A recent article by Maznah Mohamad, a visiting senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore, questions the role of religion in Malaysian politics. He claims that its hard to distinguish Islamic radicals from Islamic moderates, saying that Islam and the government have essentially merged.
For two decades, the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) government invested enormous public resources in building up a network of Islamic institutions. The government’s initial intention was to deflect radical demands for an extreme version of Islamic governance. Over time, however, the effort to out-do its critics led the UMNO to over-Islamicise the state.
The UMNO’s programme has put Sharia law, Sharia courts, and an extensive Islamic bureaucracy in place, a collective effort that has taken on a life of its own. The number of Islamic laws instituted has quadrupled in just over 10 years. After Iran or Saudi Arabia, Malaysia’s Sharia court system is probably the most extensive in the Muslim world, and the accompanying bureaucracy is not only big but has more bite than the national parliament.
The struggle to define the role of religion in a democracy is one of the many challenges facing Malaysia. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been at the center of these debates for more than three decades – as a student leader, a finance minister and as deputy prime minister. In 1998, Anwar began six years of solitary confinement on charges of sexual misconduct and corruption that were eventually reversed.
AAM’s Katherine Gypson sat down with Ibrahim to discuss the political landscape in Malaysia, the politics of a new trial he faces in November and how it will affect his plans to run for the position of Prime Minister in 2010. Watch >