Creeping Islamisation

Observations on Malaysia

Fireworks exploded above Kuala Lumpur on 31 August to mark the 50th anniversary of Malaysia's independence from the British. Tens of thousands gathered to watch the festive displays in front of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, the country's king and queen, and foreign dignitaries including the Sultan of Brunei and the Duke of York. "We will hold true to the concept of justice and fairness for all our citizens," said Abdullah in his speech. "We must take care of our unity."

But that unity is under threat. Malaysia's status as a model of a moderate Muslim democracy is being called into question by a creeping Islamisation, eroding the compromises that have enabled the mainly non-Muslim Chinese and Indian minorities (who make up 40 per cent of the population) to live peaceably alongside the Muslim Malay majority.

The attorney general, Abdul Gani Patail, recently suggested that the country's legal system be changed to take Islamic rather than English common law as its basis. Non-Muslims worry that this is already happening. In May, Lina Joy, a Christian convert, lost a court battle to remove the word "Muslim" from her identification card, even though the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The previous month, a Hindu man was forcibly separated from his Muslim wife of 21 years and their six children after religious officials ruled their marriage invalid. All female police officers are now required to wear the tudung (headscarf) at official functions, regardless of their faith. Last November, religious enforcement officers even raided the apartment of an elderly American couple on the holiday island of Langkawi, accusing them of committing khalwat (close proximity between unmarried men and women), although as Christians they were not subject to Islamic law.

It didn't used to be like this. A few weeks ago Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the ex-finance minister who nearly unseated the long-standing premier Mahathir Mohamad in 1987, spoke at a wedding anniversary dinner attended by politicians and one of the country's nine sultans at the Mines resort on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Most of the women were uncovered, and none of the good Muslims present batted an eyelid as the wine flowed. "Don't you know that it is haram [forbidden] for Muslims to drink water in this country?" joked a leading lawyer as a waitress proffered an Evian bottle. "We must have red wine, and lots of it."

That tolerant attitude was common among the generations that founded and then built the country. Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was fondly known as a whisky-loving playboy, while the private lives of many of the sultans scarcely reflected the values of the religion they head in their states.

But today the government, dominated by Umno (United Malays National Organisation), increasingly panders to a resurgent conservative Islam, not least to fend off the challenge from the main opposition, the fundamentalist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). "Government ministers are so afraid of attracting the ire of the religious right, there are hardly any with the courage to say anything more progressive," says Dr Mahathir's daughter Marina, a prominent Aids and women's rights activist.

Since Abdullah took office in 2003, he has attempted to bridge the gap between religious conservatives and those who wish to maintain the country's secular principles with his theory of Islam Hadhari (civilisational Islam). Not everyone is convinced. "What's the difference between a lift and an elevator?" asks a former minister. "It doesn't mean anything at all."

The west may have seen Dr Mahathir as a repressive dictator - especially after his sacking and subsequent imprisonment of his deputy Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up charges - but he was firm in opposing religious hardliners. "He always worked to make the state pluralist, secular and Islamic," says Abdullah Ahmad, a former Malaysian special envo y to the UN. While Anwar, now released from prison, is still portrayed abroad as a liberal reformer, he offers no hope to those worried about creeping Islamisation. His party has fought elections in alliance with PAS, which has introduced strict sharia law in the states it controls; one of its leaders recently issued a fatwa declaring followers of Islam Hadhari to be infidels.

Malaysia is a very long way from being a theocratic state, but the western-dressed youths who throng the malls and bars of modern Kuala Lumpur fear for the future. "Make sure you keep your home abroad," was the advice given to one Malay woman contemplating moving back to Malaysia, "so you've got somewhere to go if the extremists take over."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other