Alex Bigham

The Islamist threat in Malaysia has lessons for us all

The Islamist threat in Malaysia has lessons for us all
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When Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave his thoughtful lecture on Sharia law and his slightly less thoughtful BBC interview about its “inevitability” in Britain, he could have taken a little more time to study the reality of politics in the Muslim world.

In countries as different as Pakistan and Malaysia, the struggle is not between Islamists and others but between moderate Muslim leaders and hardliners proposing Sharia. Where moderates are determined to stand up against extremism in these countries, Sharia is no more “inevitable” than in Britain.


In Malaysia, the General Election began officially last Sunday. Voters go to the polls on 8 March. At just 13 days, the election campaign may seem short to us - but it is actually the longest election campaign in more than 25 years. It is being contested by more than twenty parties, with 1,588 candidates fighting for 222 seats in the national parliament. Malaysia is led by an unassuming and modest Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, who heads a national coalition of 14 different parties, representing the full spread of regional, ethnic and religious identities which make up modern day Malaysia.


As a moderate Muslim leader, Badawi advocates a theory of Islam known as ‘Islam Hadhari’ or ‘Civilisation Islam’ which argues for the compatibility of Islam with economic and technological development. It also sees no conflict in better relations between the Muslim world and the West.


The kind of realism that seems to have affected Western policy in the aftermath of Iraq often places security concerns in the Islamic world over the progress and freedoms of its citizens. Malaysia’s current government doesn’t require that kind of compromise. When the West has so few reliable allies in the Muslim world, it would be wise for us to support those who can provide not just security, but also moderation and democracy.


There is a genuine threat, however. Mr Badawi's moderate coalition (the Barisan Nasional), is facing opposition from a new alliance led by extreme Islamists in a party called PAS who want to introduce hardline Sharia law in Malaysia. In 1993, the Kelantan State Legislative Assembly, which is under the control of PAS, passed the Sharia Criminal Code, which calls for the stoning to death and the chopping off of limbs for certain offences. The laws have not been enforced only because Badawi's Federal Government refuses to recognise them.

In January this year the PAS spiritual leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, explained why Sharia law and its criminal code, hudud, was good for Malaysia as follows:

“If a thief's hand is amputated and he goes to the football field or he goes to the market, people can see that he is a thief. Everyone will be afraid and won't steal.”

One senior PAS official, Mat Sabu Muhammad, has talked openly about PAS taking lessons from Hezbollah: 

“PAS can learn from Hezbollah how to become a mass movement. How is it that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, an ulamak, is able to galvanise thousands to take to the streets to support him? We in PAS need to learn from Hezbollah how to become a mass movement.”

If politics makes for strange bed fellows then this opposition alliance to Mr Badawi has it all. The three party coalition is led by conservative Islamists, includes a party of left-wing Chinese activists as well as the supporters of the former deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

Mr Anwar has assiduously courted liberal and media opinion in the USA and Europe since he was released from his imprisonment on corruption charges. He has been a regular on the international speaking circuit. He has rubbed shoulders with some of the regular party-goers on the liberal cocktail circuit of Manhattan's Upper East Side to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong. He increasingly likes to present himself as the Malaysian equivalent of somewhere between Ang Sung Su Kyi and Nelson Mandela but his alliance with the Muslim extremists should start to ring alarm bells in London and Washington.


By contrast, under Badawi’s leadership Malaysia has shown steady economic growth and development. The public finances are under control, taxes have been reformed, controls over foreign ownership relaxed. There have been expansion and improvements to Malaysia's schools, health and police services as well as electricity, water and transport infrastructure. Badawi may not be perfect – there is still more to do in terms of fighting corruption and creating more job opportunities. However, what is clear is that Abdullah Badawi leads a pro-business, pro-enterprise government in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-party democracy

But Prime Minister Badawi is also a Muslim leader who leads an Islamic country. He just doesn't fit the traditional Western stereotype. Badawi's vision is not that of the veil and the burkha but of a modern, progressive Islam; an inclusive Islam which embraces modernity rather than rejects it as an article of faith; an outward-looking Islam which seeks to use globalisation and trade to build the prosperity of Malaysia's people rather than close its borders to progress. You are more likely to see a woman dressed in a burkha in Keighley than in Kuala Lumpur.

For all his moderation and personal modesty Badawi is no shrinking violet. He is standing full square at these elections on a platform of modern, progressive, inclusive Islam but above all, moderate and mainstream. This is no focus-grouped, calculated dash for the centre ground. Precisely the opposite. In Malaysia Mr Badawi's opponents are not fighting to gain the centre ground but to seize power from the fringes.

Prime Minister Badawi actively and often offers Malaysia as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. He did so again at Davos earlier in the year when he proposed an alliance aimed at creating greater understanding between Christians, Jews and Muslims and using economic and social progress to tackle the roots of social unrest and terrorism. The West does not currently have many or nearly enough such bridges to cross. We need to take Badawi up on his offer and hope he remains in office to continue to offer it.

Alex Bigham is the Head of Communications & Projects at the Foreign Policy Centre and the editor of ‘Having Faith in Foreign Policy’.