Some thoughts on state fundamentalism in Malaysia

by Mohamed Imran Taib.

Things are getting bizarre.

Somehow, Ramadan is the preferred month to display more ‘religious neurosis’ in the form of an overdrive to flex one’s position and power as the “guardians of Islam”. Whatever happened to the spirit of Ramadan where one is encouraged to do greater self-introspection and seek peace within through the spiritual exercise of fasting?

Instead, we find more and more browbeating that targets everything, from those who do not observe the fast, to harassing the minority Shi’a community, to threatening Christians against the usage of the word “Allah” to refer to God, and more recently, to anyone who questions a gazetted fatwa as liable to be charged for “insulting Islam”.

In Indonesia, such aggressive behavior will be the primary forte of vigilante groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), known for their famous “sweeping” acts in Ramadan. But who needs the FPI when you have state mechanisms to enforce your zeal to earn the badge of being the “defenders of God” and the “gatekeepers of Islam”?

Such is the tragic consequent of decades of state-led ideology of “Islamization” in Malaysia.

Unfortunately, “Islamization” does not mean infusing Muslims with the sublime and universal values of Islam. Rather, it is a form of marriage between the ruling party UMNO’s desire to maintain power, and the Muslim fundamentalists’ desire to enforce their ideology through a take-over of state mechanisms and institutions.

Democracy compromised

That marriage spells a disaster to development of democracy in Malaysia. State authoritarianism has, ever since, been given a powerful tool to control the masses: religion.

For one can question the state for flawed policies and violations against human rights; but how does one do that when the state enforce or legislate in the name of religion and equates its policies and decisions with “God’s laws”? For ordinary Muslims, legal drafts and bills pertaining to religious life are not enacted by elected parliamentarians through the act of parliament; but are primarily “God’s laws” that cannot and should not be questioned.

It is even more problematic when religious edicts and opinions, or fatwa, are gazetted and enforced via state mechanisms. And this cannot be achieved without the locomotive that drives an entire discourse surrounding the marriage of state and religion in contemporary Muslim societies like Malaysia.

This locomotive is none other than Islamic fundamentalism as a modern ideology that swayed dominantly for the past four to five decades. It is an ideology that emerged from the aftermath of colonialism in the form of a struggle for self-autonomy and self-worth.

It is also a desire to reclaim the ‘glory of Islam’ by identifying everything that does not conform to it as the very anti-thesis of Islam emerging from the bowels of the disbelievers. In everyday language, this will be essentialised as “the West”, “the secular” and “the liberal”, with all its attendant negative verbs.

Fundamental ingredients 

Three ingredients seemed necessary in the cooking pot of fundamentalist ideology.

First, is the idea of Islam as ad-deen. It is not enough to define Islam as a religion; it is a total system that is syumul (complete). Islam as ad-deen is Islam as a ‘way of life’.

As such, one must conform to the totality of Islam by re-enacting it in all spheres of life, including politics, economics and social life.

Second, is the famous dictum of al-Islam huwa al-hal (Islam is the solution). If Islam is a total system governing all aspects of human life and based on God’s Will, then it cannot be other than a solution for the all the malaise of the world today. And that solution, like a dose of medicine, can be dispensed only through control of the most effective form of coercive power: the state.

Third, is the concept of Islam as din wa daula (religion and state). This is the only logical conclusion from the first two dictums. Because religion is total, it must assume state power because religion and politics cannot be separated.

The net effect of such fundamentalist conception of Islam can be none other than a clarion call to assume power in order to implement “Islam” in all spheres of society; hence, “Islamization” as a project for all fundamentalists.

Whether it is necessary to wrest power and implement the Islamization agenda from the top, or to Islamize society first as pre-condition for eventual ascension to power, is mere academic.

And any state that wants to legitimize their existence and consolidate their power in the wake of religious resurgence (primarily driven by fundamentalist agenda) from the period of the 1970s onward, has two options: suppress them or co-opt them.

Indonesia under Suharto chose the former – and spawned a more radical and violent form of fundamentalism that operates underground until the fall of the New Order regime. Malaysia, under Mahathir chose the latter. By bringing them onboard UMNO, the ruling party inadvertently gave the fundamentalists access to state resources.

For UMNO, it is a simple strategy to outdo their opponent Islamic party PAS in establishing its own “Islamic” credentials and muting PAS’ call for an Islamic state: why struggle for an Islamic state when Malaysia is already an Islamic state? And the proof for UMNO’s Islamicity lies in a total shift of state philosophy from a form of constitutionalism based on fundamental liberty and equality of all, to one based on the supremacy of, not just the Malays, but eventually Islam within the construction of a powerful state ideology.

Philosophical roots

But no movement can take root without a primary ideologue. For Malay fundamentalist Muslims, that figure can be no other than Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. It is his vision of the totality of Islam, or what is understood as tassawur Islam (Islamic worldview), that provides the raison d’être for Islamization.

While most would look to the Middle East and Indian subcontinent connections in the works of Hasan al-Banna to Syed Qutb of the Ikhwanul Muslimin and to Abul a’la Maududi of the Jamaat-e Islam, it is al-Attas’ influential treatise Islam and Secularism that seal the marriage between the state and Islamic fundamentalism in Malaysia. If Islam is to be made a basis for Malaysian society, then it is because all else are corrupted. And that process of “re-Islamizing society” (which was stunted as a result of colonialism), must begin from the process of “de-secularization”. In less than 200 pages, al-Attas discredited the entire Western civilisation in the most essentialist manner, and drove the death knell to what has been the foundational idea of modern political thought: secularism. From then on, “the West” and “the secular” entered the Malay lexicon as diseases. For any attempt to question, to rethink and to reform, will be akin to adopting a “Western” and hence, “corrupt” worldview that eventually leads to the loss of adab. Adab here would mean one who knows his proper position within the hierarchy of knowledge. Anyone, thus, without a proper “Islamic worldview” trying to guide or rule society will be adding to the state of corruption, or loss of adab.

While al-Attas himself will not condone everything that the ruling party does in the name of Islam, he has inadvertently given them an arrogant justification for authoritarianism that can now dispense with an egalitarian vision of society. This, is the beginning of what we can now term as state fundamentalism.

Too late? 

Today, the growing inter-religious and intra-religious tensions are products of this state fundamentalism. From the religious bureaucrats confiscating books and hunting down “heresies”, to vocal and loud Islamic groups baying for blood in the name of “protecting the sanctity of Islam” – these are none other than the children of the marriage between state authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism.

For Malaysia, the way out of this conundrum is none other than to reinstitute the idea of “secularism”. Not in the sense of separating religion and politics (for this is neither possible nor desirable), but separating state and religion.

This has been the project of liberal Muslims from the time of Ali Abd al-Razziq with his Islam as “a religion, not a state; a message, not a government” in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century, to Nurcholish Madjid with his “Islam, yes; Islamic party, no” in Indonesia in the late 1970s.

What the fundamentalists fear from such a project is not so much of the idea of liberal Muslims trying to “secularize Islam”, but rather, of the case of them “Islamizing secularism”.

For if the latter took root in the religious imagination of the ordinary Muslim public, it will spell the end of Islamic fundamentalism as an attractive ideology. For there can be an alternative to fundamentalism. And it will be an alternative that will be equally committed to uplifting Muslim dignity in society but without having to adopt a supremacist, exclusivist and intolerant version of Islam.

And if the Muslim public can see that alternative, that will mean the eventual erosion of the fundamentalists’ grip on power and their currently entrenched position in Malaysian state institutions. That will be the beginning of a more democratic Malaysia; something that fundamentalists can never appreciate despite their acceptance of procedural democracy; for what is sorely glaring within fundamentalism of all sorts, is the very absence of the democratic ethos.

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is a social activist with The Reading Group, Singapore.

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