Global Analysis

Engaging Resurgent Islam in Malaysia

Challenges and opportunities

Ng Kam Weng Jan 2013

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.

Pressure on churches

Churches have increasingly experienced unwelcome interference.  The excessive powers granted to Islamic authorities emboldened them to mount an unprecedented and unconstitutional raid on a major church in Kuala Lumpur in 2011 — a harbinger of increasing threats to the religious freedom of Christians:

  • The visas of expatriate lecturers and students in Bible colleges were suddenly revoked.
  • Building of new churches is only allowed if the local Islamic Department and imam have no objection.
  • A number of churches in West Malaysia belonging to the orang asli (aboriginal natives) were destroyed by the authorities.

The authorities confiscated thousands of copies of Alkitab (Malay Bible) in 2009 and 2011, on the grounds that it contains words that should be reserved for Islamic usage such as Allah (God) and injil (gospel).  The Christians took the government to the High Court and won in 2010, but some Muslims firebombed churches in response.  The Court issued a stay of execution of its judgment, pending an appeal.  The Appeal Court has delayed hearing the case and the ban on the use of supposed Islamic words remains in force.

Many East Malaysian Christians from the indigenous tribes (Bumiputra Christians) have been registered as Muslims when they applied for the compulsory national identity card. Their appeals have been to no avail.  They were told to seek recourse from the Sharia Court (which constitutionally has no jurisdiction over non-Muslims).  Thus East Malaysians who have been Christians for generations can no longer marry in churches, their property can only be inherited by Muslims, and their children are automatically regarded as Muslims.

Finally, there are calls for Islamic policing of public morality to be extended to all citizens irrespective of their religious affiliation.  For instance, not only are Muslims stopped from attending music concerts but there are now strident calls to ban such public concerts altogether since they are against Islamic values.

Malaysia is often portrayed in the international media as a moderate and tolerant Muslim majority nation.  The authorities are effective in curbing the influence of militant jihadist and violent inter-religious conflict is basically absent.  However, the Islamic Departments bring to bear unrelenting pressure on non-Muslim communities.

In this regard, these Islamic authorities in Malaysia no longer need to look for inspiration from foreign Islamic movements.  They were building alliances with Arab Wahhabi or Salafist movements and the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s-1990s, but they are now organisationally independent with generous financial support from the Malaysian government.

Islamism has become fully indigenised and entrenched in all public institutions.  Militant Islamism is easily identified and condemned in the international media.  In contrast, creeping ‘Bureaucratic Islamism’ is overlooked.  However, for non-Muslims in Malaysia, the effect of Bureaucratic Islamism is no less coercive.

Islam and civil society

The National Ulama Association publicly rejects interfaith dialogue and Islamist activists resort to threats of violence to harass non-Muslim NGOs.  The refusal to grant equal recognition and respect to non-Muslims is perhaps due to the mindset of Islamism that rejects the separation between spiritual and temporal authority for social life.

Defenders of Islam would argue that there were some forms of civil society in Islam,

such as the waqfs, madrassas and other charitable associations of Islamic society.[2] However, this misses the essential point about civil society being defined by a separation, if not disjunction, between social and political spheres.  It is precisely this lack of disjunction that lends credence to the argument that civil society is absent in Islam, even if this arose not from within Islam itself but from the conditions of its expansion.[3]

Recognition of this gap between civil society and the state is vital for Islamic acceptance of civil society.  Conversely, failure to acknowledge and respect this gap is a source of fundamentalism.  For Islamists, non-Muslims (dhimmis) should submit to Islamic hegemony symbolised by payment of a protection tax (jizya), as specified in the Quran, Hadiths, and the Tafsirs (commentaries).

Progressive Muslims and Ijtihad

The critical challenge for Muslims today is to accept the democratic principle of equal citizenship in contemporary plural society.  One suggestion is for contemporary Islamic scholars to employ ijtihad (effort) in Islamic law, the independent or original interpretation of problems not precisely covered by the Quran, Ḥadith and ijma (scholarly consensus):

  • This is a hermeneutical initiative to apply afresh Quranic revelation to contemporary challenges like setting aside the dhimmi concept.
  • Some Islamists rule out ijtihad on grounds that the ‘door of ijtihad’ has been closed since the 10th century.[4]
  • Increasingly Muslim intellectuals are calling for ijtihad to enable Muslims to live peaceably in the modern world.[5]

The challenge for progressive Muslims is to initiate an ijtihad that would allow self-critique of power abuse and hermeneutical retrieval of ethical resources within authoritative texts and traditions to:

  • set aside Islam’s historical policy of hegemony over other religious communities; and
  • accept the reality of social plurality in contemporary society that necessitates limits to totalitarian Islamic theocratic politics.

Ijtihad would open the door for Muslims to dialogue and work with other religious communities to build inclusive democratic institutions for plural societies like Malaysia.

Christian engagement with Islam

Christian responses must be nuanced as Muslims come from a spectrum of theological positions, even though Islamists have gained more publicity through their aggressive action:

Legal challenges:

The church should have courage to challenge Islamists through legal means — despite the daunting obstacles — when they implement policies that restrict democratic rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution.  This must go beyond ad hoc responses to an Islamist agenda, and must be comprehensively planned and strategically pursued to be effective.  That is to say, social engagement for the church must be based on a well-thought out social theology.

Independent and effective social engagement requires deliberate education and training of writers and social intellectuals to counter distortions from state-controlled media.  Christian lawyers must be equipped to challenge sharia officials. In this regard, Christian lawyers should also be willing to defend other non-Muslims who are harassed by government officials since Christians should be fighting for the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religion.

Building bridges:

The response should be go beyond defensiveness and seek out progressive Muslim scholars and establish dialogue with the Muslim community.  Christians should initiate joint ventures with NGOs which defend democratic rights and religious liberty:

  • The Islamic Renaissance Front represents one such progressive NGO that is prepared to acknowledge the secular framework of the existing Federal Constitution.
  • Sisters in Islam are also allies insofar as their struggle for women’s rights in Islam reinforces demands for race, religious and gender equality for every citizen, as fundamental liberties are inseparable.

Christians should initiate dialogue with new NGOs comprising young Muslim professionals who have been exposed to global cultures when studying in the West.  These Muslim professionals display a confidence that allows them to move beyond the defensiveness of their religion and to dialogue with Christians on neutral platforms.

Joint action:

There is common ground between Muslims and Christians when they work together in social welfare.  While doctrine divides religions, good works aimed at the welfare of common society enable activists from different religions to overcome deep-seated prejudices to nurture social bonds of shared passion for justice and democratic rights for all citizens.  Christians do well to remember the command from their Lord, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

In sum, Christians need to engage Islamic hegemony with realism and modest hope, steering a middle path between the naive optimism of many left-wing, liberal Western scholars and the defeatism of some Arab Christians who have traditionally been passive in the face of what seems an unalterable oppressive status quo.  Only God is unchanging. God in his sovereignty prevails over institutional obstacles to bring about surprising salvific works among Muslims.


  1. It should be noted that ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’ are synonymous terms according to the Federal Constitution.
  2. See Dale Eickelman, Muslim Politics (Princeton Uni Press 2004).
  3. Colas, Civil Society and Fanaticism, pp. 97-98.
  4. Joseph Schacht “hence a consensus gradually established itself to the effect that from that time onwards no one could be deemed to have the necessary qualifications for independent reasoning in religious law, and that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application, and, at the most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all.” See Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (OUP) pp. 70–71.
  5. See the excellent work by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Towards Islamic Reformation (Syracuse Uni.Press 1990) and Islam and the Secular Society: Negotiating the Future of Shariah (Harvard UP 2010).