Mahathir has an Islam problem
New premier wants Malaysia's brand of Islam to reflect mercy, justice and compassion, a stance his conservative opponents have seized on as too soft and lenient
Months after the Pakatan Harapan coalition swept into power on a reform agenda promising to build a “New Malaysia”, recent controversies on race, religion and sexual minorities have harked to the old, stirring unease among supporters of the new government.
Two Muslim women who pled guilty to having a sexual relationship were convicted under Islamic laws earlier this month and given six strokes from a rattan cane in a public whipping witnessed by dozens of people at a Sharia law court in Terengganu, a rural northeast state governed by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist opposition party.
The sentence, believed to be among the country’s first-ever punishments for female homosexuality, caused an uproar in the Muslim majority country, where both progressive and conservative interpretations of the faith contend. International and local human rights groups, meanwhile, said the judicial caning was tantamount to torture.
Debate over the role of religious courts erupted earlier in June when news surfaced that a 41-year-old Malaysian rubber tapper from the northern state of Kelantan, which is similarly under PAS rule, had married an 11-year-old Thai Muslim girl. Underage unions between Muslims are legal in Malaysia, though permission from a Sharia court is required.
Though Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s new government opposes underage marriage, the case has put federal authorities in a legal bind: they lack the jurisdiction to intervene in or overturn decisions made by Kelantan’s Sharia court, which last week approved another child marriage case involving a 15-year-old child bride and a man almost 30 years her senior.
Liberal critics have taken Mahathir’s government to task for doing too little to protect minors and turning a blind eye to instances of rising discrimination and harassment targeting individuals associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
His administration has simultaneously been targeted by divisive attacks from the conservative far-right. PAS and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the once-dominant lynchpin of the previous ruling coalition, allege the nonagenarian premier is pursuing an anti-Islamic agenda steered by his non-Malay, non-Muslim coalition partners.
Both parties are attempting to push Harapan rightward by claiming its comparatively moderate stance is indicative of a “soft approach” to perceived threats to Islam. Political cooperation between PAS and UMNO, both of whom posture as defenders of Malay rights, has continued to deepen since the former ruling party’s relegation to the opposition.
Since taking office, Mahathir has articulated a desire to review federal agencies charged with handling Islamic-related matters, a development that could bring the state-sanctioned interpretation of Islam closer into line with the premier’s personal stance that the religion should be reflective of mercy, justice and compassion.
“We need to show that Islam is not a cruel religion that likes to impose harsh sentences to humiliate others,” said Mahathir in a video statement addressing the recent caning of two Muslim women posted across his social media channels. The premier said the Sharia court’s verdict was counter to “the ideals of justice and compassion of Islam.”
That stance was echoed by Harapan’s religious affairs minister, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, who called on Sharia courts to be “more prudent” and considerate of “mitigating factors” when sentencing offenders, “so that the image of Islam can be preserved.” His remarks, he maintained, should not be interpreted as defying the decisions of the Sharia court.
“The caning sentence had a deep impact not just on the guilty parties but also on their families, society, and the perception of how sharia law is implemented in this country,” said the minister, who reiterated Mahathir’s earlier statements that a lighter sentence could have been imposed given that both women plead guilty and were first-time offenders.
Sharia courts in Malaysia operate within the jurisdiction of their respective states and govern the conduct of Muslims in the domain of personal and family law. Their decisions cannot be appealed or reversed by any action in civil courts, which operate separately under Malaysian law. Non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities are bound by civil law.
Malaysia’s constitution grants freedom of religion while establishing Islam as the “religion of the Federation.” Malays, the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, are automatically registered as Muslims and are answerable to Sharia courts, which usually deny them the right to leave Islam or convert to another faith. Apostasy or conversion is punishable in most states.
Most state-level Islamic laws also carry provisions outlawing same-sex acts. Civil laws introduced under British colonial rule prohibit oral sex and sodomy. Though enforcement is rare, Anwar Ibrahim, now considered Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting, was twice incarcerated on sodomy charges widely regarded as politically motivated.
His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and minister of women, family and community development. She claims any review of laws against homosexuality must be “based on the Koran and Sunnah” and has appealed for time to “engage all the stakeholders” with respect to amending rules governing child marriage.
Anwar recently reiterated that both he and Mahathir are not in favor of advancing LGBT interests and that doing so would go beyond what the public was prepared to accept. He qualified that stance by claiming the new government defends free speech and that allowing space for pro-LGBT views should not necessarily be construed as accepting them.
While not liberal, the Harapan government is veering toward more moderate positions at a time when Malaysia’s reputation as a tolerant Muslim country has ebbed. Though Mahathir may intend to rein in doctrinaire religious authorities whose scope for action and influence has grown in recent years, some lay the blame for their rise at his doorstep.
Under his first premiership from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir promoted an interpretation of Islamic values that emphasized prosperity and economic growth, in line with the government’s development goals. By embracing modernity, he asserted Muslims could overcome their backwardness and build on the achievements of Islam’s advanced past.
While he acquired status as an Islamic statesman, he also sought to undercut the rising popularity of PAS, which embodies a narrow interpretation of Islam that Mahathir has long regarded as an obstacle to Malay advancement. The Islamist party, then as now, seeks to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state with greater criminal powers for Sharia courts.
In a holier-than-thou bid to outmaneuver PAS, Mahathir embraced moderate Islamization policies in the 1980s that established or expanded state-sanctioned religious bureaucracies and created conditions for the ulama, Islamic scholars and authorities on religious and theological matters, to play a larger role in public affairs and adherents’ personal lives.
In 1988, Mahathir’s administration oversaw a constitutional amendment that raised Sharia courts to “co-equal” status with civil law courts, a move that observers of the period regarded as pushing Malaysia in a more conservative direction at odds with the modern Islamic values the premier claimed to promote.
Religious bureaucrats emboldened during Mahathir’s first premiership dug in deeper under the Abdullah Badawi administration from 2003 to 2009, projecting themselves as unassailable defenders of Islam and Malay sultans, constitutional monarchs and heads of Islam in their respective states, while claiming the exclusive right to interpret the state’s ideology.
Najib Razak’s administration from 2009 to 2018 was peppered with episodes of polarizing religion-related discord, having taken Islamization further than its predecessors by more closely involving religious authorities in policy decisions and promoting an exclusivist interpretation of Islam at odds with traditional local practices.
Dwindling electoral support and pressure from corruption scandals saw Najib play up fears of the erosion of Islam and Malay political power, in a bid to court religious hardliners and far-right Malay groups. He often dabbled in extremism, including one instance when he rallied his UMNO members to emulate the “bravery” of the Islamic State terrorist group.
Though the rising influence of literalist interpretations of Islam such as Salafism and Wahhabism on Malaysian Islam predates Najib, his close ties to Saudi Arabia saw a rising number of Saudi-trained Islamic scholars join the ranks of Malaysia’s civil service and religious bureaucracy, personalities who influenced a turn toward more hardline conservatism.
The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), considered the most powerful agency in the country’s religious bureaucracy, is perhaps most closely associated with the exclusivist religiosity that rose to the fore under Najib, whose office directly funded and dramatically increased its budget allocations to the chagrin of critics.
The agency, which trains teachers who work in mosques and Islamic institutions and issues halal (permitted by Islam) certificates to businesses, among other roles, had been elevated to undertake most of the state’s Islamic administration under Mahathir’s first premiership and is currently under review by the Harapan government.
“If Mahathir’s administration is moving to curtail the influence of state-sponsored religious bodies, it is being done very cautiously,” says Mohd Faizal Musa, a research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He, for one, dismisses speculation that Jakim could be disbanded outright.
Given the vast size of institutions like Jakim that employ thousands of civil servants, reforming institutionalized Islam will not be easy, says the academic, who is the author of several novels banned in Malaysia over allegations that they promote Shia Islam, a branch of Islam seen as “deviant” by Malaysia’s Islamic authorities.
“If the government intends to keep their promise to advance a more just and compassionate Islam, they should begin nominating the next generation of muftis [Muslim religious scholars],” he says, lamenting that Islam “has always been a political football in Malaysia that will forever be kicked at different angles to fulfill political and ideological goals.”
Mahathir’s new government has taken the reins at a time when the multi-ethnic country’s political and social landscapes are riven with divisions. While widely viewed as a welcome change in outlook, it remains to seen whether it has the mettle required to bridge the widening gaps between liberals and conservatives, as well as Muslims and non-Muslims.