internal conflicts in the opposition coalition and to re-unite the Malays under UMNO’s roof. That is why the race for Islamization has begun and why we see the ruling party committing a jihad. It is almost needless to mention that this forms a fertile ground for all sorts of religious-political ideologies to spread, be it in the direction of Islamic radicalism or politically enriched cults and mysticism. On the one hand, the intonation of Islamic identities or lifestyles may be regarded as a denial of the equation civilized = Western, a phenomenon found in Turkey. On the other hand, it takes on a double function of protest. In Turkey as well as in Malaysia, the ruling elite on the national level stands for a largely secular program of modernization. In Turkey, this is stressed by the constitutional commitment to laicism. In Malaysia, the program was propagated as modernization cum reformist Islam. Resistance to this type of modernization – or developmentalism – was especially forthcoming from those who felt betrayed by modernization (the “losers” of modernization). In addition to this resistance, authoritarian government policies serve the articulation of reformist and democratic interests in an Islamic rhetoric in that a pluralist political discourse in the public is repressed. (Note: It is not prohibited to articulate one’s opinion publicly, but the access to mainstream media, hence the chance to address the grassroots level, is sharply limited.) The acceptance of this rhetoric and code of communication reveals itself in the shape of Islamic clothing, lifestyle, and the like. In retrospect, one can also raise the example of Iran, where the Islamic opposition movement presented similar patterns of protest against the Shah regime.


The possibility of articulationg interests in an Islamic rhetoric and the aggregation of these interests through parties, organizations, and networks offers a political opportunity structure which the existing political system does not provide. Functioning as a valve to let out feelings that have been bottled up, non-Muslims can use this opportunity structure as well. In a process of “Islamic lingualization” (R. Schulze’s original German term for it is “islamische Versprachlichung”), a political discourse that lacked public recognition is now brought before a mass audience. By way of a coalition, a symbiosis of reform movement and Islamic movement has evolved. Whether this symbiosis heads for an “exclusive” or an “inclusive” direction, remains to be seen. An exclusive direction would mean that the Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia keep staying widely apart from each other once the goal of toppling the current government is met. This would no doubt add fuel to the fire of those who sternly believe that politics in Malaysia is already excessively polarized along ethnic lines – and they are many. An inclusive direction would mean that the opposition forces will be able to form a viable multi-ethnic coalition. As for the time being, the nation is witness to a competition of the two big Malay parties UMNO and PAS in winning the award of the “more Islamic party”. Sadly enough, the ethnically and culturally integrative and progressive idea of a civil society embedded in an Islamic ethical framework is increasingly marginalized in politically instrumentalized jihads while radical ideologues are increasingly taking advantage of the attractivness of Islamic rhetoric.



Schulze, Reinhard (1996), Die islamische Moderne. In: Ch. Burgmer, ed., Der Islam in der Diskussion (Islam in Discussion). Mainz: Donatha Kinzelbach.

Sloane, Patricia (1999), Islam, Modernity and Entrepreneurship among the Malays. New York, etc: St. Martin’s Press.


Dr Claudia Derichs is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Duisburg, Germany. She conducts research on Japan and Malaysia and is co-editor of a series on Discourses on Political Reform and Democratization in East and Southeast Asia.

[1] Dr M: PAS jihad a disservice to Muslims, The Star, 12 August 2000.