Malaysia: The ‘non-debate’ in the Muslim world - revisiting the ethics of difference in Islam

In part one of this series Dyala Hamzah and myself (Farish A Noor) looked at the structural factors that have inhibited the growth and development of a public sphere in the contemporary Muslim world.
We argued that apart from the structural realities of modern authoritarian Muslim states, one of the main reasons why a public sphere has not emerged in the Muslim world is the discursive culture and practice of hate-mongering that has become so prevalent in our societies.
Indeed, the march of political religion (be it in Muslim countries or predominantly-Hindu India and predominantly-Christian America) has been in keeping with the development of political religion’s hate-machine: culminating in an expansive discourse replete with conspiracy theories, bellicose slogans and the constant baiting of their opponents and enemies. The situation in Malaysia hardly differs with that of the rest of the world in this respect.

For a modernist Islamist party that has tried its best to pretend that it can appear democratic and civil, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) seems to be in dire need of a major re-think of its foundational premises and tactics. PAS’s latest stunt came last week when its leaders – including the heads of its FT Youth Wing Mohd Haniffa Maidin, Riduan Mohd Noor and Sabki Yusof – staged a demonstration at the Kampung Baru Mosque calling for the banning of the Islamic Women’s NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS). (Haramkan Sisters In Islam, kata Pemuda PAS,, 15 April). The declaration that was issued by the Federal Territory chapter of PAS’s Youth Wing contained a number of sweeping accusations, including the somewhat inflated claim that SIS was actively seeking to unde rmine Islam and to help Muslims leave their religion:

‘Sisters in Islam dan Jawatankuasa Kaukus Parlimen juga, menurut deklarasi tersebut, didakwa menuntut agar kuasa mufti dimansuhkan, serta menuntut kerajaan mengiktiraf kebebasan beragama di negara ini dengan membenarkan umat Islam mengisytiharkan kemurtadan mereka secara terbuka tanpa campurtangan Mahkamah Syariah.’(2)

It would appear as if – cosmetic and sartorial changes notwithstanding – PAS is still stuck in the mould of the 1980s when its hot-headed leaders (like Ibrahim ‘Libya’ Mahmood) was on the warpath, declaring that ‘Islam was in danger’ and that the enemies of the Muslim ummah are everywhere to be seen. Today it looks as if PAS has widened its net even further, ensnaring not only the ‘evil infidels’ of the West (and Israel), but also hapless KL urbanites who choose to hang out in the ever-so-trendy quarter of Bangsar.

Thankfully there still exists independent NGOs like SUARAM to remind PAS that calling for the banning of other NGOs that hold different opinions smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order; and that it is equally hypocritical for PAS to call for individuals to be arrested on the ‘grounds of national security’. (PAS ‘hypocritical’ in demanding ban on SIS, 19 April). However at this stage we would like to emphasise that the problem here does not rest solely with PAS.

As we have shown in the second part of this series, several other political parties in Malaysia have taken the similar easy step of lashing out against groups like SIS and the individuals who support them. The ill-conceived statement of the Vice-Chief of the Keadilan (PKR) party’s Youth Wing, Shamsul Iskandar Mohd Akin (3), for instance, alleges that ‘the proponents of the anti-Moral Policing campaign’ have ‘failed to give proper regards to public morality’. The focus of the PKR Youth Wing’s attack was also the same NGO - Sisters In Islam - which the they claim to have promoted a ‘skewered understanding of religion’ and has ‘deceived the Malaysian public’

And before the members and leaders of UMNO feel too complacent with themselves, it should be pointed out that attacks on Sisters in Islam have also appeared on the websites of UMNO-linked groups such as UMNO-Reform ( We should also remember that it was not too long ago that UMNO’s brand of ‘moderate Islam’ was being aggressively promoted and defended via means that effectively left no room for debate; and that those who dared question or criticise the concept of ‘Islam Hadari’ (albeit crudely at times) were threatened by the law. The harassment of bloggers who had inadvertently crossed the line was made a public spectacle, to remind us all t hat this brand of ‘moderate Islam’ was not to be challenged for whatever reason.

The Origins of the Hate Machine: Political Authoritarianism

It should be clear by now that neither PAS, nor UMNO, nor PKR, really understand or appreciate what a democratic civil culture means in the proper analytical sense. In fact, a closer investigation of Malaysia’s political terrain would show that practically none of the country’s political parties have been able to discard the ever-so-easy route of playing to the gallery. PAS’s pandering to the lowest common denominator among Malaysia’s Muslims is hardly different from UMNO’s pandering to the lowest common denominator among the Malay community.

For this simple reason, we – the Malaysian public – are not likely to be spared the detestable spectacle of hate-campaigns, witch-hunts, slander and abuse for a long time. The baiting of Sisters in Islam by PAS, PKR and even some supporters of UMNO raises the obvious question: IF Sisters in Islam is such a terrible threat to the nation, would the leaders of PAS, UMNO and PKR please be kind enough to answer the following questions: (No prizes for getting it right, as I’m broke as usual).

Was it SIS that went out into the streets in support of the Taliban, chanting slogans like ‘Taliban are our brothers’?

Was it SIS that endorsed Paul Wolfowitz as the new head of the World Bank?

Was it SIS that threatened to burn down the Chinese Assembly Hall?

Was it SIS that described the Chinese educationist lobby as closet communists?

Was it SIS that threatened to use laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA) against bloggers and independent writers/ academics and intellectuals?

In the midst of this furious SIS-bashing, it should also be noted that most of those who have gone on the warpath happen to be Malay males. (It is interesting and important to note, for instance, that the reaction of the PAS Women’s Wing to the morality police issue was both measured and intelligent, in comparison to the PAS FT Youth Wing’s.(4) While short-term corrective measures like putting some men to work on farms under female supervision might serve as a temporary antidote, they do not address the root of the problem itself: authoritarianism.

The real challenge presented by SIS is not just towards Malaysian society and its male members, but to the very structures of power and patriarchy themselves. Too often groups like SIS (and other feminist organizations/NGOs) are summarily dismissed (often by men) because they are seen as a radical destabilizing force that jeopardizes the status quo. What we forget is that the status quo is never a result of historical determinism or necessity, but rather the machinations of (male) power.

It would therefore be entirely wrong to dismiss or misrepresent SIS as a group that is out to get men in particular; for it has to be remembered that Patriarchy, as a structure of domination, control and power, distorts gender relations and affects both men and women negatively. Furthermore it should be noted that feminism’s struggle is part and parcel of the broader struggle against authoritarianism, injustice, inequality and oppression – and as such is part of the same anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggle that has motivated liberationist movements worldwide.

The ‘radical’ aspect of SIS is that it seeks to confront and challenge the structures of Patriarchal power wherever it manifests itself, be it in society or the state. In this respect, SIS represents a continuation of the radicalism inherent in all religions, for the universal message of all religions – including Islam – is one that radically confronts the inequalities of power. And lest it be forgotten, all the Prophets of the past were also labeled as ‘radicals’ who challenged the status quo. The liberating potential in Islam necessarily leads us to the struggle for equality of all, including women of course. How can one be a Muslim and a misogynist at the same time? Or to put it in another way: how can one be a Muslim and not a feminist too?

Here in ‘fascinating Malaysia’ we have the fascinating spectacle of a country presenting itself as a model of ‘moderate Islam’ at work while maintaining repressive laws and legal instruments such as the Internal Security Act (ISA). The struggle of Sisters in Islam is directed towards such an authoritarian political culture as a whole, and in particular its expression in the form of laws that sometimes discriminate against the women of our society. It has never and will never be an ‘either-or’ situation: We cannot struggle against laws such as the ISA while neglecting the oppressive structures of Patriarchal power that help to consolidate and entrench authoritarianism in our midst. In this respect, the political Islamists should stop slandering groups like SIS with spurious accusati ons (such as the bogus claim that SIS is indifferent to the ISA) and recognize that SIS is, in fact, a tactical ally.

We began this series by asking the simple question of what is happening to political Islam the world over and what its future trajectory will be. Here I once again re-state my own subject-position explicitly: Though critical of some of the tactics and strategies adopted by some Islamists groups (particular their stupid and counter-productive actions, such as the demonstrations we were forced to witness last week), I remain convinced that political Islam can succeed if it exceeds the limited frontiers of narrow communitarianism and exclusivism.

For this to happen, however, Islamist activists, leaders and supporters need to understand that their struggle for justice has to be a universal one that includes rather than excludes. In the process of inclusion, Islamists need to include the liberation of women as one of the key objectives of Islamism itself. Here we are merely re-stating the obvious fact that Islam’s emancipatory foundational moment (when it liberated Arab women from the clutches of feudal traditionalism) has to be pushed to its logical conclusion. In the course of doing so, Islamists need to understand that groups like Sisters in Islam are fighting for the same things as they are: the quest for women’s equality is part and parcel of the struggle for the universal dignity of the human being. How, pray tell, can that be seen as ‘un-Islamic’ by some of the more conservative groups? The mind boggles over the idiocy of the times we live in…


(1) Re: Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 4.
(2) Re: Haramkan Sisters In Islam, kata Pemuda PAS,, 15 April
(3) See: PKR Youth Wing Press Statement: Anti-Moral Policing Campaign: A Misguided Move and Sheer Hypocrisy. 5 April 2005
(4) See: PAS Women against Youth call to ban SIS,, 20 April