Towards a more flexible culture

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 31 Oct 2004

In light of recent clashes between troops and Muslim civilians in southern Thailand, non-Muslims in particular are anxious aboutMalaysia’s variegated brands of Islam, writes SUHAINI AZNAM. 

AS RAMADAN falls upon us, the entire Muslim community goes shopping. 

Cultural purists will be encouraged to see, however, a return to the traditional baju kurung and kebaya which for a few disquieting years had given way to Arab styles, in clothing, food and other manifestations of religious piety previously unknown to a more laid-back Malay society. 

Today, all along the streets of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, colour and shape have replaced the racks upon racks of dull, earth coloured jubah (Arab-styled cloaks) and Pakistani-styled salwar kameez which once vied for shoppers’ attention. That seems to have been yesteryear’s fashion, thanks in no small measure to the Prime Minister’s wife Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood who actively promoted the nyonya kebaya

RELIGIOUS FERVOUR: Religious classes have become increasingly popular over the past two decades. Here Ustaz Mohd Amin Miswan teaches young boys the Quran at his home in SS15.

Inarguably, some 80% of Malay girls and women today do wear colourful scarves neatly pinned to completely cover their hair, as required in Islam, while the men sport little goatees. But the black purdah is almost never seen on the streets anymore. 

Dress has been the most obvious manifestation of Arab influence over the past few years. 

In other, less in-your-face ways too, Malaysians have adopted the Islamic badge with a fervour stronger than their religion alone demands. 

There are more Arab words bandied about – casual greetings, selected doa are taught via VCDs, Muslims suddenly want to learn Arabic and usrah (small study groups) have become popular at home. Several nasyid groups have sprung up, enough to create a category of their own at music competitions. Local TV air more Islamic programmes. 

At kenduri, Malays have adopted the Arab-style communal dish of piling rice, beef, and pickled vegetables into one tastefully shaped mountain, to be shared by five or more others. This was the way of the Prophet and Muslims are ever ready to follow in his revered footsteps. 

Seemingly overnight, there was higher attendance at mosques; more women carried their prayer clothes around with them when visiting; Islamic kindergartens mushroomed in urban enclaves. 

While Malaysia’s quota for pilgrims performing the haj is set at 25,000 – and is often oversubscribed – a random check of the major Mecca-bound travel agencies showed the number setting off on the umrah or “little haj” as either stable or having increased significantly. In the case of the Urusan Tanah Suci based in Malacca, demand doubled that of last year. At the Malaysia Airlines Travel Fair last February, MAS umrah packages were sold out. 

During Ramadan, a particularly good month for giving, the evening news has been carrying almost daily appeals for donations to destitute Muslim families. And Muslims give, ideally anonymously, to help secure them a path to heaven. 

Yet most who commit rape and incest are unfathomably Malay. The only answer lies in its socio-economic context. With so many “don’ts” in their way, some weaken at the temptations before them. This is particularly true in large rural families, where several generations might live under one roof without separate bedrooms and everyone shares one bathroom. 

The solution, said several Malay ministers, lay in moral education, at school and at home. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came up with a totally innovative suggestion: In future, all low-cost houses were to have at least three bedrooms, to ensure that family members of different sexes do not sleep together. 

Malay cabinet ministers have noted the closed-minded, near-dogmatism of one stream of Malay youth. Race, dressed in religious garb, has permeated one generation leaving them hardened in spirit. 

Where did such examples come from? 

Education to be sure, for over two decades a few thousand Muslims have graduated from the prestigious al-Azhar in Cairo, Universiti Iskandariah in Egypt, the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia and the University of Yarmouk in Jordan, among others – either paying privately or as government scholars. 

There they studied and networked. Returning home, some spread the word and their parents, after slight resistance, acquiesced because after all their sons had just returned with undisputable Islamic credentials. 

Another channel of persuasion came from the tabligh groups, who had learnt to become Muslim missionaries during their campus days, either locally or abroad.  

Giving service to the community is one of the purest forms of dakwah. And the dakwah movement of the 1970s, escalating with the pro-Khomeini demonstrations of 1979 did much to awaken Malay-Muslims to their religious obligations.  

But the tabligh groups have also given way to more insidious influences, where the line between cult and militancy are blurred. A movement like al-Arqam, once led by Ashaari Muhammad and initially based in Sungai Penchala until it was banned in 1994, was a cult. 

Al-Ma’unah, which organised an arms heist and which then held off the Malaysian police and armed forces at Bukit Jenalik, north Perak, fell into that grey area of cult-going-on-to militant group. 

RELAXED RULES: Malaysian women are modestly covered, but there is hardly a full purdah to be seen these days.

Whereas the Jemaah Tabligh Malaysia (JTM) and its Indonesian counterpart the JTI, the Kumpulan Mujahiddin Malaysia (KMM) and the Jemaah Islamiah whose aim is to establish a pan-Islamic state across South-east Asia’s Muslim areas, are clearly militant. 

Starting as members of cells in Afghanistan during the US-backed Muslim resistance to Soviet occupation, these mujahideen “graduates” then returned, and while holding down perfectly respectable jobs in universities, became operatives themselves. Through intermarriage, they formed unassailable networks. 

Malaysians in these movements are but a miniscule. But in the eyes of the US and Europe, they are the face of South-East Asian Islam. 

Beneath this grim picture, a younger, brasher generation is unwilling to accept the constraints of the establishment. 

At a Scorpions rock concert in Kuala Lumpur in September, about 100 PAS Youth members went to distribute leaflets, while admonishing individuals in the audience that concerts were immoral, and advising them to go home. Concerts, they said, would only lead to unIslamic social behaviour. 

The youths answered back, telling off the PAS representatives that “just because we are here does not mean we don’t pray,” said a mother of two. And as the audience moved to the beat, even those in the front row did not seem to be high on drugs, she attested. 

So there is a shifting away towards a more flexible Malay culture where once dogma reigned.  

These then are the many faces of Islam in Malaysia: fanatic, moderate, relaxed. But even this last, is still more Islamic in practice now than in Saloma’s heyday when tight kebaya and joget were the rage, if not quite as rigid as in the 1980s in the full bloom of the dakwah movement. 

The main barometer is perhaps PAS itself, which won 27 seats in 1999 enabling it to lead the Opposition in Parliament and to capture Terengganu while retaining Kelantan. But it lost much ground in the 2004 polls, in part due to Umno’s more accommodating stance on Islam.  

These youth have carved out their own interpretation of religion within the context of South-East Asian culture – softer, more inclusive, where it is not a case of “either or” but both.  

PAS recognises this. In early October it introduced its own “permitted concert,” featuring the all-male rockers Ito and Ghani of the Blues Gang.  

“There’s no point saying everything is haram if you don’t put up an alternative for young people,” acknowledged PAS’ Syed Azman Syed Ahmad.  

For these youth, Malaysia has come full circle.  

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