By Murray Hunter

BANGKOK, Thailand--Prime minister Anwar Ibrahim recently made an impassioned plea for all muftis, religious leaders, teachers, and Ustaz to assist in the stability and harmony of the nation. Anwar is well aware of the clear and present danger religious zealotism poses to the stability of Malaysia’s democracy.

The recent use of racist commentary, labelling of the DAP as communist, and calls for violence during the recent election signal a deep division within Malaysian society and the dangers this entails. The recent poll result in Padang Serai, Kulim reminded all that just because a unity government now rules, these deep divisions, especially within the Malay heartlands are still real.

The general election results indicate to all the divisions of Malaysian society, which needs to be reconciled, rather than left to continue to cause aggravation.

We must all be aware that the Agong’s decision on which grouping should govern the nation was out of concern for the potential damage a partisan government could do to the country. 

This allowed Anwar Ibrahim to form a unity government, strongly supported by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of UMNO, and Sarawak’s Gabungan Parti Sarawak. When Sarawak’s Premier, Abang Johari Openg wavered over supporting Pakatan Harapan, there was a strong pushback by Sarawakians.

Now the unity government, led by Anwar must take action to prevent the forces of extremism from taking control of the nation. However, the solution is not easy for two reasons. 
First, the main proponent of this extremism is focused within a prime political opponent, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). Secondly, the antagonistic attitudes towards a quasi-secular Westminster democratic system practiced in Malaysia come from a sizable group within Malaysia’s population, who want an Islamic state.

This is what makes the issue a major dilemma for all. Something that needs reconciliation.

However, the attitudes of the young after generations of religious indoctrination through the education system, and religious education, through pondoks and Tahfiz schools cannot easily be changed. 
We must understand that those who have received an education under the current environment see a government that defends and promotes Islam as something natural to aspire to.

Direct attacks upon these beliefs will only reinforce what they believe, that Islam is under direct threat, and secularism is the enemy of Islam. Any direct regulatory intervention into religious education will be seen as the same. An attack against Islam, a Jewish or Christian plot. Thus, raise community defences against intervention.

This will fuel the political forces against the unity government, rather than bring peace and harmony to Malaysian society.

PAS is continuing to lambast the new government, which has influenced some of its early decisions like how big a role the DAP will play within the government. It will be the PAS intention to destabilize the government, to hamper any moves to curtail any interference within the religious education system.

Is reform in the ‘too hard basket?’

The reason PAS has been successful in gaining influence electorally, is its approach at community level. For decades, PAS has been building up communities across the Malay heartlands, where Kelantan, Teregganu, Kedah and Perlis are now its strongholds. 
PAS has also extended its community development into Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Melaka and Johor. These communities build their own mosques, religious schools, and community centres, which propagate an Islamic way of life. Over generations, these communities develop critical masses, which influence who can win seats in elections.

Under such a situation, where long term indoctrination has created Malays with a deep mindset towards PAS interpretations of Islam, there is a very limited array of tools that can be used to pushback on growing conservate Islamic thinking that PAS support thrives upon.

However, the Anwar government has devised a two prone strategy to stem the flow of Islamic conservatism, that has wrapped racism and hate into its ideology.

First, Anwar is calling upon muftis and ustaz to extol Islamic virtues about living, sharing, and tolerance in a multicultural society. Anwar, is extolling the responsibility of the nation’s religious leaders in doing this, providing a grounded and balanced view of Islam. 
This message is being taken up by Islamic opinion leaders like Engku Ahmad Fadzil Engku Ali, who is constructively adding to the dialogue the nation must have. Hopefully more religious leaders will add to the discussion and reinforce what Anwar has said.

Second, deputy prime minister Zahid, with the rural and regional development portfolio has the opportunity to directly engage communities within the Malay heartlands on these very issues. 
Counter-narratives may be placed at the grassroots to provide Malays with new perspectives of Islam, in line with what Anwar is trying to do with religious leaders.

The importance of this task cannot be underestimated. Islam within Malaysia has taken on a narrow interpretation, which is becoming out of line with the rest of the world. 
This is not about promoting a moderate or liberal Islam. This is about taking racism and hate from the teachings, which are contrary to the teachings of Islam.

This will mean that in future UMNO should not out-Islamize its narratives over PAS narratives, but provide alternative narratives. This will also mean reform within UMNO in the way it appeals to the electorate. It will force general reform of UMNO.

If Anwar-Zahid’s strategy has some effect, this will be able to be gauged when the Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, Kelantan, and Terengganu state elections occur before September next year.

We must realize this cannot be a ‘quick fix.’  It took generations for Islam in Malaysia to turn away from its ‘Nusantara’ influence, towards emulating ‘Arabism.’

It's only a start in the long journey of bringing Malaysia back into being a land of moderation.