From Dr Amir Faizal Abdul Manan
There’s a need to break the unholy cycle where politicians compete to outshine each other on a religious level. This is a race that will only lead to the demise of the moderate Malaysia that once was.
This vicious cycle did not develop overnight, but is the result of a complex process. Understanding, and subsequently breaking, this cycle requires an honest historical analysis in order to contextualise the increasing role of religious mullahs in influencing our national politics.
In this particular context, a mullah refers to a political Islamist who is often also an opportunistic religious peddler. This is distinct from the real ulama as described by the Quran.
The turning point can be traced back to the 70s and 80s, around the time when hardline narratives started influencing Malaysian politics. During this period, however, Malaysia was not the only country experiencing this shift.
This is a global phenomenon which started with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Subsequently, in several countries, rulers adopted a more religious posture to avoid a similar fate that had befallen the Shah of Iran; in some cases the alliances forged between the state and the religious class continue until today.
In other countries, the revolution bolstered the confidence (and funding) of the religious hardliners, catapulting them into mainstream politics. This is partly why we saw the emergence of several hardliners during this period, from Zia-ul Haq in Pakistan to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Furthermore, the 1980s Soviet-Afghan war, and the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union, made things even worse. Some fundamentalists saw Islamism as the substitute for communism and made this their identity in standing up against western imperialism.
It was also around this time when many foreign educated religious scholars started joining PAS, and reoriented the party towards a similar brand of Islamism that had dominated Middle Eastern/North African politics in the 80s.
In fact, in 1982, the newly appointed president of PAS, who had won the leadership post from the more moderate faction within the party, had served as a Malaysian ambassador to Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran just before the Iranian revolution took over. PAS then established the Syura Council, modelled after the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and appointed its president its first spiritual leader.
Although it might be tempting for some to put the blame solely on PAS for the rise of political Islamism in Malaysia, the reality is that, on its own and without Umno, they were never really in a position of power to create the religious leviathan that we have inherited today.
Religious conservatism had seeped through our institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, and in many ways, they were gradually enabled by the ruling government then to bolster its Islamic credentials after losing crucial votes to PAS.
Following PAS’s electoral successes, Umno began adopting various religiously-oriented policies to out-Islamise PAS. In turn, PAS further radicalised itself in order to be different from its rival.
That marked the beginning of the competition between our politicians to out-Islamise each other.
Lest we forget, in 1982, the Umno president, who was also the prime minister, had brought in the president of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) under his wings in a bid to counter PAS’ growing religious populism. Other contemporary ex-Abim leaders include the current PAS president, who left Abim at about the same time. Abim itself was established in the 70s at the height of the global rise of political Islam.
Since its inception pre-independence, PAS has had a love-hate relationship with Umno. Of late, this has become a shrewd political strategy justified through PAS’ “Tahaluf Siyasi” and “Ta’awun Siyasi”, which are, quite simply, the Arabic terms for political coalitions and political cooperations, respectively.
Fast forward several decades, today, most (if not all) Malay-dominant political parties are pandering to religious conservatism, with their key leaders, even those facing corruption charges, increasingly adopting a more religious tone.
Unfortunately, though, this superficiality seems to have an influence on the religious persuasion of many, particularly the right-wing conservatives in Malaysia, making any daring attempts at serious reforms a political suicide.
Separation of powers
There are generally four circles of influences that shape the discourse in a country: the political, religious, intellectual, and economic classes.
However, the gradual rise of political “ulamas” over the decades blurs the line that had historically separated the religious class and the state authority, where each had played a key role in keeping the other in check.
Consider that many prominent historical religious figures, including the founders of the four Sunni school of thought – Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafii, and Ibn Hanbal – as well as several Shia imams had refused to serve the state. They were either imprisoned, whipped, assaulted, or assassinated for their dissenting views. Even in Western Europe, the constant battle between the church and the rulers had kept both circles, to some degree, independent of each other.
Over time, however, political Islam has ushered in corruptible religious leaders through several phases: from being a respectable class that is independent and critical of the state, to becoming an uncritical servant of the state offering divine legitimacy to the ruling authority for a paltry price, and finally seizing power to become the official state authority themselves.
The unholy confluence between the state and religion increases the influence and power of the political ulamas, however, this is often at the expense of their own religious prestige, which can be observed with the recent rise in voices critical of the mullahs.
We even see this in Malaysia today where segments of the public, particularly on social media, are openly expressing discontent with the mullahs and their errant ways.
Breaking the cycle
However, the antidote to any hardline conservatism is not illiberal liberalism, as extremism in either direction is detrimental to a diverse country like Malaysia.
Any action will always be countered by an equal but opposite reaction. Therefore, an extreme push in one direction will only evoke an equal push in the opposite extreme, and risk polarising Malaysia and splitting the nation into two extremes.
Consider, for example, the rise in fundamentalist extremists under an oppressive regime. Or, perhaps, for a more recent example, one could just look at how Trumpism and Brexit have normalised extreme, polarising, and hyper-partisan narratives in the US and UK today.
We need more moderate voices to influence the narratives in the country. We cannot allow those with extremist proclivities to hold the entire country to ransom.
Malaysia needs to take concrete steps to ensure our collective advancement towards a more inclusive, progressive and moderate future.
These will be the critical tasks of the newly elected government, and indeed, this is the standard that they will be held against.
Dr Amir Faizal Abdul Manan is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.