Malaysia's Home-Grown Taliban: Is This the Future of 'Moderate' Islam in Asia?
This is the first of a series of articles by Dr. Noor on the growing trend of religious authoritarianism in Malaysia. -- Ed.
By Farish A. Noor
There was, not too long ago, a time when I could safely say to myself: “Well, no matter how bad things are here in Malaysia, thank God we don’t live in a country like Afghanistan when it was under the control of the Taliban.” But life has a way of ripping apart your illusions in the most brutal manner, and we are reminded as we grow older that adults are not allowed to entertain the sweet delusions of youth for too long.
Just when we thought that we had seen the back of the tide of radical religio-politics of the 1970s and 1980s, there came a string of embarrassing blunders to remind us that we, too, have our fair share of wannabe-Talibans right here in Malaysia. In the year 2000 we were treated to the Islamiah Aqidah Protection Bill of Perlis, that proposed – among other things – that Muslims found guilty of ‘deviant’ and ‘un-Islamic’ behavior be sent to so-called ‘faith rehabilitation centers’ so that their interpretation and practice of faith could be somehow ‘corrected’ by the religious ideologues of the state.
Then we were fed a steady diet of nonsensical non-issues dressed up as religious controversies, ranging from the attack on independent academics, writers and activists by right-wing pressure groups in 2002. Later in 2003 and 2004 the demagogues of UMNO, not to be outdone, tried their best to show that they too could police the discourse of Islam by trying to criminalize differences of opinion, such as the pathetic attempt to demonize a lone blogger whose comments posted on an independent blogsite was said to be ever-so-offensive to some.
Despite the talk of ‘Islam Hadari’ and the attempts to promote the agenda of ‘progressive, moderate Islam’ here in Malaysia, it should be painfully obvious to all by now that there remain very real repressive undercurrents in Malaysian society. This is particularly true for the Malay-Muslims of Malaysia, who are forced to live under the constant threat of a myriad of increasingly repressive, intrusive and constricting laws governing their practice, understanding and expression of normative Islam.
The latest proof of this gradual slide towards an increasingly nasty brand of authoritarian social policing came some days ago (13 January), when about a hundred Malay-Muslim citizens were rounded up by ‘moral guardians’ said to be working for JAWI (Federal Territory Department of Religious Affairs) at a nightspot in Kuala Lumpur. (Sunday Mail, Seeing Red over JAWI Raid, 23 January). According to the testimony of some of those arrested, the JAWI officials were ‘overzealous’, ‘abusive’, ‘rude’ and behaved ‘like thugs’ in a ‘high-handed manner’.
The manner in which the raid was carried out deserves to be repeated here, as the details provide us with a glimpse into the not-so-pretty collective Malaysian psyche: At around 12.55 am a group of about 50 people dressed in plain clothes entered the club. Some of them wore uniforms with the word JAWI on them. The officials then ordered the music to be turned off, and then segregated the crowd. Then, apparently, ‘an announcement over the club’s PA system instructed the non-Muslims to proceed to another part of the club ‘to enjoy themselves’ while the rest, about 100 Muslims, were told to form two separate groups, men and women.’ (Sunday Mail, 23 January).
What happened next can only be described as dehumanizing and degrading: Our fellow Malaysian citizens were ordered to crouch down on the ground, then herded together into a caged space in a lorry and then driven off to a detention centre at the JAWI headquarters. Some of those arrested claimed that the driver of the lorry drove recklessly, despite the screams of panic and fear of those locked in the cage. Once at the JAWI headquarters, the men and women were locked in cells, some of which were so small that ‘they were forced to stand throughout their six to ten-hour ordeal.’
To get an glimpse into the mindset of these so-called ‘moral guardians’, the testimonies of the victims are again relevant: ‘The officers were only paying attention to the girls’, according to some of those detained. The women were said to have been exposed to verbal abuse and humiliation, and some were even asked to ‘twirl’ around in front of the so-called ‘moral guardians’ so that the latter could get a better look at them, thus able to ‘assess’ if the girls were ‘improperly dressed’. Among the highlights of the evening was one girl being forced to urinate in her clothes because she was denied access to the toilet; another girl asked to lower her handbag (which she used to cover her chest) so that the officials could have a better look at her nipples; and another female student being asked by the so-called ‘moral guardians’ if she had her genitals pierced. (Sunday Mail, 23 January.) It seemed as if these ‘moral guardians’ could only think of sex in the course of their moral policing! One is then compelled to ask: whatever happened to the Quranic injunction for men to lower their gaze and guard their own modesty?
It is reported that some of the victims felt so thoroughly humiliated and abused that they felt they had ‘been soured against their own religion’. So much for Malaysia’s promotion of the long-awaited project of ‘progressive, moderate’ Islam Hadari. If this is the sort of behaviour we should expect from the ‘defenders of Islam’ in Malaysia, then the Malaysian electorate might as well have voted for PAS at the previous elections!
Genealogy of Authoritarianism
The goings-on that took place on the night of 13-14 January should remind all of us that despite the superficial changes in terms of official rhetoric and despite Malaysia’s new-found status as a ‘moderate Muslim state’ by none other than the neo-Con establishment of Washington, things have not really changed here.
Furthermore it should alert all Malaysians that what is being done in the name of ‘safeguarding Islam’ has serious repercussions for the future of Malaysia; the status of all Malaysian citizens – be they Muslims or non-Muslims; Malaysia’s international image and standing, and its own credibility as a supposed ‘bastion of moderate Islamism at work’. It raises some difficult, embarrassing and even painful questions that we – the citizens of Malaysia – have to ask ourselves, openly and honestly.
Before we even begin to solve this problem – namely, of the growing tide of religio-political authoritarianism and intolerance in Malaysia – we need to understand the nature of the problem itself. This problem has a name, and its name is Fascism.
‘Fascism’, in case we have forgotten, is not some nasty thing in the past dreamt of by German and Italian right-wingers wearing silly oversized boots and monocles. As an ideology as well as a mode of political conduct, it is characterized by several salient essentials:
- The valorisation of power, force and violence as a means to achieve political ends;
- The use of a defensive, parochial and introverted rhetoric that constantly warns of ‘dangers and threats’ to the community;
- The active cultivation of a culture of fear, paranoia and prejudice that presents difference and alterity as threats to the cohesion of the whole;
- The wilful and deliberate identification of ‘Other’ groups (religious, ethnic, racial and gender communities usually) as ‘external threats’ and ‘contaminating’ influences that need to be guarded against; and,
- The tendency to promote and foreground a singular, simplistic understanding of unity predicated on an oppositional dialectics that sees others in negative terms to be opposed, fought against and defeated.
It is for this reason that ‘Fascism’ or fascistic tendencies can be found practically everywhere in the world, among right-wing groups: Be they the neo-Con militarists who currently hold power in Washington, extremist Hindu fundamentalists and Aryan racial supremacists in India, to the Taliban and Neo-Salafi/Wahhabi elites in the Muslim world. All these groups share a similar worldview and value system, and the expression of their fascistic inclinations is often the same, manifesting itself in terms of violent moral police, hounding campaigns and witch-hunts against their enemies, demonizing their enemies as ‘deviant, corrupt, evil,’ etc.
Here in Malaysia the first signs of the rise of authoritarianism could be found in the dominant political culture of the state itself. By the 1970s, the authoritarian political culture of Malaysia gave birth to local oppositional groups that were likewise mirror-reflections of the authoritarian culture they opposed: On the campuses of Malaysia there emerged right-wing Malay-Muslim student groups who claimed to be ‘Islamist activists’, but who were really more concerned about isolating the Malay-Muslims from the rest of the student body and to police their fellow Muslims instead. It was during this period that hot-headed thugs began their campaign to ‘police’ student campus life, to the point of breaking into campus dormitories and checking on their fellow Malay-Muslim students, in order to make sure that they were ‘behaving properly’.
Today, the logic of popular authoritarianism has come full circle, with the state playing a role it has no business playing: namely, policing the values, beliefs and private lives of ordinary Malaysians. Across the spectrum we have seen groups from PUM to TERAS to PAS to UMNO trying to police the behavior, thoughts and lifestyles of Malay-Muslims, ostensibly in the name of ‘defending Islam’. Academics, writers, activists and now ordinary kids going out for a good time have become their victims. There have been attempts to criminalize differences of opinion in Islam, attempts to demonize Muslim women’s groups (like the NGO Sisters in Islam), demonize Muslim gays/lesbians, etc. The latest addition to this gamut of repressive laws and instruments of state is Malacca Chief Minister Mohammad Ali Rustam’s suggestion that the Malacca 4B Youth Movement should be called upon to help ‘spy’ on Malaysian Muslims, and to police their private lives- again in the name of defending the good name and honor of Islam.
Never has ‘Islam’ been so sullied by those who simply wish to expand and increase their own share of power!
Morality, Moral Campaigns and the Thirst for Power
The bottom line is that all these so-called ‘moral campaigns’ are nothing more than an exercise of expanding the power of the state and the powers-that-be. Despite the claims that these groups wish to police the morality of the public for the sake of ‘common decency’, there is and has never been anything moral or decent about such self-appointed social guardians in the first place.
The policing of the private lives of citizens, as George Orwell has pointed out, is the first step towards the encroachment of the state into the private lives of everyone. Behind the slogan of ‘Islam in danger!’ we have witnessed the rise of so many authoritarian movements, from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Ahle Hadith, Laskar Taiba/Jamaat’ul Dawa in Pakistan to groups like the Laskar Jihad, Fron Pembela Islam and Majlis Mujahideen Indonesia in Indonesia.
It is important to note that if and when such ‘moral campaigns’ get off the ground, it is always the weakest, most marginal and disenfranchised sections of society who have to pay the human costs: gender minorities, kids, racial/ethnic minorities, the poor and unemployed, etc. It is interesting to note that in some of the reports on the incident that took place in Kuala Lumpur, one of the Muslim youths was allowed to get away, ostensibly because he was well-connected socially. (Mail, 23 Jan) So here already we find the first contradiction in the exercise: that there are two standards of morality, namely one for the rich and one for the poor and ordinary!
For too long, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been cowed into a state of fear and submission by these authoritarian bullies who claim that they alone have the right to interpret what is the ‘right’ version of Islam and to impose their vision of the faith on the rest of society. In some cases, the outcome has been the suffering, even deaths, of innocents. One such case was the instance when the moral police of an Arab country chose to lock the gates of a girls dormitory that had caught fire, on the grounds that some of the girls should not be allowed to escape as they were not ‘decently dressed’ and had not covered their heads with scarves. The end result was the deaths of these young girls – but the ‘moral police’ would presumably have defended their actions by saying that the girls who died had ‘gone to heaven’ as their modesty was not compromised!
Is the Malaysian public in store for such developments as well? This country, whose leadership prides itself as being a model of ‘moderate, progressive’ Islam is now forced to look itself squarely in the face and ask the question: How much longer must we tolerate the flagrant infringement of our rights and private space? The present political leadership was voted into power last year with such an overwhelming show of support, precisely because the Malaysian public was fed up with the brand of theocratic absolutism, bordering on the medieval, offered by the opposition. Is this what the Malaysian public voted for? Or can Malaysians show the courage and political conviction that is needed to say once and for all: We will no longer tolerate the abuse of religion – any religion for that matter – for political ends, and that we will no longer be treated like children, herded and bullied about, by demagogues?
Above all, we must remember this simply yet vital truth: Any attack on any section of Malaysian society (whatever their racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender or cultural background) is an attack on Malaysian society as a whole. When one Malaysian citizen has his or her rights infringed, threatened or abused, we – all of us – are the shared victims of that abuse. We need to realise this now, more than ever. In the words of the American film director Spike Lee: “Wake up. Please, wake up.”
Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist.
Next: Part Two: This is NOT a Malay-Muslim problem, it is a Malaysian problem!
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