Growing popularity of conservative Islam in Malaysia linked to overseas students

Increasing popularity of the stricter Islamic worldview raises possibility of shariah law being introduced to replace secular constitution

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 April, 2015, 1:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 4:18pm

Twenty-five-year-old Malaysian undergraduate Mohamad is a long way from home, as he undertakes an Islamic studies course in Cairo.

But thoughts of Malaysia and the way it is governed are not far from his mind.

"I am anti-Umno because it does not rule the country with shariah law," says Mohamad, referring to the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant party in Malaysia's ruling coalition.

And Mohamad says he is not alone: "Many of the students here are anti-Umno because of the same reason."

Such views suggest how overseas religious education is helping set young Malaysians on a path towards resentment of their government and secular law.

Malaysia was long hailed as a moderate and progressive Muslim-majority country. But in recent years the nation has lurched towards Islamic conservatism, to the alarm of liberals and non-Muslims.

A combination of domestic factors, Islamic revivalism on local university campuses, and the Middle East influence brought back by thousands of returning students, have helped propel the shift.

According to the Malaysian Embassy in Cairo, there are currently 11,000 Malaysians studying in Egypt, making them the largest foreign student population in the country.

Allegations of corruption against Malaysia's governing Barisan National (BN) coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1957, are only a secondary issue with Mohamad.

"Yes, corruption is an issue but it is not the main reason why I don't support the government," he says. "The main reason is because the country's constitution is secular."

Not all Malaysian students in Egypt agree. But those who choose to remain politically neutral find themselves coming under pressure from the anti-government students.

"I am neutral. I am not anti-Umno because at the end of the day, I am grateful to the government for giving me this chance to further my education," says 21-year-old Mimi, a dentistry undergraduate.

"But I have to say many Malaysian students here are anti-government and they try to get me to go along with their views," she adds.

The growing appetite for religion-based rule in Malaysia was brought into sharp focus a fortnight ago, when the Islamist opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) put forward a bill to implement the Islamic hudud penal code throughout the state of Kelantan.

The proposal received support from the BN coalition as well as the People's Justice Party (PKR) of jailed opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.

Under hudud law, the penalty for adulterers and apostates is death while thieves will have their hands amputated.

The only party in the opposition coalition who opposed the hudud proposal was the secular, ethnic-Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party.

The PAS, founded in 1951, is the country's oldest and largest opposition party. It draws inspiration from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Politicians and analysts see the efforts to introduce hudud in Kelantan as both a reflection of the conservative mood and a political ploy to court Muslim voters.

Some politicians and analysts say that Islamisation of Malaysia's education system since the 1980s has helped shape the conservative outlook among many Muslims, who make up 61 per cent of the nation's 30 million-strong population.

"Decades of Islamisation of the education system, increased use of Islam in identity politics as well as the lack of space for freedom of speech means that other discourses affecting the welfare of Muslims in the country has been retarded," said Ibrahim Suffian, director of Merdeka Centre, an independent pollster.

"Younger Muslims in Malaysia are displaying more overt social conservatism and more 'Islamic' outlook.

"In part this is due to the Islamisation policies of the government in the past… It probably also reflects the growing use of Islam as an identity tag both culturally and politically in Malaysia."

According to former law Minister Zaid Ibrahim, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim played a major role in the Islamicisation of the education system when he was the Education Minister in the 1980s.

"Anwar is an Islamist. He helped Islamicise the whole government system when he joined the government," Zaid said.

Zaid, who himself hails from Kelantan, warns the introduction of hudud is a threat to the whole system of government.

"The government and PAS just try to find a simple solution and the easiest solution is to choose an Islamic state a la the Iran model," Zaid said.