By MAZNAH MOHAMAD
IN Malaysia’s current political climate, it is no longer possible to distinguish Islamic radicals from Islamic moderates.
Despite official boasting about the country’s diverse population and commitment to pluralism, Islam and the government have essentially merged.
For two decades, the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) government invested enormous public resources in building up a network of Islamic institutions.
The government’s initial intention was to deflect radical demands for an extreme version of Islamic governance, however, over time, the effort to out-do its critics led the UMNO to over-Islamicise the state.
UMNO’s programme has put Sharia law, Sharia courts, and an extensive Islamic bureaucracy in place, a collective effort that has taken on a life of its own.
The number of Islamic laws instituted has quadrupled in just over 10 years.
After Iran or Saudi Arabia, Malaysia’s Sharia court system is probably the most extensive in
the Muslim world, and the accompanying bureaucracy is not only big but has more bite than the
Islamic laws in Malaysia are based on religious doctrine but codified and passed as statutes by state (provincial) assemblies.
Not much debate attends their enactment, because a fear of heresy keeps most critics from questioning anything deemed Islamic.
While UMNO still trumpets its Islamic advocacy, the party is facing difficult choices, particularly as it wishes to maintain foreign investment in an increasingly polarised environment.
For example, home affairs minister Hishamuddin Hussein recently held a press conference to support Muslims who demonstrated against the construction of a Hindu temple in their neighbourhood.
Protestors paraded a severed, bloodied cow’s head in the street, then spat and stomped on it. This was an offence to Malaysia’s Hindus, who consider the cow a sacred animal.
A week earlier, Kartika, a young mother, was sentenced by Malaysia’s Sharia court to six lashes by cane and fined US$1500 after she was caught drinking beer.
Although the sentence is still in limbo, Hussein publicised his acceptance of the punishment by inviting the official floggers to his office to demonstrate how an Islamic caning would be carried out.
Ironically, Hussein, son of Malaysia’s third prime minister and cousin of the current prime minister, is far from an Islamic hardliner and is widely considered modern, moderate and cosmopolitan.
A true hardliner is Nik Aziz, the Kelantan state chief minister, who is also the spiritual leader of Malaysia’s largest Islamic party, PAS, which now controls two state governments.
However, Aziz opposed the anti-Hindu protest, and called a group of anti-Muslim protestors in the UK as being more civilised.
Hence, it is no longer accurate to think of the PAS as a fundamentalist party and UMNO as moderate as party strategies are leading them in unexpected directions.
UMNO’s more radical turn is being matched by the PAS’s attempts at moderation and PAS is aiming for the most unlikely of voters: non-Muslims, who account for 40% of Malaysia’s population and are increasingly alienated from UMNO.
UMNO, meanwhile, is intent on dividing the opposition coalition, of which the PAS is a member.
The coalition is currently led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and has picked up political momentum in last year’s general election.
Concerned by its losses, UMNO has staked a claim to the defence of Islam in Malaysia.
The “cow head” protest, which was led by UMNO members, quickly fuelled racially-charged manipulation of public sentiment.
The formula is simple: portray Islam as being threatened by infidels, and then have UMNO ride to the rescue of the besieged Muslim community.
Kartika’s sentence was supported by modernist Muslim intellectuals, who insisted that the punishment was just and cannot be questioned because it has divine sanction.
These are not politicians, but former idealists who are happy that their goals of Islamicising the state are being realised. Most are anti-UMNO and support the PAS.
As a result, UMNO finds itself squeezed between an Islamic lobby that presses for greater “Talibanisation” of the country and the rising voices of international critics, who cannot be ignored, because the party needs both radical supporters and foreign investors to stay in power.
* Maznah Mohamad is visiting senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore.