The Politics of Islam

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Nik Aziz Nik Mat doesn't look like a man out to fundamentally change Malaysia. Each day, after late-afternoon prayers, the 72-year-old Islamic cleric musters the little strength left in his frail frame to open clunky wooden doors to a sitting room in his tile-roofed, six-room home, a rebuilt version of the one in which he grew up. There, dressed in a beige robe and white turban, a tuft of a beard protruding from his chin, he hosts a menagerie of visitors seeking religious guidance, marriage advice and emotional support. One worried man, huddled with Nik Aziz on a dusty sofa, recounts that a mystic, using black magic, cast a spell on him, forcing him to hand over more than $10,000. Nik Aziz, speaking softly in a grandfatherly manner, agrees to pray to Allah to find a solution.But beyond his down-home charm, Nik Aziz has a sterner message to deliver. Though the majority of Malaysia's people are Malay Muslims, many others are Chinese and Indian. Nik Aziz, however, wants what is a multiethnic, multireligious country to become a state governed by Islamic law. Under the rigorous dictates of ShariŒa, thieves would have their hands chopped off, adulterers would be executed by stoning and anyone engaging in premarital sex would be lashed. As chief minister of northern Kelantan state and, more importantly, as spiritual leader of Malaysia's Islamic Party, known by its Malay acronym PAS, Nik Aziz's voice is impossible to ignore. Islam is for everybody, he preaches. I don't see any alternative to Islam.In Southeast Asia, that doctrine is fast becoming gospel among a growing segment of true believers. Left on the margins of economic development, forced to confront their own piety in the face of backlash against the Sept. 11 attacks and Bali bombings, and threatened by the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of Western culture, many Muslims are turning to Islam for both political and religious answers. This awakening of an Islamic political culture may be cause for cautious optimism, because it is better to have religious groups, even the most orthodox or radical, operating within democratic processes rather than going underground. When allowed to participate freely in politics, disenchanted Muslims are less likely to turn to extremism—as has happened in autocratic Saudi Arabia with such terrifying consequences. This increasing politicization of Islam does have societywide consequences as more powerful clerics and Muslim politicians stridently demand that Islamic law become the law of the land. Malaysia and Indonesia, Southeast Asia's only Muslim-majority nations and traditionally exemplars of openness and diversity, are facing the consequences of Muslim political parties flexing their muscles and winning over the masses. People have become frustrated, says Ahmad Syafii Maarif, chairman of Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia's most influential Islamic organizations. They have no trust in government. Some see Islam as a panacea.The success of these movements, though, is far from assured. They face stiff resistance from secularists who paint them as dangerous extremists, and they are split by divergent views of their own religion and the role it should play in politics. Nor is Islam in Southeast Asia moving in one clear direction. The ground for hard-line Islamists appears more fertile in Malaysia than in Indonesia, despite fears of growing radicalism in the archipelago. Yet some political analysts believe the Islamists are already approaching the peak of their power, with Southeast Asia's vast diversity acting as a natural brake—Malaysia's 5.4 million Chinese, for example, are unlikely to tolerate the imposition of ShariŒa law. Says Douglas Ramage, representative of the Asia Foundation in Indonesia: There is little evidence that Islamic political parties will expand their support.Nevertheless, Islamists today are a more formidable force than they have been for decades. Four years ago, PAS was a marginal player in Malaysian politics, limited mainly to Kelantan. But in the 1999 general elections, PAS took over a second state government, in neighboring Terengganu, and more than tripled the number of seats it held in the national parliament, to 27 out of 193. Even though PAS is unlikely to take power at the federal level, it is now the only serious opposition to long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and is looking to gain more ground in the next general elections, expected this year. Says Khairy Jamaluddin, a member of the executive committee of UMNO's youth wing: We are hurtling toward an increasingly conservative Islamic country.In Malaysia, the epicenter of the Islamic movement is Kota Baharu, perhaps the most traditional Muslim city in East Asia and, as the capital of Kelantan, Nik Aziz's home base. Don't expect to see young women in hip-huggers boogying the night away at loud discos where the sexes mix freely—as is common in Malaysia's raucous capital, Kuala Lumpur. Here, women in flowing white robes and head scarves move unhurriedly through quiet streets and whitewashed buildings. The local government, following Islam's precepts, has barred Muslims from drinking alcohol and shuttered the bars and nightclubs. When the call to prayer echoes from the city's mosque, management at the Levi's jean shop in the central market shuts off the store's booming stereo and patrons reduce their voices to a whisper. Kota Baharu's supermarkets have separate checkout counters for men and women, to make sure no unseemly contact takes place. Billboards advertise women's shampoo with models wrapped so tightly in head scarves that not a strand of hair can be seen. The Perdana Hotel proudly displays a sign offering massages, but so no male customers get the wrong idea, it adds by a man.This is an environment seemingly custom-made for Nik Aziz, who wins votes more with piety than politics. Twice a week, Nik Aziz joins the faithful for the day's final prayer at the spartan mosque he built next to his house and then sits cross-legged on a raised platform to give a lecture on Islam. Hundreds of followers come to listen and buy Nik Aziz key chains at a kiosk outside. One devotee, Ismail Omar, has been attending the lectures for the past 38 years to learn how to live the Muslim way. And of course he votes for PAS and supports Nik Aziz's plans for an Islamic state, which he says would be the best for Malaysia. We are true Muslims, he explains.Still, it took the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the instability it created, rather than religion, for PAS to rocket to prominence. The crisis led to a clash between Mahathir and his popular Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim over how Malaysia should tackle the financial fallout; the dispute turned political and ended with Anwar being jailed on questionable corruption and sodomy charges. The incident put the spotlight on cronyism in UMNO, soured many ethnic Malays on what they felt was Mahathir's heavy-handed rule, and drove voters to PAS and its message of Islamic morality and egalitarianism.In Indonesia, too, the economic crisis unleashed the Islamists by toppling Suharto, the country's autocrat for 32 years who had kept Islamic groups under his thumb. A smorgasbord of Islamic-leaning parties formed—some, like PAS, pushing for an Islamic state, others forwarding more moderate views. Combined, these parties gained more than one-third of the national vote in 1999 parliamentary elections.The Islamists were disappointed with the turnout, but in Indonesia's fractured political scene, they got enough support to crown themselves kingmakers. First, the elections' big winner, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was blocked from the presidency by the Islamists, who disapproved of a woman being head of state. Instead, they installed the most liberal of Islam's politicians, Abdurrahman Wahid. Then in 2001, the parties led the charge to dethrone the incompetent Wahid, allowing Megawati to finally become President—but with a more conservative Islamic Vice President, Hamzah Haz, who boasts three wives (Islam allows four) and has been openly sympathetic to the country's most-extreme Islamic movements. The Islamists even had an impact on the war against terror. Fear of their political power tempered Megawati's enthusiasm for taking on extremists and militants; it took an atrocity like the Bali attack to spur her government into action. Now the Islamists are looking to make even greater gains in the 2004 elections, perhaps even claiming the presidency.And, as in Malaysia, they will be using mosques as their springboard. In Kota Gede, a traditional Javanese town on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, the National Mandate Party, known by its Indonesian acronym PAN, won the most votes in the 1999 general elections, thanks to its affiliation with the Islamic organization Muhammadiyah. PAN was founded by Amien Rais, the former chairman of Muhammadiyah and the current speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly, the nation's highest legislative body. Rais quickly tapped into Muhammadiyah's network of 30 million adherents for votes. In Kota Gede, Muhammadiyah is entrenched like a second government, providing crucial social services and education where the national government has disappointed the poor. It built the hospital and many of the schools and mosques in the surrounding area. Most of the local religious teachers, called imams, are trained and paid by Muhammadiyah as well. The whole process of how people vote begins in the mosque, says Abdul Munir Mulkhan, a sociologist at the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic Institute, who lives in Kota Gede.PAN's big vote getter in Kota Gede was 70-year-old Haji Basyori Anwar, the chief imam at the Masjid Besar Mataram, Kota Gede's prominent 17th century mosque, and the town's most respected religious figure. A former local Muhammadiyah chief, Basyori stood by Rais' side at the old mosque when he announced to the community the founding of PAN. Then he went on the campaign trail in Kota Gede, giving speeches explaining how PAN grew out of Muhammadiyah. The congregations of the country were blank about who to vote for, Basyori explains. My role is as an elder here. They look at me and see how I act, and they see who I am inclined to vote for.But Rais, who says he will make a bid for Indonesia's presidency in 2004, is no Nik Aziz; in fact, he's just the opposite. Rais is an Islamic politician trying desperately not to act like one. Instead of lectures on the Koran, Rais appears on cheesy television variety shows crooning old Javanese hits. Instead of robes and turbans, he sports business suits, golf shirts and khaki slacks. When some Islamic parties tried to alter the national constitution last year to add a reference to Islamic law, Rais helped squash the movement. PAN, he stresses again and again, is an open party, not just for religious Muslims or Muhammadiyah followers. His reason for taking this stand is a pragmatic one. Political parties based on religion don't have a promising future in Indonesia, he says bluntly. There is a difference between piety and politics.His assertion may at first seem odd. Indonesia is the world's most-populous Muslim country and supposedly a hotbed of Islamic extremism. But Indonesia, he believes, is too diverse for political Islam to have widespread appeal. Our natural philosophy is pluralism, explains Rais. The best way is to stick in the middle of Indonesia's varied secular and Islamic factions, pointing forcefully with an index finger to a mythical point in front of his nose. PAN's own experience in Kota Gede proves Rais' point. Despite PAN's strong links there, only 33% of the voters turned out for PAN in 1999.A stroll through Kota Gede, a quiet township of narrow footpaths, tile-roofed homes and silver shops—the town's signature industry—shows the challenges facing Islamic politicians in Indonesia. A pyramid-topped gateway to the local mosque has carvings of a Hindu god—a sacrilege to purist Muslims, but a clear sign of the blended nature of Indonesian Islam. At the Muhammadiyah-run Aisyiyah Bustanul Atfal Kindergarten, a playroom has a series of dolls to show the youngsters how to lay out mats, bow and pray properly at a mosque, but there are also brightly colored models of a Hindu temple, Buddhist stupa and Christian church. The children have to learn that there are other religions in Indonesia, says Siti Rojiyah, the headmistress. Com-pare that to the Madinatul Ilmi, an Islamic primary school in Malaysia's Kota Baharu. There, in one classroom, English-language books had the uncovered heads of foreigners obscured by strips of glued-on white paper.Baihad Ahmad, the chain-smoking owner of a gift shop in Kota Gede's central market, says he voted for PAN in 1999 because I agree that the government should be more Islamic, he explains. But that doesn't mean he wants Islamic law. I don't think women should be forced to cover their heads, he says. Voters like Baihad are giving fits to Boedi Dewantoro, the vice chairman of the provincial parliament in Yogyakarta and a representative of the Justice Party, Indonesia's most-hard-line Islamic party. Like Malaysia's PAS, the Justice Party advocates the adoption of Islamic law—but its activists don't dare mention that goal to voters in Kota Gede. These things are very traumatic to most Indonesians, he says. An Islamic state is very, very far away in Indonesia.The difference between Indonesia and Malaysia is partly due to the opposing strategies of their long-time rulers. Indonesia's Suharto pursued a policy of secularism and economic development for his country and suppressed Islamists, often ruthlessly, because he feared they would challenge him. By doing so, he inadvertently contributed to the rise of terrorism in Southeast Asia. One of the clerics radicalized by Suharto's repression was Abubakar Ba'asyir, alleged spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah, the network of Islamic militants widely believed to be behind the Bali bombings; he is now under arrest in Jakarta on other charges.Malaysia's Mahathir, on the other hand, consciously embarked on an Islamization program. He established Islamic schools (including an Islamic university), set up an Islamic banking system and even, for a while, allowed Muslims being persecuted elsewhere to seek refuge in Malaysia. But this effort to preempt the Islamists didn't fully work—and eventually backfired. To bring Malaysia into the modern world, Mahathir at the same time has welcomed foreign investment and encouraged Malays to get rich. This has made him vulnerable to accusations, by PAS and other Islamic groups that have sprung up through Islamization, that his government is corrupt and not truly committed to Islamic values. This monster we have created is now working against us, says Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center, a think tank in Kuala Lumpur.Malaysian Islamists, however, still face a host of hurdles. Since Sept. 11, Mahathir has successfully tarnished Nik Aziz and his colleagues as dangerous extremists. It hasn't been hard to do. The PAS-controlled state parliament in Kelantan has already made Islamic law the official code of the state. (However, since the laws contradict the national constitution, they haven't been enforced.) During the war in Afghanistan, PAS members rallied to support the Taliban. And one of Nik Aziz's sons, Nik Adli, has been detained by the government since 2001 for alleged involvement in terrorist groups. Nik Aziz criticizes the government for not presenting evidence against his son in a formal trial and says the authorities are using the war against terror as a pretext to clamp down on political opposition.PAS's biggest hurdle is the diversity of Malaysia's population. More than 40% of the country's 23 million people aren't Muslim, and PAS has failed to convince them that Islam is for everybody, as Nik Aziz asserts. Leong Su Siang, chairman of the Kota Baharu branch of the Malaysian Chinese Association, says increasing numbers of the Chinese minority are moving out of Kelantan. He complains that the PAS government pays little attention to the economy and has even closed down karaoke parlors, a favorite Chinese pastime. The government is too religious, he grumbles. There's no freedom here. If this policy continues, the Chinese population will grow smaller and smaller.But it would be wrong to count the Islamists out, thanks to people like Chiara Sari, a student of English at the University of Indonesia. Three months ago, the former fashion model, inspired by an Islamic preacher, ended her career and started wearing a head scarf for the first time in her life, saying it feels more comfortable. Now Chiara tries not to miss any of the required five prayers a day and has discarded the R. and B. music she once loved for nasyid groups, which sing about Islamic teachings. And in next year's election, she plans to vote for the purist Justice Party. She doesn't know much about it, she admits, just that it is Islamic. The Islamists couldn't pray for more.