Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia

PIETY AND POLITICS
  • Book Title:
 Piety And Politics
  • Book Author:
Joseph Chinyong Liow
  • Total Pages
284
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PIETY AND POLITICS – Book Sample

Introduction – PIETY AND POLITICS

More than two decades after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, have thrust political Islam to the forefront of policy and academic interest yet again.

The concomitant “global war on terror” targeting radicals, militants, Jihadis, and terrorists who claim legitimacy in the name of Islam for their heinous actions is taking place concurrently with a critical interrogation and examination of political systems throughout the Muslim world, which is thought in many quarters (correctly or otherwise) to spawn extremists.

Events in more recent years—such as riots involving disenfranchised Muslim youths in France, the return of conservative, anti-Western elements to power in Iran, the increasing popularity of radical Muslim parties in Bangladesh, persistent separatist violence in Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand, and the triumph of Hamas in free elections in Palestine—have served only to focus greater attention on political developments in the Muslim world.

Against this seemingly tumultuous backdrop, Malaysia appears to stand out as an oasis of calm. With its stable, developing economy and relative social and political stability, the country is widely celebrated as the epitome of progressive, moderate Islam by the international media and major Western governments.

No doubt with one eye cast toward foreign investments, Malaysian leaders regularly announce that religious radicalism and “deviancy” from the state-defined “norms” of Islamic practice are not tolerated in a society where ethno-cultural harmony reigns within a sociopolitical configuration based on Malay-Muslim dominance.

This representation of Malaysia is nested in a wider discourse, promulgated and carefully tended by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, of Malaysian ambitions to be a fully industrialized, modern, developed country by 2020.

To be sure, this message has more than a modicum of truth to it. Com-pared to other multiethnic, multireligious countries, Malaysia has witnessed an admirably low rate of racial and religious conflict. Save for the race riots of 13 May 1969, which in any case had little immediate association with religious issues, Malaysia has managed to avoid major outbreaks of violence.

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Impressive economic growth rates over the past three decades strengthen Malaysia’s image as a Muslim country firmly committed to economic development and modernization. These facts have convinced many that Malaysia will play a major role in international affairs as a model of Muslim governance.

Indeed, Malaysia has won accolades for its tough stance on terrorism and has been extolled in many Western capitals as a “beacon of stability” and valuable ally in the war on terror, while at the same time receiving an equally impressive “report card” from the countries of the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) for its model of Islamic leadership and governance.

Beneath this surface, however, lies a striking paradox. Beyond the energetic world of Kuala Lumpur, defined by consumerism and a vibrant night life worthy of any capital in the Western world, Malaysian society on the whole has been experiencing a swing toward Islamic conservatism in ways that would undoubtedly disturb the very same Westerners who have endorsed the country as the epitome of moderate Muslim governance.

More important, this swing seems to be gaining momentum, as demonstrated by the increasing popu-larity of shari’a in public discourse, state-sanctioned curtailment of civil rights and liberties in the name of Islam, the incapacity of civil courts to challenge controversial shari’a court decisions, increasing incidences of moral policing by Islamic religious authorities (including policing of non-Muslims in some instances), and the alarming regularity of references to the “Islamic state.”1

 Tellingly, the increasing visibility of Islam in Malaysian society and politics is being driven not only by the Islamist opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia, or PAS), as one would anticipate, but also by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), whose members were presum-ably the architects of Malaysia’s brand of progressive, moderate Islam.2

 In addition, alternative actors such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups are increasingly weighing in on the discursive politicization of Islam in Malaysia today. In certain respects, this active engagement in Islamic discourse and counterdiscourse is eclipsing mainstream political par-ties in terms of intensity.

Of course, one could reply that this dichotomy, striking though it is, may not amount to much in the larger scheme of things, particularly when com-pared to other, less palatable models of Islamist governance. Nevertheless, the gradual Islamization of Malaysia and this uneasy paradox it has spawned will transform the complexion of Islam and politics in the country in substantive, fundamental ways.

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 This book, then, is an attempt to unpack and unravel this dichotomy and examine its implications for politics in Malaysia. Put differently, this book is an attempt to understand the shape of Islamism and its institutional expressions as it has evolved.

Islamism as Political Ideology

Most discussion and analysis of political Islam begins by pointing to the fact that Islam is inherently “political.” Proponents of this logic have noted that Islam is addin, a way of life that encompasses din wa dawla, or faith along with polity—religion and state. The essentially political character of Islam was cate-gorically demonstrated, if not in doctrine, then certainly in the development of the faith.

The Prophet Muhammad established the first religiously governed polity in Medina; soon after his death in 632 a.d., internecine confl ict emerged within the Muslim community over questions of succession and legitimacy.

The rule of the fi rst four caliphs was a highly politicized epoch of Islamic his-tory, defined by competition over power, authority, legitimacy, authenticity, and the driving seat of Islam vacated by the Prophet.

Indeed, it is this fusion of religion and politics that has captured the imagination of generations of Muslim intellectuals, from the reform movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the rise of Islamism in the wake of the failure of Arab nationalism in the 1970s, then to the Iranian Revolution, and right up to the current post–September 11 milieu and beyond. By definition then, to an Islamist, a Muslim cannot be indifferent to politics.

At the same time, Islam is also tawhid, oneness and unity in the name of Allah. Yet the theological notion of tawhid belies an extraordinary diversity in popular expression and practice of Islam, often determined by cultural and historical contexts. This diversity is driving an energetic intellectual debate over the universal and particularistic characteristics of Muslims—and, some would argue, of Islam as well.

 The uneasy conjunction of tawhid and diversity explains the wide variety of social-political discourses and movements that claim authenticity and legitimacy in the name of Islam.

According to conventional wisdom, Islamism is at its heart a social-political phenomenon that has a history traceable to Muslim anticolonial movements but whose modern permutation came about in reaction to the failure of Arab nationalist states to empower their Muslim populations.

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In contrast to the romanticized legacy of the Prophet’s seventh-century construction of an Islamic society or the precepts of ad-din and tawhid that ostensibly transcend time and space, Islamism today is a decidedly modern phenomenon dictated by its contexts. Its origins as a reaction to perceived injustice in the social, political, and economic spheres made it attractive as a populist civic phenom-enon, which explains its rapid expansion as a social-political ideology (or, as

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