The rise of Muslim NGOs

By Shanon Shah (The Nut Graph)

IT was to be expected that the cabinet decision on unilateral conversion of minors to Islam by a Muslim-convert parent would be opposed. Indeed, less than a week after the cabinet decision, the coalition of Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs) known as Pembela criticised the decision.

Pembela comprises more than 50 Muslim NGOs, and was spearheaded in 2006 by the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) to protest against apostasy, specifically in the Lina Joy case. "It is good to see more Muslim NGOs emerge," says Abim's vice-president Azril Mohd Amin.

While that may be the case from a Muslim's perspective, the proliferation of Muslim NGOs should be assessed beyond just numbers. How exactly are Muslim NGOs shaping the landscape of not just civil society but also politics in Malaysia? What influence do they wield and who are they politically aligned to?

Potent pressure

Since there are champions of Islam and Malay rights in both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR), both NGOs and political parties meet on issues that mutually enhance their leverage.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the agenda of political parties is dictated wholesale by the Muslim NGOs, or vice versa. Indeed, the NGOs interviewed by The Nut Graph were quick to assert their independence from political parties.

Still, considering the multiplicity of Muslim NGOs in operation, the pressuring of government leaders and policy makers is potent, especially when the NGOs demonstrate strength in numbers.

Consider also the vast range of issues that these NGOs agitate on — more than just conversion issues such as M Indira Gandhi's plight, and the plight of other non-Muslims before her. Pewaris Permuafakatan Islam, a coalition of more than 30 Muslim NGOs, has been in the spotlight since 2008, speaking out against pig farming, among others. Majlis Permuafakatan Ummah (Pewaris) has advocated for the use of the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial by the state.

Many other Muslim NGOs and coalitions have emerged, and the issues they highlight have largely revolved around defending the status of Islam and Malay rights.

Almost unanimously, the rhetoric adopted by each of these NGOs is coloured by fear.

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