27 July, 2007

Malaysia an Islamic state? —Farish A Noor

Notwithstanding the overt ban on media discussion of the Islamic state issue, Malaysia’s internet community has been active in keeping the question alive and well on dozens of websites and blogs all over the country

A word, once uttered, can seldom be withdrawn. This is true for most of us and particularly true for politicians who forget that we now live in an age of modern communications technology where every sentence, every utterance, even every burp, hiccup and indiscreet bodily emission will be recorded for posterity.

What has now become a maxim of politics was amply demonstrated recently by the remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak, who claimed during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur that Malaysia is an ‘Islamic state’ that has ‘never been affiliated’ to a secular position, and that that Malaysia’s development ‘has been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam’. (Bernama, 17 July 2007). Needless to say, the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks were a cause of concern for many Malaysians who — for the past fifty years or so — have been living under the assumption that the country was a constitutional democracy and not a theocratic state.

In due course protests issued from all quarters, ranging from the Malaysian urban liberal elite to the leaders of the mainly non-Malay non-Muslim parties of the country; demanding clarification on the issue and a re-statement of the fundamentally secular basis of Malaysia’s politics. As public frustration increased, the Malaysian government reacted as it is wont to do. While the Malaysian Prime Minister is on holiday in Australia, the government issued a blanket media ban on all discussion of the matter, on the grounds that it can only lead to even more public anger and misunderstanding between the racial and religious communities of the country; despite the fact that the source of the misunderstanding and discomfort was the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks in the first place.

Notwithstanding the overt ban on media discussion of the Islamic state issue, Malaysia’s internet community has been active in keeping the question alive and well on dozens of websites and blogs all over the country. Indeed, as developments over the past few years have shown, it is the internet where most of the really interesting and meaningful political discussions have been and are taking place.

The Malaysian authorities have been decidedly apprehensive about the role that the internet can play in deciding the tone and tenor of Malaysian politics, and for this reason numerous conservative politicians of the ruling National Front coalition have been calling for a curb on the activities of bloggers and those who post their ideas in cyberspace. The accusation most often levelled against them being that they spread ‘lies’ against the state and tarnish the image of the leaders of the country; a charge that resonates well in some other repressive states where dissent is likewise treated as a security threat, such as North Korea and China.

Just a week ago a Malaysian blogger — Nathaniel Tan — was arrested and taken if for questioning by the police due to some postings related to allegations of corruption against politicians in the country. Now that a blanket ban has been used to close the forum of public debate on the Islamic state issue, worries have been raised about whether this marks yet another attempt to clamp down on cyberspace and silence the bloggers and cyber-writers.

Following the arrest and subsequent release of Nathaniel Tan, another prominent Malaysian cyber-writer, Raja Petra Kamarudin, who runs the hugely popular www.Malaysia-today.net site has had a police report filed against him by Muhammad Taib, former Chief Minister and member of the ruling UMNO party. The UMNO leader claims that Raja Petra, through his articles and postings on Malaysia-today.net had insulted the king, degraded Islam and incited hatred in the country.

As yet it is not known which of Raja Petra’s postings are said to have been insulting to King and country, though he dismisses the accusations as being baseless. According to Petra: ‘This has nothing to do with allegations about misrepresenting Islam, though such an accusation is the most convenient since when I write about religion I am expressing my personal opinions which are subjective and can therefore be discussed. But what really upsets them are my exposes on corruption in the country, which have been backed up with documents I have posted on the site. How can they refute that?’

Indeed, Raja Petra’s site has been receiving hundreds of thousands of hits daily precisely because of his exposes on corruption among politicians, businessmen, Malaysian criminal networks as well as the Malaysian police force; the last of which has taken a battering over the years due to a series of scandals and exposes related to cases of police brutality, deaths in custody and of course the now-infamous beating of the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim.

Activists, journalists and legal experts are now worried about what this may hold for the future, for the arrest of Nathaniel Tan and the police report against Raja Petra would suggest that moves are being made to silence the messengers on the internet. In the words of prominent Malaysian lawyer Malik Imtiaz: ‘It would be regrettable if this latest action is part of a wider campaign to close down the public domain of speech and discussion on crucial matters such as Malaysia’s constitution and the question of whether Malaysia is an Islamic state.’

In the midst of this, the Malaysian government’s reaction has been one of denial and retaliation. The country’s state-controlled TV channel RTM1 featured an editorial piece condemning local Malaysian newspapers that ‘cause trouble’ by raising sensitive issues on race and religion; while leaders of the ruling UMNO party continue to mouth a rhetoric of ethno-nationalism that is replete with communalist sentiments. The contradictions are clear, as is the paralysis of a government whose leader is on holiday while the messengers remain in the firing line.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, and visiting professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta

Read also :
" Malaysia's mid-life crisis " by Ioannis Gatsiounis. Asia Times Online :

" In the larger scheme of things, Najib's comments might have been meaningless. UMNO has long relied on communal rhetoric to sustain its five-decade grip on power. But the comments also come at a time when the nominally secular country is undergoing what some view as a pronounced Islamization; when several court decisions have denied individuals the right to be recognized by the religion of their choosing; when race relations are on the skids; and when official provocation is on the rise - all as the country finds itself in the throes of a mid-life crisis. "

"In response to Najib's remark, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a component party of the BN coalition, issued statements assuring its constituency that Malaysia is a secular state. UMNO Youth chief and Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, famous for speeches in which he brandishes Malay daggers and warns Malaysia's minority Chinese and Indian communities not to question Malay "supremacy", hit back by telling the MCA (sans dagger this time) not to issue "any more statements that Malaysia is a secular state".



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