The slide towards conservative Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia

The nations’ adoption of fundamentalist Islam values brings them closer to extremism. Racial intolerance between communities has risen, and there is more trouble brewing.

By Sirisha Veera

Indonesia and Malaysia are home to roughly 208 million and 18 million Muslims respectively. For years, their Muslim-majority populations did not prevent them from standing as models of democracy and tolerance. Today, the fundamentalist Islam sentiments are beginning to overshadow the existing moderate Islam thoughts and weaken the nations’ democracies. Conservative Islam is a more rigid and stringent interpretation of the religion. With the slide towards conservative Islam, both countries are heading for an irreparable divide between their diverse populations.

Source: RAND

Close ties and funding by the Saudi royal family promote conservative Islam

Over the past twenty years, Indonesia and Malaysia have slowly and steadily shifted towards traditional Islam thinking. Saudi Arabia offered financial assistance to Islamic countries with the intention of propagating Wahhabism – Arab’s conservative Islam teachings. The funds were also used to build Islamic religious institutions and extend Islamic influence. During Saudi King Salman’s recent tour around Asia, Malaysia received a US$7 billion deal while Indonesia discussed investments amounting to US$25 billion.

“As the world’s biggest Muslim nation, Indonesia will always have a special bond with Saudi Arabia,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Similarly, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman was known to be a close friend of Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal bin Abdulaziz. Closer ties between both governments and Saudi’s royal family will continue to shift supporters of moderate Islam to conservative Islam.

The governments are deeply involved in the spread of conservative Islam

“To be Muslim is a unifying category in some contexts, for government and diplomatic purposes, but it is also a disintegrating or dividing category,” said Muhamad Ali, a professor of religion at the University of California.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, religion is the root of many problems such as communal tensions, intolerance and economic inequalities. Political parties and governments are more interested in accommodating the conservative Islam teachings as it would help them secure votes in the upcoming elections. Former President Soeharto had believed in a more liberal form of Islam and repressed the Islamist groups. After he stepped down in 1998, the number of Islamist parties has been increasing. In the 2014 Indonesian elections, Islamist parties received 32% of the vote share. Instead of using repression once again, the governments may be trying to win the hearts of its people.

The Indonesian government has penalised acts deemed unlawful by Islamic law. For instance, civil servants and students are required to wear Muslim clothing. Demonstrations of Quranic reading ability are mandatory pre-requisites for university admission and application of marriage license.

As compared to Indonesia, Malaysia appears to be sliding faster towards conservative Islam. Parties like Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) believe that an Islamist agenda is vital to prove that they are indeed the champion of Islam in Malaysia. The local police are also religious morality agents who enforce punishment on anyone who disobeys the Sharia code. A Muslim youth survey in 2011 has also shown strong agreement for harsh Islamic penalties. These harsh punishments act as a further deterrent against anti-conservative Muslims.

Source: Muslim Youth Survey 2011

Fundamentalist Islam supporters may cause an economic crisis and a regressing society.

A stronger establishment of fundamentalist Islam will bear steep economic costs. There are linkages drawn between religion tensions and a decline in foreign investments. If cultural wars do break out, they will destroy religious and social harmony, and threaten to displace non-Muslim citizens. Finding common ground between the religious fundamentalists and moderates will continue to a challenge in religious countries. If the governments are not careful, they may end up as a hotspot for ISIS.

Additionally, homosexuality is not accepted by the conservatives and labelled as a sin. This intolerance shows disrespect for a person’s sexual orientation. In the name of religion, hardline Muslim groups called for a boycott of Starbucks. Starbucks’ support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights stands contrary to conservative Islamic beliefs. The nations’ conservative ideologies and pro-Muslims legislations deprive other communities and liberal Muslims of their fundamental rights and freedom of expression.

The future of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia

Indonesia remains a moderate Muslim nation where Islam is more relaxed and diverse. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Indonesian Islamic organisation helps to hold the country together and advocates for universal Islam. However, in Malaysia, being Malay is synonymous with being Muslim. That makes it easier for Saudi doctrines to influence the citizens and cause disintegration.

Fundamentalist Islam restricts people’s rights while democracy promotes equality and freedom. Both schools of thought cannot co-exist. Adoption of conservative Islam policies proves that the countries are regressing. Pro-Islam political parties and supporters of fundamentalist teachings will accelerate the radicalisation of more Muslim citizens. Before it is too late, the governments and leaders of moderate Islamic parties need to stop disregarding the repercussions of extremism. They need to start diffusing religious tension and promote tolerance instead.