In Isma, a portrait of political Islam driven by urban middle-class professionals

File photo shows Isma’s president Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman. The right-wing Malay Muslim movement has a growing base of young professionals. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
File photo shows Isma’s president Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman. The right-wing Malay Muslim movement has a growing base of young professionals. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, May 16 — With a well-organised machinery comprising urban middle-class Malay professionals and a growing base among younger Muslims, Isma does not have a stereotypical face of an organisation derided by its critics as fringe extremists and religious bigots.

Its leadership includes accountants, academics and medical doctors while its activists frequently argue its case for Malay and Muslim dominance in English-language articles.

But with its hard-line stance and uncompromising views against Malaysia’s racial and religious minorities, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) has quickly risen to become the new poster child for the right-wing Malay-Muslim movement in Malaysia.

In just a year since the divisive Election 2013, Isma has been grabbing headlines with its controversial views. The group’s president Abdullah Zaik Abd Rahman labelled Malaysia’s non-Muslims citizens as “immigrants” with no right to object to Malaysia becoming an Islamic country, or to question the position of the Bumiputera community.

Isma, like several other Malay-Muslim non-governmental organisations in the country, contends that non-Muslims, especially the Chinese, have oppressed the Malays so much that they have become unable to assert full dominance over the country’s politics and economy.

Urging unity under Islam, Isma wants Malays to counter the “threat” posed by-non-Muslims. It has also called on Malays and Muslims to be aggressive in defending Islam.

But what separates Isma from other groups with similar goals and agendas like Perkasa? Who are Isma’s members, and how do they draw interest from their support base? Do they have any political ambitions or are they affiliated with any parties?

Tracing Isma’s roots

“Our main goal is to create and help nurture the Malay community with a specific agenda. What makes us different is our diverse membership base and our non-partisan affiliation...Our ideology is that Malays and Islam are synonymous,” Abdullah told The Malay Mail Online in an recent interview.

Formed on July 7, 1997, it was originally known as Ikatan Siswazah Muslim Malaysia before it changed its name to Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia in 2005.

According to Isma deputy president Aminuddin Yahaya, Isma’s role and target audience in 1997 was more focused towards learned, educated “middle-class Malays”, but this changed in 2005 following a stable growing support base.

“We then expanded our audience to include youths, today anyone the age of 18 and above can join. Isma fills in the void created by both Umno and PAS.

“Some Malays find it hard to accept Umno’s message, while PAS doesn’t really fight for Malays but more on Islam,” he told The Malay Mail Online when contacted.

Defining the Malay identity

Aminudin believes that Isma is the first organisation to harmonise both Malay and Muslim rights and set a new course in defining the community and by extension Malaysia’s identity.

“We have to help the Malay community regain their strength, and help them get their identity back… we emphasise on the importance of our country’s history so that the Malays know their rights and how special their race is.

“You are great. You are great. So why are you not defending your own race?”  was his simple message to the nation’s Malays.

Aminuddin, also a chartered accountant, stressed that Isma’s main agenda is an explicit emphasis on Malay-Muslim unity beyond political party affiliations.

And like his deputy, Abdullah believes in the same ideal, saying the most important thing for the Malays is to have a clear agenda.

“The current political arena is not concurrent with the goals of an Islamic country. We feel that the Islamic agenda has been put on the backburner,” he added.

A well-oiled network of working professionals

Boasting a  membership base of 20,000 people, Isma has approximately 23 registered branches nationwide and eight branches abroad, in Egypt, Australia, Jordan, Europe, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.

Most of its branches abroad are handled by student volunteers and activists. Isma claims that at least 50 per cent of its members are currently working as doctors, academics and businessmen.

“We use mosques, sermons and lectures in universities to talk about a lot of issues pertaining to Malays and Muslims. Its not usually very much publicised but we get a very good crowd in each of these events,” said Aminuddin.

And the group even has separate agencies that cater to different social and age categories within the Malay community — the Isma Ulama Council (MUIS), the Isma Youth Club (KRIM), and the Malaysian Muslim Medical and Health Practitioners (I-Medik).

MUIS is led by Dr Aznan Hasnan from the International Islamic University Malaysia, and its council members include religious scholars from several other public universities as well as the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim).

KRIM conducts camps and activities for high school students who have just completed their SPM examinations as well as seminars and self-help workshops for school students.

I-Medik, led by UIA’s Prof Dr Azmi Md Nor, is a registered body which promotes an Islamic-based approach to medicine. It is made up of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and also dentists. It has organised several “say no to Zina (adultery)” forums just last month.

WIll Isma join Malaysian politics?

Faced with allegations of having close ties with Umno, Isma has gone through great pains to distance itself from the Malay party as well as Islamist Pakatan Rakyat (PR) party PAS.

Both Abdullah and Aminuddin told The Malay Mail Online that Isma was not interested to enter politics or to go against PAS or Umno and that their main agenda, at least for the time being was to unite Malays from all political parties to stand together in the name of Islam.

“That is not out main theme for now… but of course, we do not know what can happen in the future,” said Aminuddin.

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