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Engaging Resurgent Islam in Malaysia: Challenges and Opportunities

Author: Dr. Ng Kam Weng
Date: 29.01.2013
Location: Kuala Lumpur | Malaysia
Category: Islam

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Originally Posted in English

This article is a part of the January 2013 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis. Access other articles from this issue or download the full issue as a free PDF download.

Islam takes many forms from militant Islamism through to folk Islam. In the middle ground may be found vibrant Indonesian NGOs like Nahdahtul Ulama in the forefront of social welfare and educational initiatives, or Malaysian NGOs like Sisters in Islam advocating for women’s rights.

These distinct expressions depend on the interplay between powerful global pan-Islamic ideologies and the trajectory of local history.  Understanding how these forces affect Islam in different contexts helps us anticipate the direction Islam is likely to follow and assess how Christians should respond.

Modernity and Fundamentalism

In Malaysia, migrant workers experienced social alienation as they moved from rural villages to new housing areas around Kuala Lumpur from the 1970s.  The impersonal social interactions characteristic of city life posed a threat to the religious identity of migrants in an urban environment with diverse cultures and relativistic mores.

They sought social support in nearby mosques where they could find religious guidance to cope with the pressures of modern society.  Islamic renewal was not politically assertive but concerned about formation of cultural identity via a communal network marked by distinctive religious symbols and rituals to strengthen the inner piety of the believer.

However, economic competition from other racial communities required collective social-economic initiatives among Muslims.  Muslim activists organised themselves with a view to winning social influence and political power.  With new found power they restructured public institutions based on Islamic values and implemented new economic policies that extended privileges and entitlements to the Muslim community.

Authoritarian Politics

While the promise of economic benefits lured these migrants to the city, initial optimism turned into anger and frustration in times of economic crisis during the late 1980s.  Economic deprivation was then coupled with a loss of cultural dignity and a sense of religious crisis.

A community that suffers from economic insecurity and cultural anxieties is willing to entrust its future and hope into the hands of a forceful leadership.

In recent times, the Malay electorate has handed absolute paternalistic authority to the dominant political party UMNO.  The UMNO political elite moved from political mobilization of Malay-Muslim[1] supporters to consolidation of cultural or religious dominance.

This includes reinvention of ethnic-national myths and traditions and the revision of the history syllabus in schools so that the Malay-Muslim community may claim exclusive political continuity with the nation’s past.  This not only legitimises the claim of economic entitlement but also fosters reassertion of the community exemplified by the slogan “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay Supremacy).

Islam as a comprehensive way of life has been co-opted by Islamists appointed by UMNO to justify control and regulation of all sectors of public life:

  • State-controlled media and officials from the increasingly powerful Federal and State Islamic Religious Departments stigmatise progressive Muslims as heretical and disloyal to the Muslim community.
  • New sharia-compliant policies and legislation are implemented to ensure monopolistic control of public institutions and Malay-Muslim community hegemony over other social groups.

Keywords: Dr. Ng Kam Weng, LGA, Malaysia, Islam

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Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down dbaker3894 (1)
United States

I think that’s why they are becoming successful in countries that have not been open to Islam.  They look for those countries and find a weakness, whether it’s a natural disaster or even corrupt politics and look for a foot hold.  Once they have their foot hold and begin to implement their policies the countries do in turn began to appear to rebound successfully, but as more Islamics move into the country the door beings to open for those that practice sharia laws.  This is where countries can begin to lose their other religious abilities.  Once sharia law has a foothold no other religions are welcome.

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down dlbrooks1013 (0)
United States
@ dbaker3894:

I agree. Of course sharia laws are bad, but I can’t necessarily say that I disagree with their strategy to look for an area where a country is lacking to get a foot in the door. I think Christians should do the same thing by being more socially and culturally driven to make things better for citizens everywhere. Once that happens, I think we can then focus our efforts on evangelism.

Reply Flag 0 Thumbs Up Thumbs Down Greg_Wilton (0)
United States

Outstanding! I’m very glad I read this


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