Religion and civil engagement in society after regime change

The most controversial issue pertained to religion in the first six months after Malaysia’s 12th General Election was Bar Council’s forum on Islam. The event was seen as anti-Islam by then-PKR’s MP Zulkifli Noordin, who led an aggressive group of protestors to sabotage the event.

When asked later why he saw the forum as anti-Islam, Noordin remarked that,

When you talk of sensitivities of others, do so behind closed doors and only invite those in authority. Don’t invite any Tom, Dick or Harry. You can talk about Islam but you cannot talk for Islam. […] I don’t call any mamak chendol or kacang putih seller to talk about Hinduism, do I? That would only look stupid. I would call the priest, the authority and then I can get a better picture on Hinduism. […] Just because some mosquito group of Muslims start talking about Islam, they represent Islam. I don’t think that is fair.

Apparently, Noordin did not bother to check the fact that if not for the hostility showed by aggressors like him, the forum would have been attended by Mohd Naim Mokhtar (Syariah Prosecutor for Federal Territory’s Islamic Affairs Department and former Syariah High Court judge) and Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad (Director of the Syariah Law and Political Science Centre and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Islamic Understanding of Malaysia) as panelists. Neither of these jurists can be considered as “Tom, Dick and Harry” nor “mosquito group of Muslims” in the field of Islamic jurisprudence in the country.

It was due to the inability of Noordin and the like to comprehend the contributory importance of civil discourse for the development of the society, an opportunity for learning about Islam has slipped away. Just like that.

Of course to Noordin, he has always wanted to see himself as the protector of Islam,

For me Islam comes first. I am a Muslim first, a party member second. A Muslim first, a lawyer second. A Muslim first, an MP second. […] You attack Islam, I’ll be there, even if I have to do it on my own. […] Whatever it is, Islam comes first.

Noordin is not alone. There are others who see themselves along him as bouncers of Islam: Ibrahim Ali, who threatened holy war against Christians and chided other Muslims who disagree with him as liberals; and Hasan Ali, who saw himself as the savior of Islam.

While they continue to promote themselves as championing Islam, there are sections among the Muslim community that do not share their understanding of the Islamic cause.

For instance, Mohd Hanipa Maidin and Dr Mehrun Siraj differed from Noordin in their judgement of the Bar Council’s forum. To them, intellectual and dialogical engagement is the way forward in the building of civil society and contributing to the cause of Islam. To have operated like Noordin was to do disservice to the faith.

It is observable that issues of such intra-religious nature are frequently raised since the 12th General Election. Just to highlight some recent ones, PAS spiritual advisor Nik Aziz Nik Mat has recently condemned UMNO as un-Islamic, criticizing the latter along the line that it worships lust as its god; The former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sarcastically congratulated PAS for its willingness to consider accepting non-Muslim as deputy president for the party; PAS’ Rani Othman stated that UMNO is ignorant of the Quran; The differing views between Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria and former Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin on ethnic-based jihad; And the disagreement between the Islamic Renaissance Front with the UMNO government in the extradition of Hamza Kashgari.

As long as race-based politicians such as Noordin and the two Ali seek to seal their public image as the champions for Islam, we can expect plenty of unfounded accusations to be hurled around. This is what has happened to Pakatan Rakyat since 2008. It could be as typical as racial discrimination charges to something as novel as ex-communists trying to Christianize the country.

The rise of intra-religious debates is as evident as they are important. When each fraction of the Muslim community claims to represent Islam, it creates theological contestation that is good for the Malaysian society in general and for the Muslim community in particular in that it protects Islam from being domesticated and manipulated by any quarter.

However, this contestation cannot be left at that for it will degenerate into unhealthy pluralism where every claim made on Islam becomes as valid as every other. Or worse, the quarter with the most guns, bullets, and keris will stamp out fellow Muslims who disagree with them.

For that, one main challenge that has to be taken up by the national leaders after the regime change is the facilitation of civil engagement in two areas: Between Muslims and non-Muslims; and among Muslims themselves.

These engagements will play significant role in promoting the country’s socio-economic development through inter and intra-religious discourses. Among many things, this means that the State would have to guarantee civility in the society by providing avenues for these engagements to take place.

However, such providence does not mean absolute absence of restriction. The current restriction is designed to impress upon citizens that it is only under the UMNO regime that unity, harmony and stability in the society can be guaranteed.

This impression is notable as recent as in the speech of Prime Minister Najib Razak, “If we are to achieve national unity, the main key to it is unity among the Malays.” And echoed by Ibrahim Ali a few days later, “What Perkasa wants is Malay unity, which is a unity of the faith, a way of life, culture and Scripture.”

The impression underlying these speeches restricts society’s civil engagements in that unity, harmony and stability can only be conceived under political parties.

The new restriction has to change this impression. Instead of having the ruling regime (whichever political party that rule the day) perceived as the guarantor, the impression to uphold unity, harmony and stability has to be distilled onto the various communities regardless of ethnicity, religion, or theological standing. Each community has to own its role as the guarantor of civility in the society despite racial and theological differences.

Within such context, political parties have to work their way through the differences and similarities of these communities. On one hand, this reduces the chances for any party to manipulate racial and religious divide in order to rule. On the other hand, it enhances the ruling party’s nation-building effort that is supported by inter-community cooperation afforded by their similarities.

Much of this impression of civil engagement is already evident in the various peaceful initiatives such as the BERSIH assemblies, how the Coptic Christians joined hands to protect the Muslims while the latter group prayed, and how the Egyptian Muslims came together to protect the Christians when they observe their religious service.

The desire for civility seems to be shaping Malaysians’ political consciousness. Nowadays, the majority of the Malay-Muslims youth are concerned over Islamic radicalism in politics, corruption and lack of freedom of expression.

Besides, since 2008, Pakatan Rakyat has cultivated good working relationship in a civil manner. Initially there was suspicion over each other within the coalition, yet they have improved tremendously. In terms of religion and civil engagement, each political group have learned to work on the similarities while seeking avenues for discourses with other parties.

Therefore after the regime change, there is high tendency for each community to continue engaging with other community for common cause of which sustaining civility in inter, and intra-religious discourses are one. These glimpses of civil engagement need further elaboration, structure, and administration in order to have sustained effect towards the development of the country in relation to Islam. Muslim scholars and non-Muslim organisations, such as the Bar Council, can then work together without being threatened by hostile incivility coming from those who masquerade themselves as champions of the Islamic faith.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is currently reading theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and blogs at and He is the co-editor (with Soo-Inn Tan) of ‘The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian Political Engagement in Malaysia today’ (Singapore: Graceworks, 2011).