From Malaysiakini (The Other Malaysia), Sept 2 2000
How 'Secularism' became a dirty word in Malaysia
By Farish A. Noor
It is undeniable that 'Secularism' has now become a dirty word in Malaysia. Even
a cursory overview of the many vernacular Malay websites that operate in
cyberspace would show that 'Secularism' has now been equated with corruption,
materialism, greed, abuse of power and Godlessness itself. Further proof to
substantiate this claim can easily be found by going through much of the
vernacular Malay media. In magazines, cassettes, videos and VCDs we come across
an veritable army of Islamist thinkers who regularly condemn secularism per se
as something that is intrinsically evil and un-Islamic.
It was not always like this. There was once an other Malaysia where politicians,
academics, journalists, activists and laymen alike had a more nuanced and
sophisticated understanding of what secularism means. The 1960s and 1970s was a
time when even the Islamists of the opposition were fighting for causes that
could only be described as worldly and firmly located in the profane world of
the here-and-now. Secular concerns like nationalism, the politics of race and
nationhood, economic parity, development, language and identity were the key
causes that were fought for and defended then.
All of that changed when a new tide of religious consciousness began to sweep
the country during the early 1970s. As the mood in the universities began to
change and there came to the fore a new generation of Malay-Muslim Islamists,
new themes and values were projected to the fore and they became the new
rallying points in an increasingly contested political and discursive terrain.
Seemingly out of the blue, a new Islamist political vocabulary was introduced,
which effectively carved up a new discursive arena with its own set of cardinal
values and political frontiers. Islamist movements began to work towards the
Islamisation of Malaysian society, guided by their own understanding of the
irreconcilable differences between Islam and Secularism. Later the 1980s
witnessed an escalation of this conflict as a new generation of Islamist
activists came to the fore in the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS, led by the
firebrand ideologue Ustaz Haji Yusuf Rawa.
Faced with this renewed challenge from the Islamist opposition and social
movements, the Malaysian government and institutions of State tried its best to
out-manoeuvre the Islamists by joining in the race towards Islamisation as well.
Malaysia re-oriented its foreign policy towards the Islamic world. The
ostensibly secular developmental agenda was slowly eclipsed by the agenda of
social change, development and renewal in the name of religion. These shifts in
policy contributed to the inflation of religio-political discourse in the
country. The 1980s and 1990s therefore became known as the decades of
Islamisation, when the UMNO-led government was going all-out to prove to its own
Malay-Muslim constituency that it was just as committed to Islam as its
political rivals in PAS, ABIM and Darul Arqam.
This race for Islamisation came to its untimely end when the economic crisis of
1997 struck. By then the Malaysian public could no longer believe that the
so-called Asian 'economic miracle' was due to any miraculous powers latent in
the Malaysian people themselves. The political crisis that ripped apart the UMNO
party during the following year led to the expulsion of the Deputy Prime
Minister Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the immediate loss of UMNO's own Islamist
credentials. Today, as a result of this massive drain of credibility, the
UMNO-led government seems bent on trying to polish its tainted image of a party
that once stood for Malay-Muslim interests.
Caught between a resurgent Islamist opposition led by the Islamists of PAS and
ABIM, and its own nationalist agenda which seems to have lost its appeal to the
electorate, UMNO is now looking for a new language and political discourse to
call its own. Aware of the fact that it cannot go overboard in its attempts to
out-Islamise PAS (for fear of losing foreign investment and thereby jeopardising
the future) UMNO knows that its range of choices are limited.
But how did this come about? How did Malaysia come to this, and why is it that
we can no longer turn to a secular alternative to development and government?
The treason of the intellectuals.
That Malaysia has joined the list of Muslim countries where 'Secularism' is
regarded as a term of abuse is something that many of us could have predicted
with the advantage of hindsight. Malaysia is not the first to go down this path.
Other developed Muslim countries have experienced this slide towards the
theocentric Islamist register as well.
There are of course a number of important reasons why this change has taken
place. One of the more important factors has to be the role played (or perhaps
not played) by the vernacular intelligentsia itself.
The failure of the secular developmental paradigm is clear in North Africa in
particular. Those who know the history of the contemporary Muslim world will
know that countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria were once
regarded as the models of development for the rest of the Islamic world. So
great was the image and reputation of Muslim leaders like Gammel Nasser of Egypt
that even the leader of PAS, Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy, once said that Egypt was
the 'model state' for the rest of the Muslim world to follow. This was in the
mid-50s when Egypt seemed to be the living embodiment of political Islam at work
and Gammel Nasser the man of the hour who seemed to be able to reconcile the
needs of Islam and that of modern development.
All this came to pass in the decades that followed, as the vernacular
intellectuals of these societies abandoned the space of Islamist discourse and
concentrated their efforts on other pressing needs such as development,
economics, finance and international relations. North Africa produced some of
the brightest minds in the Muslim world then. Arab intellectuals like Franz
Fanon wrote at length about the politics of neo-colonialism and global dominance
and the need for a new paradigm of development in the South. There were major
political, economic and cultural projects and enterprises such as the ill-fated
Bank of Egypt that tried to break a new path in the world of international
banking and finance. Pacts and coalitions between the Arab states were built in
a spirit of solidarity and common purpose.
But while all this was happening, the intellectuals of these North African
states had neglected one vital component- Islam. By abandoning the space of
Islamic discourse they had effectively allowed it to come under the domination
and control of the local Islamist leaders and clerical groups. As the local
Ulama of these societies gained control of the space of Islamist discourse, the
response of the Arab intellectuals was both condescending and
counter-productive: They dismissed religion as a thing of the past and regarded
it as the exclusive purview of village elders and clerics, in the same way that
Islamist discourse in Malaysia during the 1950s and early 1960s was regarded as
a 'folk religion' fit only for the 'lebai kampung' and 'imam kolot'.
In time, however, the secular developmental model of the Arab elites failed.
After a series of political and strategic blunders such as the failure of the
Arab states during the Six-Day War against Israel, the Arab people were
demoralised and disillusioned. Into this void came the religious functionaries
who provided them with renewed faith and conviction, but all based on
mythological constructions of some 'Golden Age' of Islam.
So if the vernacular Islamist thinkers and leaders were able to take over the
discursive space left vacant by the intellectuals, technocrats and educators of
the Arab world, much of the blame lies on the shoulders of the latter and not
the former. It was the treason of the intellectuals that left the ground open
for the rise of the radical Islamists in their midst.
But this alone cannot explain the rise of political Islam in the Arab world or
even Malaysia. Another important factor needs to be borne in mind, which is the
failure of the secular developmental model itself, thanks to its abuse at the
hands of secularising elites and governments.
Secular development and the conceits of power.
Much of the literature and pedagogic material produced by the Islamist leaders
and thinkers today is filled with references to their enemies. Chief among those
who are regarded as the 'enemies of Islam' are the Turkist nationalist Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk and the Shah of Iran. In the Malaysian context, the Malaysian
Prime Minister has also been added to this infamous list of un-Islamic and
The fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the Shah of Iran figure so prominently
in Islamist rhetoric and propaganda is not at all surprising considering their
persecution of the Islamists in their own countries. Both Kemal Ataturk and the
Shah of Iran made their fair share of enemies by attacking the leaders of the
Islamist movement and prominent Islamist thinkers during their time. Kemal
Ataturk's attempt to secularise Turkey by all means necessary led to a top-down
process of modernisation in the guise of Westernisation that ultimately
alienated him from his own people. The Shah of Iran and his father went even
further. In his attempt to ban the Muslim turban and force Iranians to wear the
Pahlavi cap (dubbed modern and progressive by the Pahlavi regime), recalcitrant
Iranians were arrested and forced to adapt to the new mode of dress. Those who
refused were tied up in public and the cap was nailed on their heads.
These cases of abuse and oppression were, of course, extreme examples of
secularisation and modernisation that contributed to the stigma around modernity
and secularism in the long run. The fact that in so many Muslim countries today
the concept and value of 'Secularism' itself has been so thoroughly discredited
is largely due to the fact that the process of introducing and imposing modern,
secular values has been harsh, brutal and not at all in keeping with the spirit
of humanism inherent in the modern project itself.
This, then, is the fundamental contradiction that lies in the modern secular
project of many contemporary Muslim societies. In many Muslim countries, the
process of modernisation and secularisation has been accompanied by the creation
of highly authoritarian, undemocratic and even corrupt regimes. The modernising
elites of the Muslim countries argued that secular modernisation was necessary
in order for the Muslim world to keep up with the West- but ironically their own
models of modernisation was essentially Western in appearance and flavour. The
elites were also guilty of selecting the worst elements of modernity in their
drive towards development: In Turkey, Egypt and Iran, the ruling elite chose to
emulate the decadent lifestyle of the West rather than the democratic and
emancipating promises of Modernity itself. They imported instruments of
repression and control, domination and torture instead of modern methods of
education, social welfare and development. This lopsided form of development led
to the creation of uneven societies that were inherently unstable and
The contradiction lies in the fact that in many of the cases mentioned above,
the governments of Muslim states have sought to develop their economies and
societies at the cost of fundamental human rights, cultural rights, transparency
and accountability (all values that happen to be fundamental in Islam as it is
in the modern project itself). In due course, a chain of equivalences is made:
the population equates corruption, abuse of power, greed, authoritarianism and
the other attendant vices of their governments with the agenda for secular
development itself. In time the failure of the developmental model in much of
North Africa, the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia led to
many Muslims questioning the value of modernity and secular development itself.
It only takes the Islamist ideologue to come into the picture to reject both the
unpopular government with the secular developmental agenda as well.
The crisis that Malaysia faces today is therefore a highly complex one where
many variable factors are at work. It is easy to see that what the Muslim world
needs now more than ever is a renewed attempt to develop their economies, public
institutions and societies. More than ever, there is the urgent need to return
to the secular developmental agenda of the 1950s and 1960s. But how can this be
achieved if the concept of secular, worldly development itself has been so badly
discredited thanks to the vices and misdemeanours of the ruling elite? As long
as Muslims see 'secular development' in terms of vices and injustice, the hope
for renewal seem dim indeed.
This, then, is how 'Secularism' has become a dirty word in Malaysia as it has in
many other parts of the contemporary Muslim world. What began as a cherished
goal for many has been reduced to the fantasy of a few and the loathing of the