On Malaysia’s Moderate Muslims and why you should careBlogging, Foreign Affairs, Global War on Terrorism, Media, Other, Other Religions, Politics, Religion, Religious Liberty — By Rachel Motte 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:
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.
On Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s call for a “global movement of moderation”, from the Daily Caller, October 1, 2010:
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.