Modern Malaysia Grapples with Islamization

By Mahi Ramakrishnan (

Eights years ago I followed the Muslim religious authorities, dubbed the morality police, on a raid in Malaysia's federal capital, Kuala Lumpur for an article I was writing on the religious body and its function. We walked silently around Titiwangsa Park until the officers spotted a Malay couple sitting together. They quickly crouched behind a tree, watched the couple canoodle and then jumped on them, literally.

In 2006, I followed the morality police on a raid again for another story. This time they went looking for unmarried couples in private homes. Upon reaching our destination, they scaled the wall of a home in Cheras, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, and banged on the door until it was opened. The morality officers searched the home, and finding a woman who was shaking in fear, discovered that the couple was unmarried but engaged. They then searched the cupboard, took a bra and panties as evidence (I was told) and arrested the couple. They spent a day in the prison cell of the Islamic religious department.

Three years later, things have not changed in Malaysia. In fact they have gotten worse. The country's moderate image took a whack at the end of last month when a Muslim mother of two, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, was sentenced to six lashes of the cane by a Shariah court for drinking beer. Though her corporal punishment was scheduled for August 24th, government officials announced a postponement until after the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Kartika, on the other hand, is simply fed-up. Speaking over the phone, she told me she just wants the ordeal to be over and would prefer to be whipped as soon as possible. Her angst is justified as she was arrested for drinking beer in a hotel back in 2007.

Kartika’s case has brought about mixed signals from the country’s leaders and scholars, but it has also teased out some big differences between the secularists and Islamists in Malaysia. The opposition’s conservative Islamic party PAS supports the sentence, while Muslim women's groups have cried foul over the verdict. One religious scholar has recommended that Kartika be whipped 80 times, rather than six. Anxious to ensure the country does not look archaic, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has said Kartika must appeal the decision.

Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country with 60% Malay Muslims. The rest of the population is Chinese and minority Indians. Islam is the official religion and according to the federal constitution, all Malays are considered Muslims. The country's affirmative action policies favor the Malays, who are deemed the sons of the soil. Here, one can check into the religion but cannot check out – those wanting to convert out of Islam are branded apostates. The government has officially sanctioned “faith rehabilitation centers” where anyone who was born a Muslim, and converts out of it by marriage or choice, undergoes a “reconversion” process as a part of the Malay state religion.

It is difficult to understand the dizzyingly complex back and forth arguments for and against the whipping. But the verdict questions if Malaysia is becoming extremely conservative and fanatical. "Malaysia has seen an increased level of Islamization over the last 20 years," says Norhayati Kaprawi, a member of the Muslim group, Sisters in Islam.

Malaysia's religious majority is Muslim, with Islam as the nation's official religion. Photograph by flickr user Vin Crosbie used under Creative Commons licenses.

Maybe the country is struggling to find a balance between being Islamic and modern. Recently the government reversed an earlier ban prohibiting Muslims from attending a Black Eyed Peas concert sponsored by the Guinness brewery. The PAS has been extremely critical of foreign bands and called for the Danish band Michael Learns to Rock to be banned from performing last Saturday for being an insult to fasting Muslims. The concert nevertheless took place.

But before Malaysians could recover from the demands of the Islamic hard-liners, the country witnessed another transgression on basic humanity. On August 28th, a group of 50 Muslims chanting Allahu-Akhbar (God is great) paraded the blood-soaked head of a cow to protest against the re-location of a Hindu temple to their neighborhood. The protest leader threatened more bloodshed if the construction of the temple goes on.

But the cue to what is actually happening in Malaysia might come from the dozens of policemen who were at the Cow Head Rally, as it has now been dubbed. In a nation where human rights activists and opposition politicians are nabbed for holding a candlelight vigil or wearing black T-shirts to symbolize the death of democracy, the policemen watched silently while the Muslims spat and stomped on the cow head. Even Malaysia’s Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said that there was nothing wrong with the rally and claims the protesters do not know where the cow head came from.

Opposition lawmaker Charles Santiago sums up the situation as a ploy by the government to regain its grip on power. In a press statement, Santiago says that the rally was carefully planned and executed to create fear among the masses and rally support for the ruling UMNO party, which lost its power base during last year's general election. Though the party represents a range of Muslims and is more or less middle of the road, it is now playing to the more conservative and rural crowd.

"The 1969 bloody racial riots, operasi lalang in 1987 and the racial clash in 2001 all happened when UMNO's grip on power was violently shaken as it is now," he explains.

Operasi lalang, or the “weeding operation,” was a crackdown by the police on opposition politicians and social activists. 106 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial and the revocation of publishing licenses.

Santiago adds that premier Najib "however, still fakes a penchant for democracy, diplomacy and justice while disallowing political freedom for fear of losing his ability to monopolize power in the country.” He says the premier's goodwill “extends only so far that his interests are safeguarded."

Others like Kaprawi say that Malaysia is competing with PAS and other Middle Eastern countries to look Islamic. "The sad reality is that the more conservative you are, the more Islamic you are seen to be," she says.

Last year, Malaysia was thrown into the international limelight when Lina Joy was not allowed to convert out of Islam to marry her lover. She fought the case for eight years and is still living in hiding, fearing for her life from fanatical Muslims.

Revathi Masoosai, a practicing Hindu, was separated from her husband and baby when it was found out that she was technically a Muslim. Revathi’s case forces disturbing questions to the surface as to whether Malaysia’s non-Muslims, who typically enjoy greater freedoms than Muslims, would be treated with equality and justice.

However, not all Muslims share the sentiments and beliefs of the conservative hard-liners. Many Muslims, including the daughter of former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Marina Mahathir, criticized those who paraded with the bloodied cow head. But in Malaysia Islam is a hands-off issue, debated only among friends in tea shops. The government does not tolerate any discussion on the matter, academic or otherwise, even if it encroaches upon the rights of non-Muslims. A change to this policy would certainly help stitch together the different races in Malaysia through open debate.

The only conclusion one can arrive at is that the Islamic uprising in Malaysia is a manipulated play of politics. Sadly it fails to lend credibility to the argument that Islam and modernity can exist side by side.

About the Author

Mahi Ramakrishnan is a journalist who has worked in both print and television journalism for TIME, Al Jazeera International and PRESS TV, Iran among others. While she has long given up on the idea that she can single-handedly change the world, Mahi hopes that through the dissemination of accurate information she can help people make informed decisions. When not working she sits idling in Starbucks thinking of ideas for her documentaries. Mahi lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.