Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

The Changing Face of Political Islam in Malaysia in the Era of Najib Razak, 2009-2013

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

The Changing Face of Political Islam in Malaysia in the Era of Najib Razak, 2009-2013

Article excerpt

Where others have succumbed to radicalism, we have chosen a moderate, progressive vision of Islam. Where others have fallen away from democratic principles, we share a commitment to both the spirit and the practice of democracy. These decisions have shaped the story of our nations, and afforded us the respect of our peers.

--Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia (2009-present) (1)

On 3 April 2009, Najib Razak, son of second Malaysian prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, inherited Malaysia's premiership from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. By the time that Najib assumed leadership of the country, political Islam had established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Inducted into the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and national politics in his early twenties, upon the untimely death of his father in 1976, Najib lacked firsthand experience interacting with the grass-roots Islamists of his own generation who formed the backbone of Malaysia's Islamic revival of the 1970s. This shortcoming was to prove costly to Najib as he sought to handle diverse stripes of political Islam during his tenure. The homogenizing tendencies of UMNO politics could not have been more different to the kaleidoscopic variegations that have always characterized Malaysian Islam.

Since gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia around the thirteenth century, Islam has always been a major influence on political life in the region, notwithstanding differences in scholarly opinion regarding the manner, modalities, timing and other details of its transmission. As the sources from which Islam came and the identities of its bearers have always been diverse, Muslims in Southeast Asia were never monolithic. On the contrary, they distinguished themselves by accommodating mores from a variety of civilizational traditions, as strongly reflected in the assortment of religious practices of the various ethno-cultural groups that one may broadly categorize as Muslim. So long as the practices were not found to transgress the sharia--Islamic law as derived from the Qur'an, the Sunnah or the collection of words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, the ijma' or consensus of scholars, or qiyas or analogical deduction, they were not considered outside the ambit of the Islamic religion per se.

Historically, in fact, Islamic scholarship in the Malay world has adhered to the spirit of wide interpretation; hence the consistent willingness of that scholarship to accommodate the intricacies of local customs known as adat. A main factor behind this tendency was the pervasive role played by Sufis or Muslim mystics--well-known for their penchant to offer layered interpretations rather than depending on literal understandings of scriptural texts--in the propagation of Islam in Southeast Asia (Ahmad Fauzi 2002a, pp. 473-74). So accommodative was the Islamic terrain in colonial Malaya that different Muslim traditions not only peacefully coexisted with one another but also absorbed ideas and practices from one another (Nagata 1984, pp. 5-14). Even with the onset of European colonialism in the region, indigenous Muslims adhered to the spirit of accommodation. But when colonial policies were seen to subvert the primacy of Islam as the definitive influence in their lives, anti-colonial resistance arose, with defence of Islam as one of its primary motivations. The arrival of Islamic puritanism inspired by the fundamentalist movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (ad 1703-92) in the Arab Peninsula initially caused friction among the Muslims of Malaya, as manifested in the conflict in the early twentieth century between the Kaum Tua (Old Faction) and the Kaum Muda (Young Faction), representing respectively traditionalist and reformist poles of Islam in Malaya at the turn of the century (Rahimin Affandi 2006, pp. 93-103). But that puritanism later gained acceptance as one of the doctrines vying for the loyalty of the Malay-Muslim masses.

The beehives of activity of the Kaum Muda were the Straits Settlements, which the Colonial Office in London governed directly (Roff 1967, pp. …

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