Cosmopolitan Islam and the forging of Bangsa Malaysia

THE beginning of 2021 marks the end of Vision 2020 - a utopian concept launched in 1991, which imagined all sorts of futures for our nation. Besides technological and economic advancement, one challenge was also mentioned in Vision 2020 - “Creating a united Malaysia with a shared goal”.

Thirty years after the announcement, integration and national cohesion have yet to be fully addressed. Racial sentiments and mutual suspicion continue to create tensions that may explode at any time.

In 2021, we are called to dig deep and see what visions of stronger unity we might be able to offer Malaysians moving forward. In light of this, the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) has put forth the idea of Cosmopolitan Islam as a key pillar in the forging of Bangsa Malaysia, which in turn can be the key pillar and concept in forging national unity. These ideas were discussed at length in the policy speech at Abim’s 49th Annual General Assembly on Dec 26,2020.

Abim emphasised that it is important to address concerns about the concept of Bangsa Malaysia that have historically arisen, especially when seen through the political lens. On the one hand, some see Bangsa Malaysia as a tool of elite Malays to dilute the identity of other races while on the other, some fear that Bangsa Malaysia is similar to the concept of “Malaysian Malaysia” that is associated with efforts to dilute the identity of the majority race.

These problems arise when we see racial and ethnic identity through the wrong lens. The right way to understand identity is to see it as an inclusive, unifying factor rather than something that divides and separates.

In his book Identity & Violence, economist Amartya Sen reminds us to pay attention to multiple identities. Positive identity can be a source of pride and fulfilment as well as strength and confidence. Any individual can experience more motivation to succeed if she sees herself as being part of an ethnic group with a rich and successful history, and part of an ongoing tradition of growth and prestige.

However, identity can be extremely harmful if its negative sides are not managed. Amartya Sen recalled his childhood in the 1940s, where sentiment regarding identity changed very quickly. Diversity in India involving Muslims and Hindus that was positive in January changed to one where they were pitted against each other in intense, emotionally charged conflict by July of the same year. Hundreds of thousands were killed at the hands of those claiming to "represent others of the same identity".

Thus, as we wrestle with ethnoreligious identity, we must emphasise empowerment and not the kind of destructive extremism that kills diversity. The way to balance and moderate ethnoreligious identity is to embrace multiple identities. This is what Amartya Sen describes as "the power of competing identities'', an acknowledgement of our ability to take on more identities than just ethnoreligious. Such identities include places of origin, professional identities, gender, social class, political leanings, eating habits, sports preferences, musical tastes and social causes.

Within the larger framework, we should see ourselves as having a national and civic identity, as is encapsulated in the concept of Bangsa Malaysia. A Bangsa Malaysia identity will inspire the confidence necessary for us to move together as one under a truly inclusive national banner.

While it must always be emphasised that working for ethnic and religious interests is part of a noble heritage that we must uphold, we cannot hold to these identities to the point of extremism that can divide communities, such as described by Amartya Sen.

This is why Abim understands Bangsa Malaysia as one of the "competing identities" that moderates ethnoreligious identity, and ensures that the latter never induces extremism. However, we must recognise the fact that in the present, we are still beset by social anxieties surrounding the question of competing identities, especially the charge that such competing identities can compromise the survival of ethnic identities.

A Bangsa Malaysia identity does not involve assimilation that dilutes our diverse cultures. Rather, it represents an opportunity to mould an integrated identity that is informed and inspired by the shared values and qualities of all the various ethnicities and cultures in our blessed nation.

The unifying values of Bangsa Malaysia should include a united front against poverty, corruption and conflict as well as a shared resolve to protect and raise the dignity of all Malaysians. These shared values are the bases of the middle road that will keep our nation from falling from either the pitfalls of assimilation on one hand or segregation and division on the other.

There needs to be an openness on the part of all communities to share their aspirations and together seek the foundations for Bangsa Malaysia. This openness has in fact been a key quality of the Malay people since the very founding of our civilisation, and has been a key driver in our societal evolution.

Prof Dr Syed Khairudin Al-Junied in his book Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Southeast Asian Islam In Comparative Perspective discusses the cosmopolitan features of Muslims with fresh substance driven by the Southeast Asian Muslim community.

“Muslim cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia is a style of thought, a habit of seeing the world and a way of living that is rooted in the central tenet of Islam, which is that everyone is part of a common humanity accountable to God and that we are morally responsible towards one another. To embrace Muslim cosmopolitanism is to exhibit a high degree of receptiveness to universal values that are embedded within one’s own customs and tradition (adat). Internalizing Muslim cosmopolitanism enables a person to be at ease with his or her own Islamic cultural identities, promoting these identities as a means to enrich public understanding about Islam and Muslims while maintaining and embracing a tolerant attitude towards people of other backgrounds.”

The Asian Renaissance by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim stressed how the method of spreading Islam in the region, which was full of uniqueness and creativity, succeeded in forming a Southeast Asian Muslim community with a cosmopolitan image that was void of resentment and hostility.

The emphasis on the cosmopolitan concept of Islam, which encapsulates the features of universality and openness, should spark a keen awareness on how the construction of civilisation is based on historical interactions and relationships.

In fact, the history of Islamic civilisation has acknowledged the fact that we learned mathematics and astronomy from the Indian civilisation, the science of logic from Greek civilisation and administrative organisation from Persian civilisation.

The Malacca Sultanate, for example, followed through with the greatness of the earlier empires and further strengthened the reputation of Southeast Asia as a maritime and global trade emporium. Even in those days, the prestige of Islam had been greatly lifted as a cosmopolitan culture in Southeast Asia when commercial towns in the Malay world created a network of interactions to form a more powerful trade centre.

When Abim talks of openness and national unity, we see this as part of an effort to strengthen ethnic identity and dignity, not detract from it, as is often assumed. Being Malaysian does not make one any less Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban or Kadazan.

We need to learn from our past and return to an era when society in this part of the world was known for being open and inclusive, and where the spirit of cosmopolitanism drove great civilisations.

By adopting this spirit of cosmopolitanism, we can inspire confidence among all ethnic groups to invest in national unity based on the shared values of Bangsa Malaysia. The opposite of this is to continue to yield to racist sentiments, inferiority complexes and a constant siege mentality that will block true empowerment of the ummah and the consensus we need to rebuild a great civilisation in this region.

Therefore, self aware and responsible social activists need to become "creative individuals" with a clear plan for reviving civilisation in the same way Muslims did in the past. Islam’s image in human civilisation should be defined by a revival of a cultured and educated ummah.

May 2021 be the year in which we finally come together to build Bangsa Malaysia and realise the true potential of our beloved nation.



Muslim Youth Movement Malaysia (ABIM)

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