Agitating Malay Muslims

This article has been published earlier here.

By Shanon Shah | 03 March 2009 | 

OVER the past year, several Malay-Muslim groups have been in the headlines. From lawsuits filed against the DAP‘s Teresa Kok for allegedly insulting Islam, to campaigns responding to the crisis in Gaza, the defence of Islam and Malay rights has occuppied the national attention, sometimes in frightening ways. Just what are these groups about? What motivates them? And do these non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which have mushroomed very quickly overnight, really express the will of the majority of Malay Muslims in Malaysia?

Defending Islam

The emergence of Muslim groups is not a post-March 2008 phenomenon. In 2006, a coalition of NGOs called Pembela was spearheaded by the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM). PEMBELAa was formed to counter “the tendency to use court cases to emasculate the status of Islam, particularly through applications for apostasy.”

According to ABIM vice-president Azril Mohd Amin, “At that time the Lina Joy case was being highlighted and could have provided an opportunity to alter the privileged status of Islam as enshrined in the Federal Constitution. “PEMBELA received all kinds of support, including speaking platforms at mosques and association premises, and was supported by more than 50 Muslim NGOs nationwide,” he says in an e-mail interview.  “This demonstrates how close this issue is to the hearts of Muslims in this country.” In 2006, aside from PEMBELA’s protests, more than 200 Muslim protesters disrupted a forum in Penang on constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, organised by Article 11 and Aliran.

A year before, the Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs (ACCIN) alleged that the Inter-Faith Commission (IFC) proposal by civil society, and initially supported by the government, was anti-Islam and threatened communal harmony. Occasionally, protests in the name of defending Islam turned ugly. In August 2006, one of Lina Joy’s lawyers, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, became the target of e-mail death threats from likely but unknown Muslim sources.

Later in 2006, 300 Muslim protesters ambushed a church on Jalan Silibin, Ipoh, because they mistakenly believed Muslim Malaysians were being converted to Christianity inside. The rumour was spread by an SMS which implicated Perak Mufti Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria. And in August 2008, a 300-strong demonstration consisting of Muslim NGOs, and leaders from PAS, Umno and Parti Keadilan Rakyat stormed the Bar Council during its forum on conversions to Islam.

Some of these incidents have naturally caused fear among many Malaysians, and some Muslim NGOs have condemned the use or threat of violence. “The way the protest against the Article 11 forum in Penang was done was not good,” says Dr Mazeni Alwi, chairperson and co-founder of the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF). “There were certainly grounds for protests, but they should have been more civic,” he says in a phone interview. “Although Islamic groups in Malaysia do not usually resort to overt violence in their protests, the language some of them use could be better,” says Mazeni.

Conflating Islam and Malays

One other thing is clear when speaking to some of these groups. Both Islam and the notion of Malay rights are often conflated to be one and the same. 

Noor Nirwandy “When a vocal minority among non-Malay Malaysians challenges Malay rights, of course they will meet resistance,” says Noor Nirwandy, the Muslim Consumer’s Association (PPIM)’s project director. “A section of the silent Malay Malaysian majority will be activated to respond,” Nirwandy tellsThe Nut Graph. “This is healthy because this ensures the country’s equilibrium and racial harmony is not disturbed.”

Even though Muslim consumer rights cannot be equated with the privileges of being a Malay Malaysian, that distinction seems lost on PPIM. But PPIM is not the only NGO that folds in Islam, like flour into icing for an irresistable cake, into the discourse of fighting for Malay rights.

Rahimuddin Md Harun, second deputy chairperson of Pewaris Permuafakatan Islam, tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview: “The demands made by non-Malay Malaysians after the March 2008 elections became too unreasonable.” He says that, for example, Umno’s Datuk Ahmad Ismail’s “pendatang” remarks were taken entirely out of context — Ahmad Ismail was essentially telling Malay Malaysians to work hard and buck up. However, he said, non-Malay Malaysian leaders, including Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, started making unreasonable demands for equality.

“This country is too young to talk about blanket equality,” Rahimuddin says. “Where were these people’s parents and grandparents when the Malays’ ancestors were fighting for independence from British colonial rule?” And this, says Rahimuddin, is why Pewaris was formed. Pewaris is a coalition of more than 30 Muslim organisations that came together after March 2008, because “there were no political leaders who dared to challenge the extreme demands of some non-Malay Malaysians.”

Differences and similarities

Assembling the puzzle of the emergence of Muslim NGOs in Malaysia is complicated. On one hand, it is easy to identify surefire issues that ignite passions — freedom of religion, gender equality and sexual rights, moral policing, and the Islamic versus secular state debate, to name a few. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to identify what exact incident is going to cause an eruption, and which party is likely to erupt — the NGOs are too numerous.

The NGOs themselves do not seem to want to speak on a single platform. “If we unite under a single umbrella group, our individual voices might not be congruent with that of the overall umbrella,” says Pewaris’s Rahimuddin. MPF’s Mazeni says, “It is not good for all the NGOs to unite under a single banner, because different issues need different views.” He says the public needs to give a wide spectrum of views sufficient hearing.

One major dividing line among the Muslim NGOs seems to be the Internal Security Act (ISA). While Pewaris and PPIM support the ISA as a legitimate law to defend the status of Islam, ABIM and MPF have been publicly opposed to it. ABIM calls the act “draconian”, while MPF says the ISA as presently applied is a “political tool which has nothing to do with protecting national security.” These differences could indicate which political coalitions these NGOs are hedging their bets with. MPF admits that its members have personal, but not official, ties with members of PKR and PAS. Pewaris, however, is clearly critical of the Pakatan Rakyat. Nevertheless, the NGOs strenuously argue that they are not aligned to any one party and are non-political in nature. However, PPIM at least is upfront about being a pressure group that tries to influence government policies on Islam.

Mobilising potential

Professor Dr Norani Othman, a sociologist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, says that regardless of their political alignments, the social formations of these NGOs are based on a limited worldview.

“They are still caught within certain exclusivist boundaries arising from not seeing the world as one,” Norani, who is a co-founder of Sisters in Islam, says in a phone interview. “They seem unable to cast a wide net to be inclusive,” she says. “Their net seems to cover more primordial borders, and they often resort to ethnocentric rhetoric around Malay and Muslim identity. 

“They certainly have potential for mass mobilisation, and this is not a phenomenon exclusive to Malays, Muslims, or Malaysia,” says Norani. “Groups that want to protect their own interests, especially in appealing to a particular race or religion can mobilise very effectively because their soundbites appeal to raw emotions.”

It is instructive to note that ABIM has 80,000 registered members, according to Azril, and that PPIM has 100,000 registered members, according to Noor Nirwandy. To put things in perspective, however, Umno Youth has 700,000 members.

One thing is for certain — issues revolving around the status, interpretation and practise of Islam are going to dominate public discourse for a while yet in Malaysia. As will Malay Malaysian rights.

MPF’s Mazeni says this is why strategic positioning is important. For example, although MPF joined the PEMBELA coalition, it declined the invitation to join ACCIN. “We want to maintain our distance from dominant perceptions of Islamic NGOs, that they are obscurantist and extremist,” he says. “In some instances we may be deserving of this, but in others we are not.” 

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