Portrait of the middle class Muslim in Malaysia

MARCH 21 — I am often asked what kind of Islam is practised in Malaysia these days.

My answer is that it is driven by class, and urbanised. It leaves little room for rural voices and Muslims out of Kuala Lumpur.

It is horrifying to meet many Muslims, and having to address the snobbery, who have little idea of what their fellow Muslims in Malaysia have to face. Being middle class endangers our worldview.

Very few can relate to the idea that we do have serious urban poverty, and when they are confronted by the facts, they relegate the responsibility to the government.

It is not their problem, they claim, as they race to help marginalised Muslims who are overseas.

(On this note, the writer would like to express her disbelief and exasperation. She sees too many Facebook posts on the plight of Syrians, Palestinians et al, and how we Muslims unite, but when they are told that Syrian, Palestinian refugees ARE in Malaysia, help is not forthcoming.)[i]

A number of middle class Malay Muslims, who are the very picture of NEP success, may come with a rigid and sometimes hostile mindset.

They are the very same parents who send their children to private and international schools, lambasting government ones, and the vitriol they spew against non-Muslims and yes, their very own kind, the disenfranchised Malay, is frightening.

It is this voice that requires investigation, as the conversation is already dominated by well-known voices of the “modern” Muslims and conservatives of the Perkasa ilk. Masked by education, designer handbags and cars, these model Muslims may be the Hyde next door.

Why is class an important influencer?

The newly minted Malay Muslim is not unlike American evangelical Christians.

“Evangelical Christians are now increasingly likely to be college graduates and in the top income brackets. Evangelical CEOs pray together on monthly conference calls, evangelical investment bankers study the Bible over lunch on Wall Street and deep-pocketed evangelical donors gather at golf courses for conferences restricted to those who give more than US$200,000 (RM659,300) annually to Christian causes.

Their growing wealth and education help explain the new influence of evangelicals in American culture and politics. Their buying power fuels the booming market for Christian books, music and films. Their rising income has paid for construction of vast mega-churches in suburbs across the country. Their charitable contributions finance dozens of mission agencies, religious broadcasters and international service groups.”

It would be very hard not to be impressed by these very people, for they are everything we all aspire to be. They are also very connected in more ways than one, and educated.

If not for them, even I would not be exposed to progressive Muslim teachers or leaders, such as Mufti Menk Ismail, Suhaib Webb and so forth.

We now have fashionable hijjabis, hipster cafés, and many youth-oriented festivals and markets that pop up in the city as also syariah compliant.

Once upon a time, you would be hard-pressed to find a tudung-ed Malay woman toting the latest It bag. Today, go to Bangsar Village or Bangsar Shopping Centre, and throw a coin — one in two hijabbed women will be sporting a handbag that probably costs someone else’s two months’ pay.

I will admit that I find this progression refreshing. As a Muslim woman, I am tired of hearing about the poor downtrodden Muslim woman who wishes she could be as modern and wealthy as her Western counterpart.

However, as a Muslim, and observer of human life, I fear that this newfound wealth may impact the already ailing Malay economy.

Throw in the workers and migrants who are now very much part of the landscape and have more or less taken over the simple food stall; wither goes the humble Malay trader?

“The Malay poor don’t concern us,” so said a professional in his late 30s, who had been weighing the pros and cons of buying a RM900,000 home. “It’s not our problem, it’s the government’s.”

The middle class, whatever race, creed they are, will be the most powerful impact on politics. The numbers are burgeoning, and this is not a silent group. They are critical, articulate and financially savvy: they will support only the causes they feel passionately about.  (‘The Middle Class Revolution’, Francis Fukuyama, The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2013.)

I see a shift towards a rather subtle and internal fascism in our dealings with the practice of Islam in this country.

I have always said to friends in private, and now to you, that the next battle will not be among the Christians, Buddhists and Hindus of Malaysia, but it will be among ourselves.

Next: The Handbag Theory

*The writer is an independent researcher whose work in communications funds her adventures into the interiors of Malaysia.

(i) For the sake of this essay, the focus is on Malay-Muslim professionals.

**This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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