This article seeks to analyze the evolving development and contestations regarding the interplay of Islam and politics in Malaysia’s public space for a period of 60 years (1957–2017) since its independence as a nation-state. A crucial element in this discourse is the official position of Islam as the “religion of the federation” in the Malaysian Constitution, which simultaneously guarantees the freedom of other religions embraced by almost half of the country’s population. The population became even more diverse ethnically and religiously upon the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, which replaced Malaya, on September 16, 1963. Closely related to the discourse of political Islam in Malaysia, the evolving concepts of “religion” and “secularism” in Malaysia’s Islamic context have undergone considerable shifts as a result of constant public engagement by an assortment of politicians, commentators, scholars, bureaucrats, and civil society activists. As the argument develops, Malaysia’s interaction with Islam has been essentialized by political interests such that boundaries are hardened between what is considered Islamic and un-Islamic. The increasingly rigid positions adopted by Islamic stakeholders have arguably worsened both interreligious and intra-Muslim relations, with progressive Muslim voices increasingly finding themselves marginalized in the state-controlled political environment.
The spawning of Muslim philanthropic associations signifies an increasingly visible Islamic social and political activism, in Indonesia as elsewhere in the Muslim world. Acting as non-state welfare providers, the associations provide “social security” to poor and disadvantaged groups as a means of promoting the public good. In the intricate relationship between state and citizen in the world’s largest Muslim country, Muslim philanthropic ideals of promoting the well-being of the community (ummah) are in turn contested. Will they lead to a more democratic citizenship or to new types of clientelistic relations within a plural society? This research deals with the following questions: To what extent are welfare issues perceived by Muslim philanthropic organizations as shaping a new debate over “citizenship”? Can the Islamic concept of ummah be reconciled with modern ideas of citizenship?
Malaysia is a common law country, and as such the decisions of its courts have a binding and law-making force. This means that the Malaysian judiciary is highly influential in setting the tenor of governance. In this article I examine and analyze some key decisions that had an influence on divisiveness and dissent in the country. I point out that the courts have been poor in ensuring that the legal system protects the nation from divisive elements, and the legal system does not do enough to guarantee the fundamental rights and democratic principles that were envisioned by the founding fathers for the citizenry. The article closes with an attempt to understand why this is the case.