“Truly Islamic countries are by nature moderate”

Marina Mahathir

Women’s rights activist, daughter of former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and columnist for The Star, Marina Mahathir talks to Global about the role of Islam in Malaysian politics and the state of inter-religious relations.

How do you see Malaysia’s current position in the Islamic world?

Malaysia has so much potential to be a leader in the Islamic world and indeed has been seen so for a long time. It has always been a model Islamic country, combining economic development, ethics based on religious values and the practicalities of dealing with the modern world. For example, Malaysia has developed the whole concept of Islamic banking to a very sophisticated degree. We also have a well-developed halal food industry. So in many ways, we are well entrenched in the modern world without sacrificing the values that we consider Islamic.

Do you agree with President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who recently described Malaysia as a moderate Islamic country?

I have a problem with labelling any country a moderate Islamic country because it suggests that the default position for any country where the majority of the population are Muslims is that it must be radical. Truly Islamic countries are by nature moderate. The ones that are conservative and radical are, in my opinion, not at all Islamic given the amount of injustices found in them. If their citizens are hungry, illiterate and oppressed, then by definition, they should not be called Islamic countries. I know this is not the conventional way of defining countries, but I think this would apply to any country of whatever faith. No religion asks its leaders to starve and oppress their population.

We have high literacy rates, good health care, and low maternal and infant mortality rates. This is not to say there are not still ongoing challenges but I do think that Malaysia is a good example for developing countries, whether they are Muslim or not.

Do you think that UMNO, the dominant political party in the long-established BN ruling coalition, is committed to a broadly moderate Islamic policy? How do you explain the reluctance to clamp down on more extreme groups like Perkasa and Pembela?

I think UMNO’s stand on this has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, but rather with politics. Even Perkasa and Pembela are not that interested in religion. The mindset is that Malay identity is fused with Islamic identity, so any attack on Malays is easily convertible to an attack on Islam.

Having said that, UMNO is so fearful of losing votes to PAS [the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party] that it is refusing to clamp down on Perkasa and Pembela’s extremism because it thinks it serves some purpose in keeping the Malays loyal. But then there are Malays who are loyal to PAS and even PKR [the People’s Justice Party led by Anwar Ibrahim] who don’t buy Perkasa’s arguments such as they are. So UMNO is really in a dilemma and doesn’t seem to realise that they are sounding more radical than PAS these days.

Do you think the Islamic party, PAS, has moved away from its formerly hard-line Islamist ideology and, if so, what is the significance of this? Does it indicate PAS is radically rethinking its policies, or is it more of a strategy to elicit more non Muslim support?

I don’t think PAS has really moved away from its hardline ideologies. Witness statements by its youth chief regarding entertainment. It was the erdogans, the more practical moderate elements in the party, who have been the moderating influence on PAS policies, and that was deliberately to win over non-Muslim support. But I don’t think it will last. They are still committed to the ‘Islamic state’ idea and, in theory at least, hudud [strict Islamic punishment] laws. Their views on women are decidedly conservative even though they fielded women candidates in 2008. From my point of view, a PAS government would be extremely detrimental to women.

Have the results of the March 2008 general election – often described as a political tsunami for the BN – exacerbated Malaysia’s ethnic divide? Has the Malaysian Chinese community now abandoned the BN for the opposition, a trend apparently reinforced by the recent Sarawak state election?

Yes I think it has, not so much because of the non-Malays but because of the Malays. Instead of being chastened by the results of 2008, UMNO has reacted as if a great injustice has been done by their not winning and has proceeded to do everything they can to make life miserable for the states that didn’t vote BN, instead of biding their time until the next elections. They have been unable to see it through anything but ethnic eyes, forgetting that Malays abandoned them just as much as non-Malays. Selangor and Kedah [two states where the opposition are in office] after all are very Malay states. To my mind, the BN has made mistake after mistake after 2008 and, even with recent state and by-election wins; I don’t think they are really out of the woods yet for the next general election.

What is the outlook for inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in Malaysia? Would you agree that inter-religious issues appear to be more dominant currently than prior to the March 2008 general election? What is the reason for this trend?

Yes, inter-religious issues have become more dominant recently, partly because UMNO is exploiting them for political gain and partly because of weak leadership that is unwilling to simply slap down the nonsense. UMNO political leaders have time and time again behaved less than exemplarily in dealing with these issues. Their inability to handle them in a wise and firm manner doesn’t bode well for the future. I think even more Malaysians will migrate to other countries, including Malays who really don’t want to live in this type of environment.

About the author:

Marina Mahathir, daughter of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, is a women’s rights activist and columnist for The Star.


Post a comment

November 17, 2011 4:14 pm

Wishful thinking me thinks…

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International