On Malaysia’s Moderate Muslims and why you should care

Blogging, Foreign Affairs, Global War on Terrorism, Media, Other, Other Religions, Politics, Religion, Religious Liberty — By on October 14, 2010 at 3:56 pm

A few months ago I decided to take a break from regular blogging to work on finding  a more specialized niche in which to fit my naturally charming yet gruffly journalistic self.

It’s gone well, and I’m learning a lot.  A lot about Malaysia, where apparently I’m sort of famous, thanks to posts like this. And this.  That’s not what I expected–I had hoped an employer with scads of highly-paid job openings would notice my mad research skillz and beg for a piece of my brilliance (still hoping for that, by the way)–but hey. Beggars (and moms in need of the sort of serious intellectual fodder that life with a preschooler doesn’t normally include ) can’t always be choosers.

In all seriousness, as one of the world’s few truly moderate Muslim-majority nations, Malaysia is well worth a look.  While Democracy and Islam do not usually go hand in hand, in Malaysia they co-exist with a surprising degree of harmony.  Malaysia’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society is remarkable in that it mostly works in a way that hardly any other nation has managed to emulate–and, as you’ll see below, both the democratic and the Islamic worlds can benefit from a lot of what Malaysia has to offer.  Here are a few excerpts from some of my most recent work:

From the Daily Caller, Sept. 24, 2010:

Out of Many, 1Malaysia

Today, President Barack Obama addresses the US-ASEAN summit taking place in New York City, concurrent with the United Nations General Assembly. Among the heads of state he will speak with is a familiar acquaintance — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom the president last saw at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., this past April. Though he’s not a flashy newsmaker on par with some of the other ASEAN figures, Najib is no less newsworthy — and in some ways, the country he represents is one of the most important to the United States in an era where the meeting of Islam and democracy seems less a union, and more a collision.

In Najib’s Malaysia, despite some real challenges, the future of majority-Muslim, multiethnic democracy is slowly taking shape.  This past Sunday Najib joined with his country’s minister for unity, minister for religious affairs, and others in endorsing the work of Malaysia’s Inter-faith Relations Working Committee.  The committee, which is composed of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists and Sikhs, was formed in February in response to the widely publicized racial and religious tensions that plagued Malaysia in early 2010.  In endorsing the committee, Najib is affirming his commitment to Malaysia’s unity and diversity, and he’s doing so at the expense of his own political standing.

If there’s one thing Najib wants, it’s national unity — and that’s not something he’s going to get easily, especially if his political opponents get their way.  Fifty-three years after declaring independence, Malaysians are still unsure of what it means to be Malaysian.  With countless political parties and coalitions, dozens of cultural barriers, and the geographical imposition that is the Java Sea, it’s difficult to discern what sort of unifier will serve to carry the country forward.  To further complicate matters, only the nation’s Muslims are subject to Sharia law; the 40% of citizens who hold different beliefs are all served by a separate court system.  Far from asking his countrymen to adopt a homogenous national identity, however, Najib has set for himself the harder task of fostering and encouraging Malaysia’s differing societies while simultaneously working toward a concrete sense of national unity.

It’s not an easy task.

Read more here.

On Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s call for a “global movement of moderation”, from the Daily Caller, October 1, 2010:

It’s Always the Quiet Ones: Malaysia’s Moderate Muslims

Last week’s US-ASEAN summit was significant in ways that much of the mainstream media failed to report — and that’s a shame, given that Southeast Asia is home to some of our most important global partners.  Though China and Indonesia dominated most of the summit’s news coverage, their relatively low profile at the actual event provided an opportunity for ASEAN’s quieter voices to prevail.

Malaysia’s overtures to the United States deserve particular illumination here.  You’re not likely to read much about them elsewhere, though they are no less important for not having been highlighted in western media outlets.  The relative media silence regarding Malaysia has nothing to do with lack of newsworthy content, but is rather owing to the nation’s peaceful national home life. While other nations are busy dominating the news with tales of violence, poverty, and aggression, Malaysia is taking advantage of its own stability to carefully and strategically set itself up as the United States’ next best Southeast Asian partner — and, given the difficulties the United States has had in combining Islam and democracy, we better pay attention.

When I interviewed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in New York on Sunday, he was careful to elucidate some specific areas in which Malaysia can benefit both the United States and the rest of the world.  He mentioned one especially unique commodity that not many other nations can match: progressive, well-educated, female Muslim professionals.  Women make up 62% of Malaysia’s undergraduate population, and that number will only grow as the nation aims to eventually staff at least 30% of its policy and decision-making positions with women.  In addition, Najib told the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday that Malaysia plans to assist in Afghanistan by sending female Muslim doctors to the region — a valuable offer, given that an overwhelming number of conservative Muslim women prefer to be treated by doctors of their own sex.

Though Malaysian democracy isn’t yet fully consonant with the U.S. model, it is making tremendous strides in the right direction at an astonishing pace — and it’s not about to slow down.  While it’s always good news when a democracy liberalizes, Malaysia’s efforts are especially relevant because it is one of the world’s few moderate Muslim-majority nations, and it has the potential to be a positive and effective example to other Muslim nations.

Najib is well aware of this potential, and he has good reason to take advantage of it for both political and religious reasons. At his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, he called for a “global movement of the moderates” among people of all faiths in an attempt to “reclaim the centre and moral high ground that has been usurped from us.”  In his meeting with President Obama on Friday he offered Malaysia’s help in combating the dangers of Islamophobia, stating that the US needed help in educating its people about the reality of Islam.  When 26% of America’s populace believes its own president is Muslim, he pointed out, it’s a sign that the people are woefully uneducated.

Read more here.

Image credit Nazir Amin


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  • Malaysia Guest

    Rachel,
    Do you (or have you) lived in Malaysia? More importantly, if so, have you ever lived outside of KL? You seem to romanticize the moderate Muslim, and act as though Malaysia is not extremely segregated and still very oppressive toward the minority races (particularly the Chinese). Most of the people I talk to in the Mamak shops are Indian/Chinese and whereas they romanticize Malaysia forty years ago, they do not see Najib as a force for good, but as slowly compromising to the will of the more radical factions (ala Mahatir and Perkasa).

  • Malaysia Guest

    Rachel,
    Do you (or have you) lived in Malaysia? More importantly, if so, have you ever lived outside of KL? You seem to romanticize the moderate Muslim, and act as though Malaysia is not extremely segregated and still very oppressive toward the minority races (particularly the Chinese). Most of the people I talk to in the Mamak shops are Indian/Chinese and whereas they romanticize Malaysia forty years ago, they do not see Najib as a force for good, but as slowly compromising to the will of the more radical factions (ala Mahatir and Perkasa).

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    No, I’ve never lived in Malaysia. You’re right, you surely do know more than I.

    That being said, I still stand by what I’ve written for the following reasons:

    1. It’s hard for us in the west to know who in the Muslim world really wants to work with us, and who is merely pretending to be a moderate (see Anwar Ibrahim, a beloved figure in Washington). The American press already knows about Malaysia’s shortcomings, but it doesn’t know about the current administration’s strengths. It’s important to point those out, especially to the Americans who still think Anwar is a bastion of pro-American moderation and democracy.

    2. While it would be easy (too easy, in fact) to point to ways in which Malaysia’s idea of democracy differs from my own, the fact is Najib’s reforms are a significant step in the right direction. Even if the NEM flops, the fact that an Muslim-majority nation (in ASEAN, no less) wanted the reforms enough to propose them is significant.

    3. Yes, Malaysia is still too segregated. I agree. But it’s better than most other Muslim-majority nations, and segregation is not something ::anyone:: can get rid of quickly. Modifying the bumiputra system is at least a good start, as are any number of Najib’s other proposed reforms. It’s slow work, but at least he’s trying to start.

    Those are all reasons the United States should care about what’s going on in Malaysia. In what ways do the people see Najib as hearkening back to the days of Mahathir? How do they think Malaysia was better 40 years ago?

  • Anonymous

    Rachel,

    Do you believe we, in the United States, have Islamophobia? If so, what do you mean by the term and where does it manifest itself? If not, did you challenge the President’s claim?

  • http://twitter.com/coolvirus Xenobiologista

    I’m another Malaysian – here’s what I have to add on the subject. The RELATIVE peace in our country masks an increasing level of tensions across most variables in society – race, religion, socioeconomic status, urban-rural. “Malaysian Guest” is a bit off – 40 years ago was just after the 1969 racial riots. I would have said things were better 50 years ago, shortly after Independence. The government then conveniently used the ’69 riots as an excuse to lock up anyone who disagreed with them, in the name of maintaining the peace, and that has been the practice since.

    Najib is an educated and well-spoken leader who is good at coming across as a moderate in his press statements and impressing foreign leaders with his progressiveness. However, during his tenure so far has changed in terms of prosecutions against corruption, wastage of government funds, police brutality, bureaucratic inefficiency, etc. Some things have in fact gotten worse, such as persecution of journalists, activists, and students. Najib seems happy to bask in the glow of approval from foreign commentators unfamiliar with the real situation while letting some of his ministers and party members say and endorse the most outrageously racist things. He nearly never comments one way or the other on major public controversies. Professor Bridget Welsh at Singapore’s SMU is one of your compatriots who has actually gotten up close and personal with Malaysian politics, look up her writings if you’re interested in the current state of things.
    On “Muslim society”: IMHO the biggest force behind cultural Islamisation in Malaysia – and by that I mean the invasion of conservative, Saudi-like Arab values into all spheres of life, affecting non-Muslims as well – is that PAS, the opposition Islamic party, is highly popular with many of the ethnic majority Malays as well as even some Malays. Therefore UMNO, the Malay party in government, is trying to out-Muslim them. The problem is that PAS is popular because they’re seen as moral and non-corrupt, which UMNO, no matter how hard it tries, can’t fake.

    I am not an Anwar fan either, but I am pro-opposition. There are a number of younger politicians in the opposition parties whom I believe have potential to be good leaders. What’s important for your country to understand is that we are having an election coming up soon and there will very likely be a wave of harrassment and intimidation against opposition parties and supporters, as well as election fraud. If or when it happens, the US government needs to call the Malaysian government out on that instead of just supporting Najib because he’s good at speechifying.

    If you want to get some idea of what’s happening on the ground, skim through the local news pages of independently-run websites like The Malaysian Insider. All major print newspapers except theSun are literally owned by Barisan Nasional parties. http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia http://www.sun2surf.com/section.cfm?id=51

    I’m married to an American, btw, so explaining my screams of outrage over the news every morning is a daily task. Let me know if you have any questions.

  • Vcdc1594a

    Amazing how someone so ignorant about Malaysia can write about it.There is no freedom of speech or assembly in Malaysia. There is a positive policy to Islamize Christians and other religions.There is racial discrimination.There is detention without a trial.Many more-I suggest that you leave the USA and come and live in Malaysia.Trying giving a bible to a Mulsim and you will be arrested!

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    Vcdc,
    Compared to other Muslim-majority nations, though, Malaysia looks like a walk in the park. Yes, those problems you mention do exist, but they’re not complete. There is some freedom of speech, though I admit there’s certainly not as much as we have in the U.S., and yes, that’s a big problem. True, there’s discrimination, but for the most part, Malaysians aren’t killing each other. Given what’s going on in so many other nations, I’d count that as a comparative success for now.

  • Malaysian

    Hi Rachel,

    I’ve read some of your articles about Malaysia and I realized you do not have the whole idea on what is happening in Malaysia. I believe it is your freedom of speech to blog however you want to but I hope you can do a bit more research before deciding to take the stance you do now.

    Here is a very popular facebook page which is concerned about public accountability of our government’s decision. I am not going to try to sway your opinions but I hope that a page with almost 300,000 members discussing about the actual situation in Malaysia may be a good input for your articles.

    http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/NoMegaTower

  • Change

    Rachel Motte – You should read the editorial comments and other news items of the Utusan Melayu, the unofficial “mouth-piece” of _____ especially those related to race and religion over the past 2 years since the General Elections of 2008. It will be a great eye-opener and an education for you.

  • Sittiwan8

    As an Indian I was under a quota system to get into university! My own country never gave me an education-I was given a scholarship in the UK -on my return I taught the same university that did not want to take me in.You support such a regime?

  • Sittiwan8

    In Malaysian government has a positive policy to dissuade worshipping all other religions save Islamic faith. Churches have been burnt and torn down. Hindu temples desecrated and every effort is made to force citizens to become Muslims. This is the reality on the ground in Malaysia. This is the policy of the single party that rules Malaysia for more than 5 decades-UMNO-which is a racist organization by design –allowing for segregation. If a Christian converts embracing Islam he is rewarded-He may be given a Bumiputra status-Muslims are entitled to participate in government employment, scholarships, loans, and discounted houses among others benefits. This is what is happening in Malaysia-as more Chinese and Indians see no hope in moving upwards in life, they convert to their detriment. As a CHRISTIAN [that is what you say] remember Malaysia and the UMNO government as they commit genocide on a wider definition.