Mizan mosque[photo: Islamic Centre of Malaysia]

[This is an extract from an article in the current  special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs]


Malaysia’s 14th general election witnessed three different yet related Islamist models offered by three competing coalitions, namely the Barisan Nasional (BN) headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) led by former Premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and the Gagasan Sejahtera led by Haji Abdul Hadi Awang of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). All three offered their own visions of Islamism with varying levels and types of inclusivity of non-Muslims as part of a Muslim-led body politic. As it turned out, no choice was totally rejected. Although nationally Malaysians voted to end BN’s 61-year rule in favour of the more ethnically diverse PH, the states of Pahang and Perlis retained loyalty to BN, while Kelantan and Terengganu chose a PAS-governed administration. Amidst national debates concerning corruption and abuse of power, different conceptions of Islamist statecraft retained significance as the electorate went to the polls on 9 May 2018, and this is analysed in the present article.


Throughout its capricious history of inter-group political wheeling and dealing, PAS has led governments in the states of Kelantan (1959–1978, 1990–), Terengganu (1959–1961, 1999–2004, 2018–) and Kedah (2008–2013), and briefly provided the chief minister (Menteri Besar). Literally meaning ‘big minister’, Menteri Besar is the head of the governments of Malaysian states with hereditary sultans. For states without sultans, the equivalent post to a Menteri Besar is the Ketua Menteri or chief minister. Under the banner of BA, in 1999 PAS collaborated with the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PKR’s forerunner, the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional, henceforth Keadilan. Keadilan’s genesis lay in the Reformasi movement, which began as a mass uprising centring around street protests and demonstrations in 1998–1999 to fight for justice for Anwar Ibrahim in the wake of his humiliating sacking from both government and UMNO party posts in September 1998. Following messy trials on what many perceived to be trumped-up charges, Anwar was found guilty of corruption and sodomy in 1999. He was to languish in jail until September 2004. In 2003, Keadilan merged with the socialist-oriented People’s Party of Malaysia (PRM: Parti Rakyat Malaysia) to form the People’s Justice Party (PKR: Parti Keadilan Rakyat) led by Anwar’s wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of long-time Islamist icon and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Until his drastic fallout with Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad which ended in his purging, conviction and imprisonment under charges of corruption and sodomy, Anwar was UMNO’s face of Islamisation. The most prominent leader of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, ABIM) – a major player in Malaysia’s Islamic revival in the 1970s – Anwar joined UMNO in 1982 on Dr Mahathir’s invitation. Following Anwar, many ABIM activists joined UMNO, some of whom stayed on even after his unceremonious dismissal while others moved on to Keadilan/PKR.

Adoption of Islam as a primary plank of national governance has been attributed to these ABIM activists brought into UMNO and the government by Anwar. They exerted powerful influence in Islamic institutions at the federal level, such as the Islamic Missionary Foundation of Malaysia (Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia, YADIM) and the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), transforming Malaysia into a quasi-Islamic state during Dr Mahathir’s first prime ministerial tenure (1981–2003), sans the formal enactment of sharia in the nation’s legal structure. The period witnessed an enormous expansion of the Islamic bureaucracy, which evolved from one entrusted to look into the well-being of Islam and Muslims to one of installing Islam as the Grundnorm of Malaysia’s politico-legal system, effectively making it an ‘Islamist’ rather than just ‘Islamic’ institution.

Malaysia’s wasatiyyah (moderation) vision of blending religious ideals with modernity, as promoted via a top-down developmental approach by Dr Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim before their dramatic fallout in 1998, had the undesirable effect, however, of cementing an authoritarian culture and didactic decision-making framework that would serve the vested interests of their successors. Worse, such authoritarianism was given a religious cloak that submerged other immoral goings-on such as corruption that spread while the Islamist cause was ostensibly being furthered. By the time Dr Mahathir retired in October 2003, forces of Islamism and religious conservatism had burgeoned into a new class of religio-political elites, comprising an array of Islamist-inclined religious officials and Malay-Muslim politicians who saw it as their destiny to serve as agents and foot soldiers of Malaysia’s seemingly unstoppable march towards an ‘Islamic state’. As both Dr Mahathir and Anwar would discover in GE14, as improbable allies in PH, unravelling the regime defended by the Islamic bureaucracy they built in the 1980s and 1990s would be an arduous task.

A religious scholar-turned-bureaucrat himself before turning to party politics, the next prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003–2009), was at a loss in controlling a burgeoning administration of Islam that made the boundaries of Muslim–non-Muslim engagements and intra-Muslim relations in Malaysia’s pluralistic society increasingly rigid. Perhaps sensing the potential future damage wrought by Islam Siyasi (political Islam), Abdullah attempted unsuccessfully to promote Islam Hadhari (civilisational Islam), which was largely defeated by the state’s very own Islamic-related structures originally founded to promote Malaysia’s wasatiyyah vision of Islam.

Abdullah Badawi’s successor, Najib Razak, for all intents and purposes worsened the already socially problematic situation by welcoming scholars-cum-activists from the conservative Wahhabi-Salafi2020 Referring to the puritanical stream pioneered by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) of Nejd in the Arab Peninsula. Its advent in Malaysia is fairly recent, powered by Saudi petro-dollars that amassed following the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ oil crises of 1973–1974 – a period coinciding with the rudimentary phases of Islamic revival in the country. Historically, reform-oriented Malay-Muslims are more familiar with the version of Salafism imported from the Al-Manar school of Egypt, as expounded by Jamal al-din Al-Afghani (1838–1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) and Rasyid Rida (1865–1935). But with expanding Saudi influence in the Muslim world, a marriage of sorts between Salafism in general and its more rigid Wahhabi version took place, Malaysia not excluded. A high point in BN–UMNO’s Islamist trajectory was reached in February 2015 when the government, in self-congratulatory mode, launched a sharia index that would supposedly serve as a scientific measure of the extent to which Malaysia was adhering to Islamic law. Developed together by the Department of the Advancement of Islam of Malaysia (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, JAKIM – the hub of Malaysia’s federal Islamic bureaucracy), IIUM and YADIM, the index claims to measure the level of Malaysia’s compliance with Islamic principles within the broad framework of maqasid sharia (higher objectives of the sharia) in such diverse fields as education, the economy, politics, health, legal affairs, infrastructure and environment, culture and society.

[Ahmad Fauzi is the Abdul Hamid Professor of Political Science, School of Distance Education, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.]