KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — Academics warned today of the rise of “Salafism” in Malaysia, an ultra-conservative brand of Islam that they claimed has been seeping into local Malay culture and traditions, and driving the country’s dominant ethnic group further off the path of moderation.
Singapore-based sociologist Dr Syed Farid Alatas said that the Salafi movement — whose followers believe that the earliest teachings of Islam represent the purest form of the religion — defines Islam based on a “narrow point of view” and rejects the religion’s “intellectual traditions”.
The Salafi movement subscribes to the “most extreme of form of extremism”, the National University of Singapore (NUS) associate professor added, citing the growing influence of the Islamic State (IS) jihad in Syria and Iraq as an example.
“This is an imbalance of regulation and respect for the sanctity of personal life,” he told about 100 participants at a roundtable discussion on the threat of religious fundamentalism organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) today.
In the Malaysian context, Syed Farid added that there now appears to be “great deal” of rejection of previous cultural practices that were once accepted as the norm among Malay-Muslims here.
In its place, locals are now adapting to the Salafi way of life, which they accept as “legitimate and in line with Islam,” he said.
“There was a time when the use of hijab was considered a form of extremism, because it was more common to use a selendang (shawl) to cover your hair.
“These are ideas of minority groups like the Salafist that are being imposed on the majority in Malaysia,” he added.
The sociologist also suggested that the shift to religious conservatism in Malaysia has been encouraged by the strict enforcement of Islamic rules and regulations, some of which “interfere with the lives of the people”.
To illustrate his point, he referred to a by-law in Kelantan where Muslim men who do not attend Friday prayers for three weeks consecutively may find themselves fined RM1,000 and jailed for a year.
“It is wrong to police people to that level. It encourages spying and sets an extremely bad precedent in society.
“You find religious police become peeping Toms, hoping to catch people in the act, and if all else fails they book people for khalwat,” said Syed Farid, referring to the prohibition of close proximity between unmarried Muslims of the opposite sex.
He also accused Putrajaya of persecuting Malaysia’s religious minorities in a bid to appeal to its traditionally rural Malay-Muslim voter base.
Among others, the government has outlawed Shiah — the second-largest denomination in Islam — and pursued the Catholic Church over the use of “Allah”, the Arabic word for God, in a Christian newsletter.
“Newspapers openly printed a combination of lies, falsehoods about Shiahs,” he said, adding that the current situation can only improve provided there is sufficient political will to change the current structure of religious schools.
IRF founder and director Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa added the current structure also puts to shame Putrajaya’s pledge for moderation.
To be seen as “more Islamic” in the eyes of the public, Ahmad Farouk said that political parties have also inculcated a siege mentality among the Malays, which he said has led to strained race relations in multi-racial and multi-cultural Malaysia.
“This was a man who insulted the feelings Hindus by questioning their faith... but in Malaysia, where our government advocates moderation, he is given an award,” said Ahmad Farouk, referring to the award of the prestigious Tokoh Maal Hijrah to controversial Muslim preacher Dr Zakir Naik from Mumbai, India, last year.
“But the government prevents a liberal Indonesian scholar from entering, this is the real problem for Malaysia,” he added, referring to the absence of Dr Ulil Abshar Abdalla from today’s forum.
Last week, Ulil was barred from entering Malaysia after Putrajaya claimed that the founder of Liberal Islam Network would sway Muslims from their Sunni teachings with his liberal ideas of Islam.
He added that such a ban was to strengthen the use of a certain brand of Islam and use it as a political instrument to retain the country’s Muslim majority, who are predominantly Malays.
Muslims make up 61.3 per cent of the Malaysian population, followed by Buddhists at 19.8 per cent, and Christians at 9.2 per cent, according to the latest census data from 2010.