Malaysian parties compete for Muslim vote in March 8 poll

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.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Malaysia reviews its religious conversion laws

Malaysia’s Federal Court, which rejected Lina Joy’s conversion caseMalaysia has been getting some negative publicity for a while now because of the problems some citizens face when they want to convert from Islam. Malaysia is majority Muslim, with sizable religious minorities, and it leaves Muslim personal law issues to the sharia courts. They do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, meaning apostates end up in a legal limbo because they cannot register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Christian convert Lina Joy learned that to her chagrin in May when the the Federal Court — the country’s highest court — refused to remove the word “Islam” from her identity card.

The government now wants to resolve this problem. “The attorney-general’s chambers is studying the matter,” Malaysia’s de-facto justice minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz, was quoted as telling parliament this week. “It is an ongoing process. It is also a sensitive issue and, God willing, a method can be achieved on how to decide on the religion of a person.”

It’s not clear how this is going to work. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in July that Islamic religious authorities should be ready to handle apostasy cases. “We have to be ready to listen and to solve the problems,” he told reporters. “This is not about something that cannot be done. For those who don’t want to be Muslims anymore, what can you do?”