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Is Malaysia going down the same road as Pakistan?

BY FARISH A NOOR / 26 July 2007

THE announcement made by the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak, to the effect that ‘we (Malaysia) are an Islamic state’ is mind-boggling to say the least. Speaking during a conference in Kuala Lumpur on the theme of ‘The Role of Islamic States in a Globalised World’, the Deputy Prime Minister claimed that Malaysia has ‘never been affiliated’ to a secular position that that Malaysia’s development ‘has been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam’. (Bernama, July 17, 2007)

One cannot help but wonder if this was a case of a cynical historical revisionism at work, for there is ample historical data to show that the opposite was the case, and that the forefathers of the Malaysian nation were keen to ensure that Malaysia remained a constitutional democracy where the state would play the role of honest broker and govern a Malaysian public that was multi-racial and multi-confessional.

Furthermore, the comments made by the deputy prime minister would suggest a totalising discourse that fails to take into account the pluralism that is at the heart of the Malaysian nation. When he states that ‘we have always been driven by our adherence to the fundamental principles of Islam’, is he referring to the entire Malaysian population that includes not only Muslims but also Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and peoples of other faiths?

It is therefore not surprising to think that this was yet another case of a Malay-Muslim politician playing to the Malay-Muslim gallery the way that so many other Malay politicians have done in the past. After all, the declaration of Malaysia as an Islamic state was made earlier by former prime minister Mahathir; and it was also Mahathir and his former Deputy Anwar Ibrahim who spearheaded the Islamisation programme in Malaysia in the 1980s, taking the country further from its secular constitutional roots and towards a more communitarian register on the basis of Malay-Muslim identity politics.

At this crucial stage in Malaysian history where the constitution has all but been forgotten, it would be wise to reflect on the mistakes made by other Muslim leaders elsewhere who have brought their countries to the brink of ruin by playing the ‘religion card’. Pakistan’s slippery slide towards violent sectarian religious politics was not started by conservative mullahs or even the military dictator General Zia ul Haq, but the secular leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

As soon as he came to power in 1971 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched his own ‘people’s revolution’ in Pakistan. While preaching his ideology of ‘Islamic Socialism’ (which Muammar Gaddafi of Libya also claimed as his idea) Bhutto announced the immediate nationalisation of ten major industries. Bhutto also introduced new legislation that was meant to improve the working conditions of the country’s illiterate and backward workers and peasants. These reforms were inspired in part by the example set by Colonel Gaddafi, and Bhutto’s close contacts with China. During his trips to China, Bhutto had been advised by Mao Tze-Tung and Chao En-Lai to set up a ‘people’s army’ that would support his nationalisation project. The sudden and unexpected nationalisation caused the country’s already weakened economy to collapse completely.

Fearful of losing the support of the population, Bhutto then began to play the Islamic card as well. He assured the Islamist leaders that his own brand of ‘Islamic Socialism’ had nothing no do with Communism per se and that it was not an atheistic ideology. In 1972 he made a deal with the Jami’at-ul Ulema-i Islam (JUI) under Maulana Mufti Mahmood. Bhutto promised to allow Maulana Mahmood and the JUI to expand their activities in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) as long as they would support his own PPP party in the national and regional assemblies.

Bhutto attempted to streamline the process of Islamisation in Pakistan via political and constitutional means. Like Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan before him, he tried to use the state as a means to control and patronise the religious powers in the country. In 1972 Bhutto managed to get Pakistan to host the second OIC summit in Lahore.

By virtue of the 1973 Constitution, the state was officially the guarantor of marriage and the family, the protector of the mother and the child and the guardian of equality before the law by formally prohibiting all forms of sexual discrimination.

Yet, the third Constitution of Pakistan had received the tacit assent of one of the most vociferous opponents of Ayub Khan: Maudoodi himself. Maudoodi’s support in the early 70's was understandable for the reasons that the Constitution had for the first time declared Islam as the religion of the state; had imposed the preservation of religious ethos (by prohibiting prostitution, drugs and obscenity) and had laid down the official definition of a proper Muslim. Furthermore, Bhutto had systematically purged his ex-allies from the radical Left with the expressed support of none other than Maudoodi. In return for these efforts of 'purification ' (particularly on the campuses of the country), Maudoodi gave his tacit endorsement to the 1973 Constitution. But despite all these moves and concessions made in favour of the religious lobbies the Constitution appeared to be theocratic in theory but secular in practice. This was the conclusion that the Islamist camp eventually came to by the mid 70's. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's PPP government was caught in a trap of its own making.  Bhutto attempted to present himself as a democrat and a populist, and he introduced many radical policy changes that were destined to have a long-lasting impact on the country itself.

At the moment Malaysia has several ‘Islamic’ features that even Pakistan does not have, such as the morality police squads, Islamic detention centres and the like. Thus, far from being a model moderate Muslim state that naïve outsiders like Kofi Annan seem to admire, we seem well on the path of an increasingly divisive, sectarian religiously-based politics that has spun out of control.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian historian and political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin, and visiting professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Indonesia. He is also one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

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