Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Islamist Realignments and the Rebranding of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Islamist Realignments and the Rebranding of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia

Article excerpt

During the lengthy tenure of Dr Mahathir Mohamad's premiership (1981-2003), the formal political scene of Islamism (1) was dominated by the incessant rivalry between the ruling United Malays' National Organization (UMNO) and Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS: Parti Islam SeMalaysia). The Islamist civil society, on the other hand, witnessed the blossoming of independent Islamic movements such as the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM: Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia), the Society for Islamic Reform (JIM: Jamaah Islah Malaysia), Darul Arqam and Jamaat Tabligh. These movements were distinctive in their utilization of dakwah (missionary effort) rather than overt politics as a means of struggling for Islam. Except for the Indian-originated Jamaat Tabligh, the other movements' programmes, structures and aspirations had political content and significance in their various ways and configurations.

Since the new millennium, notable Islamists have opted to shift organizational affiliations and strategies in the face of closer state scrutiny and effective portrayal of the state as an Islamic entity in whatever form. While the main movements continue to exist in mellowed forms, the expansion of civil society has sparked the formation of new groupings and alignments which, while owing their existence to new undercurrents in Malaysian society, are not necessarily detached from the older movements. The new groupings and alignments, albeit smaller in actual membership from their precursors among the larger movements, have struck a chord among the urban Malay-Muslim masses by vocally addressing issues which are seen as essential to Muslim identity formation and development as the post-New Economic Policy (NEP) generation gradually establishes itself at the helm of national socio-political affairs. The provisional impact of these new groupings will hopefully be made clear in the course of this paper, which narrows down to an investigation into metamorphoses that have affected and transpired in one of the most influential civil society movements of contemporary Islamism, viz. ABIM.

The Phases of Islamism in Malaysia

Post-independence Islamism in Malaysia may be divided into five phases. Firstly, the formative phase (1971-81), beginning from the enunciation of the NEP following the ethnic riots of May 1969. Although the aims of the NEP were spelt out in inclusive terms, in terms of implementation, it proved to be essentially a policy of affirmative action to redress the economic grievances of Malay-Muslims via preferential policies and creation of trust institutions to manage corporate wealth on their behalf. The NEP created an environment in which Islam was given greater prominence in the basic search for Malay and national identity. The state established official Islamic institutions and sponsored the tertiary education of thousands of Malay-Muslim students at home and abroad, where Islamism proved to be a powerful socializing force. Coinciding with a period when PAS was in the ruling National Front (BN: Barisan Nasional) coalition (1973-77), Islamic resurgence as an alternative voice to the dominant polity was steered by new movements such as ABIM, the Islamic Representative Council (IRC) and Darul Arqam.

The formative phase was characterized by intense galvanization of young people through publicity campaigns and dakwah activities. The abrupt transformation in worldview and lifestyle among young urban Malay intelligentsia was manifested in radical approaches in confronting the un-Islamic status quo. ABIM used extrovert methods such as a vocal pressure group to fight for social causes on behalf of the downtrodden masses. IRC utilized secret cells in close alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Darul Arqam favoured introvert methods of reviving an Islamic society free from the clutches of secularism, hedonism and materialism. While ABIM and IRC dominated Malay-Islamist discourses in local and overseas campuses respectively, Darul Arqam founded economically self-sustaining villages throughout the country in an effort to reinvigorate the ideals of Islam as din al-hayah (a way of life) within a spiritually protective environment. …

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