Forum explores creeping ‘Arabisation’ among Malays

Sociologist Syed Farid al-Attas speaks at the ‘Arabisation’ forum in Kuala Lumpur, May 23, 2016. ― Pictures by Yusof Mat Isa
Sociologist Syed Farid al-Attas speaks at the ‘Arabisation’ forum in Kuala Lumpur, May 23, 2016. ― Pictures by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, May 23 ― Self-loathing, ignorance and insecurity were among the main reasons for “Arabisation” taking root in Malaysia’s Malay community, pundits told a forum here last night.

Sociologist Syed Farid al-Attas and historian Eddin Khoo said while the issue may have a more complex origin ― mostly from geopolitics stemming from the Saudi-Iran conflict ― the Arabisation phenomenon here could simply stem from inferiority complex.

“For some reason the Malays often feel very low about themselves. So when they ape the Arabs they believe they are the more authentic (Muslims),” Syed Farid said.

The term “Arabisation” is used among the country's moderate and progressive Muslims to describe the rapid spread of Islamic conservatism within the community that once prided itself as the global poster boy of progressive Islam.

Khoo noted that prior to the Arabisation phenomenon, the Malays were known for their ability to “internalise” Islam with their own culture.

The result was a rich mix of identity that became unique to this region, he said.

But much of it, like Kuda Kepang and Dikir Barat, have been systematically erased as the community became more eager to prove who is the more “authentic” Muslim, Khoo added.

“There is an internal struggle within the Malays… Malay culture has become the victim of the battle between factions vying for control over who is more Malay (and Muslim),” the historian said in reference to the political rivalry between nationalist Umno and Islamist PAS.

Historian Eddin Khoo speaks at the ‘Arabisation’ forum in Kuala Lumpur, May 23, 2016.
Historian Eddin Khoo speaks at the ‘Arabisation’ forum in Kuala Lumpur, May 23, 2016.

Amid the clash of ideologies between the two political parties, there are alarming signs that the more extreme strain of Islam, namely Wahabbism, has crept into the mainstream, Syed Farid said.

This can be seen in the growing intolerance shown by hardline Muslims here towards diversity and religious pluralism, he added, noting that the autocratic ideology of “salafism” appealed to Muslims who wanted to impose their beliefs on others.

“What we are importing is not the faith but the practices and beliefs from a culture from Saudi Arabia.

“So what it is actually is not Arabisation, but the salafisation or Saudi Arabisation process… this is dangerous as this narrow interpretation of Islam can undermine (the diversity) of our religion,” he said, adding later that he was a staunch anti-salafist.

Whistleblower website WikiLeaks revealed recently that Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars, often in covert campaigns, to spread Wahabbism globally.

Wahabbism, a Saudi invention, is a radical, exclusionist puritanism strain of the Sunni sect. Salafis on the other hand are fundamentalists who believe in a return to the way of life of the first three generations of Muslims

The funds are used to spread the belief through the building of mosques, madrasas, schools, and Sunni cultural centers across the Muslim world, leaked documents showed.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir speaks at the ‘Arabisation’ forum in Kuala Lumpur. May 23, 2016.
Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir speaks at the ‘Arabisation’ forum in Kuala Lumpur. May 23, 2016.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, the third panellist at the forum, argued that one of the reasons why Malays want to appropriate Arab culture is because they ignorantly equate the community with Islam, whereas Arabs made up just 15 per cent of the world's Muslim population.

“Malays have this simple thinking that everything Islam is Arab. But there are so many types of Arabs in the region… so when we try and emulate Arabs, which one are we talking about?” she asked.

Khoo also said adoration of the Arabs by conservative Muslims was likely a psychological problem.

He said some Malays believe weaving Arabic words into their daily speech made them come across as more knowledgeable about Islam.

At the end of the public talk, Syed Farid said cultural assimilation was normal as the Malays had imported various cultural elements from different civilisations throughout history, including from the Arabs.

But he said it was crucial for the community to preserve its own identity while practising Islam.