Malaysia's cool imam
By Katherine Marshall
When South Africa was emerging from the dark shadows of the apartheid era, Malaysia was one place it looked for successful examples of how to address the difficult legacy of racial inequality. Malaysia's Malay citizens (about 60 percent of the total) lagged behind other groups and helping them to "catch up" was a deliberate government policy.
Malaysia is justly proud of its record in managing what at one time threatened to be a conflict-ridden transition. It also takes pride in its distinctive Muslim culture and in the way its religious and ethnic diversity works in a fast-changing society. But behind Malaysia's new prosperity, seen in glittering skyscrapers and tangles of freeways, there are lively debates about what lies ahead.
Malaysia's challenges involve above all its diverse ethnic, religious and economic identities, and today's debates turn on how the three are intertwined. By constitution, Malaysia is a Muslim nation and its population is majority Muslim. Malays and Islam are tightly linked. That translates, among other things, into legal tussles over whether one can renounce being a Muslim. Malaysians are trying to identify how the country's Islamic identity is distinct and how much latitude there is for different strands of Islamic thinking; how much can Malaysian Islam change as the country modernizes? The country's minorities are largely Chinese and Indian, and they are mostly Buddhists and Christians. How do their rights balance with those of the Malay and Muslim majority, in law and in the society?
One good example is the recent furor around underage marriage. In the state of Southern Malacca (religion is a state matter in Malaysia), the Islamic religious council ruled that Muslim girls under 16 could be married in certain circumstances (pregnancy being one). This ruling was presented as an attempt to curb premarital sex, adultery and baby dumping after several newborns were abandoned.
The ruling set off a storm of protest, including from the bold organization Sisters in Islam, which affirmed its position that age 18 must be the minimum age for marriage. The federal government's position is clearly against underage marriage; as Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the minister for women, family and community development, said: underage marriage is "morally and socially unacceptable." But "the evolution of legislation in many instances and not only in Malaysia but many other countries as well does take a bit of time and convincing. We have to take into account the cultural hindrances and stereotyping as well."
An example of the way Malaysian Islam is changing was the recent popular reality TV show that selected a young "cool" imam (Muhammad Asyraf Mohammad Ridzuan) from among 10 finalists; the others were voted off the program one by one, just like "American Idol." The idea was to make Islam more appealing to young people and to make them associate religion with inspiration rather than caning and morality raids. The finalists were chosen from 1,000 candidates, faced written and practical tests on religion each week, and were quarantined in a mosque dormitory and banned from using phones, the Internet and television. They had to persuasively steer youngsters away from sex and drugs. Imam Muda had almost 94,000 Facebook fans when I last checked.
Thoughtful Malaysians worry that Malaysia's successful diversity is being challenged by an increasing de facto segregation in schools and neighborhoods. If the foundation of national identity is indeed that people of different races and religions will live and work together, they need at the very least to know one another. More integrated schools and curricula that highlight Malaysia's multiethnic and multireligious heritage and character are seen as the keys.
Malaysia's lively debates about cool imams, how to curb child marriage, and what should be taught in schools are healthy symptoms of a complex society confronting the complicated realities of racial and religious identities in modern times. South Africa found much to learn from Malaysia when it looked east two decades ago. The lessons continue to this day.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a visiting professor and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
August 16, 2010; 12:44 AM ET
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