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Bugged by Nationalism

Leaders everywhere seem to be catching a strange bug. For a fresh example, let’s turn our attention from the White House’s ‘fine-tuned machine’ to the one firing on all cylinders in Malaysia. On 18 February 2017, the opposition Islamic party, PAS, mustered a 20,000-50,000-strong rally – significant numbers in this country – supporting amendments to Act 355 of the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965. The gathering was on the heels of PAS president Hadi Awang’s Private Member’s Bill, moved in Parliament’s November sitting last year, to elevate the status of Syariah courts by amending the Act. The de facto Minister of Religion, Jamil Khir Baharom, attended the demonstration which appeared to have the tacit support of his ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition.

Ironically, in 2015, Jamil was accused by a whistle-blower of misappropriating funds that were meant for orphans and the poor but denied the charges. It seems to be de rigueur in Malaysia to quash accusations of corruption just by rebuffing them. In January 2016, the Attorney-General exonerated none other than Prime Minister Najib Razak from allegations of embezzling £429 million from the state-owned investment fund, 1MDB – after Najib had removed the previous, less compliant AG and cracked down on the media and opposition politicians, of course. The new AG concluded that the funds were nothing but a “personal donation” from the Saudi royal family.

Jamil and Najib are now enthusiastic about the proposed Act 355 amendments and the public rally in support must be icing on their turbo-syariah cake. But why should we even care, especially when the world has more pressing problems?

The day before the pro-355 demonstration, a Muslim husband and wife in Malaysia went public with their lawsuit against the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI). In January, just the month before, they were snuggled up in a hotel room when at 1.30am eight JAWI enforcement officers “raided” them. The seven male and one female JAWI officer disregarded the husband’s scanned copy of their marriage certificate on his phone and the wife’s protestations that she was not decently dressed. In the resulting scuffle, the husband’s neck got injured from alleged strangulation and the wife’s left arm was bruised.

Yes, Malaysia has Saudi-style religious policing and yes, this really is how syariah laws in Malaysia can affect married Muslim couples in the privacy of their own hotel rooms. And no, this case is not an anomaly. Throughout the years, the country’s media has exposed injuries and deaths resulting from overzealous syariah enforcement – albeit buried in the back pages of the government-controlled press. Syariah enforcers and prosecutors have also been known to indulge in extortion and bribery. But the supporters of the proposed Act 355 amendments seem unperturbed by these facts. Instead, they treat concerns that an authoritarian regime could further abuse syariah laws as insults against Islam.

To me, this is like some weird mutation of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes sweeping the US. Sure, why not make your country great again by picking on people who find it difficult to fight back? Different victims, same bug. And one of the bug’s symptoms is an exceptionally selective obsession with Islam – whether by anti-Muslim ideologues in the West or pro-syariah forces in countries like Malaysia. More dangerously, it catalyses aggressive nationalism by distorting facts, manipulating public opinion and undermining elected institutions in epidemic proportions. Still, as scary as they are, epidemics can be overcome. The question is how. 

Shanon Shah is a sociologist of religion who teaches at the University of Kent and is deputy editor of Critical Muslim.