Islam in Malaysia: The Damocles’ sword

Date01 June 2011
Published date01 June 2011
Subject MatterArticle
Islam in Malaysia: The Damocles' sword
Somdatta Banerjee*
"We are a very moderate Islamic country," said Mr. Abdullah Badawi, the
former Malaysian Prime Minister. He was not entirely wrong either. The
government, which includes many non-Muslims, tends to concentrate more
on the economy than on matters of morality. In Malaysia, Muslims are in
the majority, and Islam is the
religion but large Buddhist, Christian
and Hindu minorities are free to practice their faith. Yet religion remains a
delicate subject in Malaysia. Sixty percent of the population in Malaysia is
Muslim. Islam inevitably plays a pre-eminent role both in the political and
public life of the state. Islam has been used to service an ethnic agenda- a
hegemonic program- designed to reinforce Malay occupation at the heart
of Malaysia's nation-building project and to relegate non-Malays and non-
Muslims to subordinate, peripheral partners in their assimilation into the
Malaysian nation(Barr and Govindasamy: 2010:294-295) Islam has an
impact on Malaysian politics as is evident from the fact that Islamic
symbols and concepts permeate various aspects of political life, from its
historical and structural foundations, to its continuing political discourses
and practices. The political Islam in Malaysia is primarily "state-
sponsored", mainly by the ruling party, the United Malay National
Organization (UMNO)- which has championed Islamist causes for their
survival and garnered the support of the majority Malays against their
primary opposition- Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).1 The ascendance of
this political Islam has sharpened racial and religious fault lines in multi-
racial and multi-religious milieu and has helped spawn deviationist
teachings in Malaysia, leading to incidents of alleged Islamist terrorism
within the country.
* Senior Research Fellow, Departnment of International Relations, Jadavpur University.
1. PAS, is an Islamist political party in Malaysia and is currently headed by Dato' Seri
Abdul Hadi Awang. PAS positions itself as a political party that aims to establish
Malaysia as a country based on Islamic legal theory derived from the primary sources
of Islam, the Quran, Sunnah and Hadiths.
Islam in Malaysia: The Damocles' sword 83
Islam in the Pre-independence Period
The arrival of Islam in Malaysia is conjectural. Some argue that Islam had
been brought'to the port city of Malacca on the west coast of the Malay
Peninsula due to the trading activities. Simplicity of the message of the
faith, the role of the Muslim Sufis and the conversions of the Malay sultans
had helped to spread the religion. The most significant period for the
spread of Islam in the Malay Peninsula was during the 12th and 13th
centuries when the message of Islam penetrated the Malay royal courts
(Hassan: 2007:287-317) leading to the conversion of Malay rulers, and
subsequently their subjects, in time converting the entire Malay race. The
spread of Islam in Malaysia had two specific characteristics. First, it was
disseminated primarily through the peaceful dakwah2 movements and not
through the military aggressions and secondly, Malay rulers' promotion and
espousal of the faith marked the beginning of the entrenchment of Islam in
the political life of Malaysia. The rulers incorporated Islam in governing
their kingdoms and integrated Islamic laws with the local customs into the
laws of their kingdoms, a move that helped them to draw the allegiance of
the locals. This expedited the integration of Islam into Malay identity.
Islam was an important tool for legitimizing the earliest form of political
authority in the Malay society and became a prerequisite for political and
social participation. The capacity of the religion to both support and
challenge the traditional political authorities shaped the political
development in Malaysia not only in the past but even in the present days.
The Malay Peninsula had witnessed four foreign powers trying to gain
control over the region- the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the
Japanese. When the anti-Muslim Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511,
the Sultanate was forced to move to Johore on the southern tip of the Malay
Peninsula. The Dutch later ousted the Portuguese from Malacca in 1641.
(Milne andMauzy: 1986:11). With the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, Malay
came under British control. Further, in 1874, the British signed the
Pangkor Treaty with the Muslim Sultan of Perak which brought nine of the
Malay states mainly on the western and southern part of the peninsula
under British control and permitted the presence of a British 'resident' in
the royal court who would advise on all matters except Islam and Malay
2. Dakwah is an activity that is calling, asking and calling people to believe and obey
Allah wa ta'ala Subhaanahu accordance with aqidah line, shariah and morals of Islam.
The main purpose of preaching is to bring happiness and prosperity of life in the
world and the Hereafter that by God.

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