Malaysian parties compete for Muslim vote in March 8 poll

February 25, 2008

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (centre) campaigns in Penang, 24 Feb. 2008/Zainal Abd HalimMalaysia goes to the polls on March 8 and the campaign “is turning into a battle for the religious high ground among majority Muslims,” as our correspondent Jalil Hamid writes. The latest twist is an offer by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s UMNO party to build or repair at least 500 mosques if it wins. Election promises like that show how tough its battle is against the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), led by clerics who promote “purer” Islamic values. “UMNO and PAS are engaged in a battle: ‘I’m more Islamic than you are’,” says political analyst Ooi Kee Beng.

For its part, the PAS warns darkly of violence and says it doubts the election will be free and fair. It has been especially critical of a change in rules for registering candidates that it says could discriminate against it. “If the Election Commission rejects the nomination papers, we will run amok,” PAS Vice-President Mohammad Sabu told reporters. “But we don’t want this election to end up as in Kenya.”

PAS election rally in Penang, Malaysia, 24 Feb. 2008/Zainal Abd HalimAnalysts point to this growing rivalry for Muslim votes as a gathering cloud over the religious pluralism the country has long been known for. Malaysia presents a religious kaleidoscope, with about 60% Muslims, 20% Buddhists, 9% Christians, 6% Hindus and smaller minorities following Confucianism, Taoism, other faiths or none at all. Religious freedom is the law, but in practice Islam enjoys an advantage over other faiths and the gap between it and the others has been growing.

In a recent post on the blog The Other Malaysia, political scientist Farish Noor captured the sense of loss felt by Malaysians who value the pluralist tradition. He called it “Still Looking for an Islam to call Our Own?” —

Malaysia, and Malaysian-Muslims in particular, seem to have lost their historical bearings and do not know what sort of Muslims they want to be. The emergence of the dreaded moral vigilantes, of exclusive Muslim lobby groups and NGOs, the calls for more Islamic norms to be inculcated in the conduct of governance, the demands for Shariah to be made national law, and the calls Farish Noorfor a further Islamisation of Malaysia all seem to stem from a new wave of Muslim political normativity that is so alien to the Islam that was first brought to this part of the world by the Indian-Muslim mystics and missionaries of the 13th to 15th centuries. If in the past Muslim preachers were happy to preach the universal values of Islam using an idiom and discourse that was replete with local cultural references, what we are seeing today is more than simply the Islamisation of Malaysia: it is the Arabisation of our Asian society.

Now I write this without any hint of anti-Arabism in mind. But in a global age where cultural nuances are being effaces and cultural particularities are being flattened out, I am just as wary of the Arabisation of Malaysian society as I am of the Americanisation of Malaysian society. Between Starbucks and MacDonalds on the one hand, and Wahabbism – with its fervent distaste for Sufi mysticism, eclecticism and pluralism on the other – we are lost and still looking for an Islam to call our own.

Noor also offers a good introduction to the complexities of religion and politics in Malaysia in the recent post The Threat to Secular Democracy in Malaysia for the blog Malaysia Votes.

Chinese Malaysians pray at a temple in Penang, 11 Feb. 2008/Zainal Abd HalimMark Bendeich, our bureau chief in Kuala Lumpur, says Noor — a Malaysian Muslim — echoed the views of many secular Malaysians. “The trend he describes is an increasingly loud lament of Malaysia’s large non-Muslim community,” he added, noting this trend had accelerated under former Prime Minister Mahathir, “whose critics say he wrapped himself in the cloak of Islam to defend against opposition Islamists. But Malaysia is still a very long way from Wahhabism. You can still find churches, Hindu temples, Chinese temples and mosques on opposite street corners in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca… Malaysia still clings to its pluralist tradition, but the grip is getting weaker in the eyes of many Malaysians .”

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