Malaysia: Increasing religiosity in Malaysia causes a stir

A recent survey caused a stir by revealing how Malaysian Malays rate the importance of religion in their lives. Over 70 per cent of 1,000 Malays surveyed nationwide said they viewed themselves as Muslims first, Malaysians second, and Malays third.
Religion, country, race - in that order.
That finding sparked concern over the implications of growing religiosity within this multi-religious country's dominant ethnic group.

The survey was conducted by University of Malaya associate professor Patricia Martinez, a scholar of Islam. She believes Islam became the defining element of Malay identity after other Malaysians adopted such aspects of Malay culture as food, dress and language.

'Therefore, since racial differentiation is politics, policy and fact of life in Malaysia, perhaps the mostly Malay respondents of the survey chose being Muslim as indicating the boundaries of their identity,' she told The Straits Times.

Islam's influence on everyday Malaysian life, and even government policy, is plain to see.

Most Muslim women now wear the tudung (headscarf) outside the home, and in some places, risk attracting disapproving stares if they do not.

The best-selling Mingguan Malaysia newspaper runs a full page of religious advice every Sunday, with experts answering readers' questions ranging from straightforward queries about prayer to intimate issues of marital relations.

Most Muslim parents send their children for after-school Islamic classes. The government wants all national schools to offer religious classes, and some states already do so.

More than 20,000 Malaysians go on the haj to Mecca annually, and because of country quotas imposed by Saudi Arabia, the waiting list for pilgrims now stretches to over three years.

Soon after their wedding last week, Malaysian superstar Siti Nurhaliza and her businessman husband planned to head to Mecca to perform the minor pilgrimage, umrah.

So it is not surprising that Prof Martinez's survey also found a growing orthodoxy, with 77 per cent wanting stricter Islamic laws and 44 per cent in favour of allowing the state to police morality, such as indecent dressing.

It is clear that Malaysia's silent majority of Muslims view the world differently from liberal Kuala Lumpur-based groups such as Sisters in Islam, or human rights lawyers.

What does all this mean for Malaysia?

Politically, the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which runs the Kelantan state government, sees reason for optimism. Deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa said the survey results were a 'significant signal' that religiosity is taking priority over being Malay.

PAS believes this will be beneficial to the party, whose primary platform is religious.

But the ruling Umno also has a strong Islamic appeal, and in matters related to religion, there is often little to differentiate the two parties.

Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, director of the Institute of Malay Civilisation at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, points out that religion has long dominated politics and public discourse.

He points to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's speeches, which refer frequently to religion.

But there are concerns that when Muslims take on a stronger Islamic identity, delicate race relations will be aggravated at a time when new divisive lines are emerging.

Tensions have risen over recent developments, in particular the question of whether Islamic (Syariah) law or the secular Constitution is supreme.

This question has been brought to the fore in a lawsuit filed by Ms Lina Joy, a Malay woman who wanted 'Islam' removed from her identity card after she converted to Christianity. The country's highest court has yet to deliver its decision.

A strong Islamic identity also translates occasionally into overzealous rulings, such as a recent decision by the influential National Fatwa Council, a body comprising Islamic religious officials.

It sparked controversy by saying that government organised 'open house' celebrations held during major festivals should be reviewed as they may contravene Islam.

Mufti Harussani Zakaria, the leading Islamic official in the state of Perak, declared that Muslims risked damaging their faith by sharing in non-Muslim celebrations, for example, by giving hongbao (red packets of cash) to the children of their hosts during Chinese New Year.

Among those who protested was a Chinese woman who wrote a letter to the New Straits Times pointing out that her family had been Muslim for several generations, prayed five times a day, and celebrated Chinese New Year as well.

Ms Ivy Josiah, who runs the Women's Aid Organisation, said: 'Overzealousness is impacting race relations. There has been a growing divide, and walls being built.'

Quite aside from high-profile cases like the Lina Joy saga, she is concerned about the 'everyday little blisters'.

'We hear of teachers telling young Muslim children not to send Christmas cards,' she said.

There are fears that racial harmony could fray, and government leaders have tried to rein in the trend.

PM Abdullah has tried to promote a progressive form of religion called Islam Hadhari, which emphasises moderation, but it does not appear to have taken off.

The question now is what lies ahead for a country that has long stayed on the moderate course as it balanced the challenges of a multiracial, multi-religious society.

Nobody is saying yet that Malaysia is hurtling down an extremist path. Indeed, the political safety net, in the form of laws against sedition and safeguarding unity, are well-established.

As Prof Shamsul puts it: 'Religion is not what people fear; extremism is. And it is not easy to become radical in Malaysia.'

And while Prof Martinez's survey attracted attention with its finding that Malays put religion first, other more comforting responses have gone unnoticed.

Most of the Malays polled saw nothing wrong with Muslims learning about other religions, participating in interfaith dialogues, or living alongside non-Muslims.

More than half also preferred Syariah law to remain under the Constitution, rather than to replace it.

This suggests that, despite increased religiosity, Malaysia's Muslims remain pragmatic.

'These findings indicate a greater level of acceptance of the reality of Malaysia's diversity than appears in current public discourse,' said Prof Martinez.

by Carolyn Hong, Sep 5, 2006, SITNews