Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Malaysia: More on ethnicity, religion, and politics

It is no surprise that factors such as religion, ethnicity, and politics all play a role in shaping the interaction of a society with science. I was in Malaysia to conduct interview-surveys about the acceptance of evolutionary biology and to see how Muslim Malaysians view modern science and its relation to their interpretation of Islam. It has been absolutely fascinating to learn about the complex ethnic and religious interactions there. Earlier this year, I had also read about the controversy regarding the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims in Malaysia. But until I went to Malaysia, I did not truly appreciate the complex history and the political motivations behind it. Now, Kevin in a comment on another post has pointed to this fascinating report by Al-Jazeera on this controversy:

Couple of things to note here:
The political motivations are quite obvious and it is almost funny to watch it alongside the Islamic Center controversy in NYC (and no, you still cannot defend the idiotic political opposition to the Islamic Center). While the first part of the video is good in highlighting this particular controversy, I think the interviews in the second part are more instructive in showing the struggle taking place within Islam in Malaysia (and similar debates elsewhere). One of the key points raised by the host (who did a nice job in keeping the discussion on track) is the notion of private versus state-enforced religion. This issue is not limited to Malaysia - but it takes a particular political turn there because of the presence of sizable non-Muslim minorities.

Not surprising at all, but another thing to note is the significantly different interpretations of Islam by the three guests - all the way from a fatwa-driven society to the notion of religion as a private matter. Similarly, it was interesting to note the mention of the differences of interpretation of Islam in Malaysia versus in places like Saudi Arabia or the rest of the Middle East. And I also loved the fact that one of the guests, Yusri Mohamad, expressing displeasure over mixing religion and politics - despite of him doing just that in the whole interview.

In many ways, Malaysia has done quite well in the last few decades. It is possible that the challenges it is facing these days are the result of these changes - perhaps the last hurrah of those against modernization and religious pluralism. But how it deals with its religious and ethnic minorities now may shape the direction of its future.

Check out the above segment from Al-Jazeera. And here is a bit from a BBC article about the recent controversy from earlier this year:

The results of the 2008 elections ramped up the tension.
The ruling coalition still won, but with a much reduced majority in the worst result in 50 years. 
Norani Othman, a professor at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, says that after independence, there was a national emphasis on consensus-building and equality.
That was adapted, after race riots in 1969, to more overtly pro-Malay policies.
As Muslim nations around the world struggled to modernise, yet not lose touch with their traditional roots, the influence of Islamist parties expanded.
In Malaysia, that pitted the ruling United National Malays Organisation (Umno) against the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) with the result that the 1980s saw a deliberate process of Islamisation.
What were once affirmative action policies geared to help Malays "catch up" with other Malaysians became policies enshrining Malay primacy or ascendancy, and being Malay meant being Muslim.
Institutions deemed to conform with Islamic principles and values were created - Islamic banks, Islamic insurance, Islamic university - there was even talk of "Islamising knowledge".
The list of matters judged to be under the jurisdiction of Islamic laws has expanded over the decades.
Just as the so-called race riots of 1969 were in fact a sign of systemic breakdown, as Australian academic Clive Kessler argues, so do the current tensions pose a direct challenge to Malaysia's founding aspirations of a diverse and democratic nation, argues Prof Othman.


emre said...

It looks like someone hasn't heard of Eloah.

Kevin said...

Hi Salman,

it's interesting that you linked this issue to the Islamic centre in New York; as I've sometimes had this feeling that Malaysian politics can be an 'Islamic' version of American politics. :) I am really glad that President Obama is making a stand on this issue, whereas the government in Malaysia has recently been pandering to the more extremist views - just to keep its votes. And while some quarters have even gone to the extent of claiming that Obama is a Muslim (and so what if he is one?), some here in Malaysia have sought to label the head of the opposition (Anwar Ibrahim) as being a traitor to Islam and a friend of the Jews, just because the opposition (which includes the Malaysian Islamic Party) has actually defended the rights of non-Muslims in using the word 'Allah'.

Anyway, that's really interesting research you're doing there. I'll be very interested to learn about your findings with regards to the Malaysian Islamic view of evolution. Evolution was totally not in the science curriculum when I was in school.

This actually gives me an idea: maybe I should try and get a similar survey done for the non-Muslims as well. :) Unfortunately for Malaysian Christianity, it gets a lot of its influence from American evangelicalism, so most Christians I know in Malaysia are Creationists. Even I started out as one in high school, until Richard Dawkins managed to convince me otherwise... :P

c coleman said...

Riveting: glad I discovered the blog. for those interested in indigenous science,I write at: http://nativescience.wordpress.com/

Ali said...

Hi Kevin,

"Richard Dawkins managed to convince me otherwise... :P"

I am thinking it won't be too long before you realize Dawkins is actually not all that convincing. :)

I think astronomy speaks louder than Dawkins. :)

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