The Islamic State or the State of Islam in Malaysia

By Martinez, Patricia A. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Islamic State or the State of Islam in Malaysia

Martinez, Patricia A., Contemporary Southeast Asia


The issue of the Islamic state has been at the forefront of Malaysian public discourse, but even more so since the announcement by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in September 2001 that Malaysia was already an Islamic state. The issue has evoked consternation and debate that is not reflected in the mainstream media, and which is symptomatic of the disjuncture between perceptions in public discourse and realities on the ground. This article examines this disjuncture through the symbiosis of the Islamic state issue with its context, the state of Islam in Malaysia. It also provides an analysis of the government's text outlining why its administration qualifies as an Islamic state, against one of the main sources used, which is the Shafi'i jurist Al-Mawardi's Al-ahkam as-sultaniyya.


The title of this article encompasses both the burning issue in Malaysia during 2001 about the Islamic state -- between the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Parti Islam se Malaysia (PAS) (1) and their claims to the legitimacy of Malaysia as an Islamic state -- and the layers of complexity that constitute the context of this issue, which is the state of Islam in the nation.

The context includes the diversity of actors, scenarios, recent historical trajectories, and the power of representation (who has the power to define public discourse) that are as important as the statements of the government, UMNO, and PAS. The power to speak or write and thus shape public discourse must also be understood as the power to claim to speak on behalf of and to appropriate the voices of the assumed constituency. Hence, UMNO, PAS, and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and political commentators often make claims on behalf of constituencies whose views are essentially assumed and defined for them, rather than as a reflection of widespread listening and polling of what most Malaysians want or think. These claims are writ large in swathes of generalizations, rendering Malaysians into groups and categories that perpetuate schisms and stereotypes. Any newspaper or newsletter will exemplify this dynamic: "what Malaysians want is...", "Malays feel that...", "Non-Muslims in Malaysia fear...", "Wo men are concerned about...", "The people need more..." and so on. On the one hand, the use of categories and generalizations is an economy of semantics that are employed when we are unable to nuance every single inference. On the other hand, it is important to recognize the power to make claims on behalf of, and, from this premise, to mould what people think -- not just by the State but also by its opposition and even those who speak and write from a third space, or from the margins.

The nation is configured by its feudal cultures and precedents. This is compounded by the way politics overwhelms discourse in the nation, as well as the media whose content is shaped by political allegiance and is thus often polemical. The Malaysian media, including the newsletters of opposition political parties and websites, essentially reflect either the State/ruling coalition's position or that of the political opposition only, together with a few voices of the acceptable elite who speak or write as independent of the State or its opposition, but whose columns and statements appear because their views resonate with either's larger agendas. Public discourse is, therefore, essentially dichotomous and polemical. In such a context, the diversity of opinions, questions, hopes and fears of ordinary people is often missing from a public discourse that largely reflects the agendas of those with the power to define it.

This disjuncture between the public transcript and reality on the ground, or a more nuanced and complex understanding of issues such as Islam in Malaysia, became apparent during fieldwork the author undertook. In the past seven months, more than 300 ethnographic interviews of Malaysians from Kelantan to Johor were conducted in markets, shopping malls, along the road, in fields, and in their homes.

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