Rest in Peace, Islam Hadari

Observers of Malaysian politics both at home and abroad have already begun to write the political obituary of the country’s embattled Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Perhaps the biggest loss for Malaysia in the long run will be the demise of Islam Hadari as a project that was never really understood, unfairly criticised, crassly instrumentalised and ultimately cast into the dustbin, writes Farish A Noor.

Observers of Malaysian politics both at home and abroad have already begun to write the political obituary of the country’s embattled Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. While the global economy goes into a tailspin and markets across Asia tumble on an hourly basis, Malaysians seem more engrossed in the country’s on-going political drama that has turned into a comical farce of near-epic proportions: The fate of Prime Minister Badawi hangs in the balance as rival contenders for the coveted post of leader of the Umno party and Prime Minister of Malaysia come to the fore, ranging from his current deputy Najib Razak to even veterans such as Tengku Razaleigh whom many had written off years ago.

To be sure, the immediate verdict on Badawi’s period of rule will not be a pleasant one. The picture that is being painted at the moment is that of a less-than-rosy canvas, and the list of Badawi’s failings is as long as it is impressive. The man who started with such promise, and who promised so much to the electorate, may well end up in the history books of Malaysia as the one who lost it all.

When he came to power in 2004 Badawi scored the highest mandate in the history of Malaysian politics. Not a single leader before him – not even the country’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman or Mahathir Mohamad – had ever managed to win such a huge share of the public’s votes. Yet following the elections of March 2008, he has earned himself yet another honour, this time being the leader who lost the most votes, seats and state assemblies in the history of Malaysia .

Badawi’s great promise (which turned into an even bigger disappointment) was his claim to be a reform-minded leader who seriously wanted to reform the institutions of power in the country. His attempts to deal with corruption, abuse of power by the police, lack of transparency in governance and the judiciary, all earned him the approval of the Malaysian public and managed – temporarily – to sap away support from the opposition parties too.

Yet by 2006 it became clear that Badawi had bitten off more than he could possibly chew and the signs of institutional inertia were plain to see: His reform gestures were not well met by the police, in particular, who for a long period, were given a free hand to operate during the days of former PM Mahathir. Despite talk of anti-corruption, few cases of high-level corruption were brought to court (compared to neighbouring Indonesia where even high-ranking members of the Suharto family have been brought to book).

But it is in the area of Islam, or rather normative Muslim religiosity, that Badawi failed the most. Badawi’s trademark project was the Islam Hadari programme that he hoped to launch in the country. ‘Islam Hadari’ was, from the outset, a state-sanctioned and state-sponsored exercise in social engineering, at a somewhat crude level. Its aims were simple: to open the way for a modern and relevant interpretation of Islamic laws and norms that would help galvanise society to think of religion in a dynamic and contemporary mode, in keeping with the modern age we live in. It promoted the notion of gender equality, and insisted that Islamic practice can and should be used as a vehicle for social advancement, capacity building and individual empowerment. The key ingredient in this formula was knowledge and exposure to new ideas.

Yet anyone with even the most shallow understanding of Malaysian society would realise by now that engineering a society and trying to make Muslims modern and progressive cannot ever be a top-down process, anymore than a slave master can teach his slaves how to be free. The prevailing values and norms of Islamic praxis in Malaysia , like in many Muslim countries today, remain conservative and even reactionary in many quarters.

Thus, while Badawi the leader preached open-mindedness and called on his fellow Muslims to think and live in the modern age, he underestimated the extent to which his own efforts would be foiled by the very same conservative Muslims who manned the religious institutions of power in Malaysia’s vast Islamic bureaucracy. The irony of the situation was as pathetic as it was comical at times: foreign scholars such as Karen Armstrong were invited to conferences on Islam in Malaysia while her books were banned; and, throughout the years of Badawi’s feeble leadership, scores of other books on Islam and religion were banned as well. How, pray tell, does one open up the minds of Muslims when they are not allowed to read anything in the first place?

It has to be said, however, that Badawi was not entirely at fault here as he was attempting a reform of Islam while battling on several fronts. On the one hand, he had to deal with an unco-operative Islamic bureaucracy that paid little attention to his own reform initiatives, some of which were indeed laudatory. On the other hand he also had to deal with opposition from the Malaysian Islamic party that took an even more conservative stand and which simply dismissed Islam Hadari as a ‘deviant’ idea. Yet this is the same Islamic party that in 2001 valourised the Tabiban as ‘true Islam’ and their ‘brothers’. To make things worse Malaysia’s stifling race-based communitarian politics made it even more difficult for discussion on Islam to take place in the public domain without it bring racialised and used as a political toy by all the communitarian parties in the country.

Half a decade on, it would appear that Badawi’s days are drawing to an end, and with that Islam Hadari as well. In the years and decades to come, future historians may be kinder to Badawi who may be remembered as the man who tried to reform Malaysia but failed, and whose failure was due to the rot and inertia that had settled in the very same corridors of power that he walked. But perhaps the biggest loss for Malaysia in the long run will be the demise of Islam Hadari as a project that was never really understood, unfairly criticised, crassly instrumentalised and ultimately cast into the dustbin as just another item in the long train of baggage left behind in the wake of Badawi’s exit from power.

Dr. Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia.

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