The Pillars of “Mahathir's Islam”: Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Florida Atlantic University]On: 18 November 2014, At: 20:36Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    The Pillars of Mahathir's Islam:Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim inthe Modern WorldSven Alexander Schottmann aa La Trobe UniversityPublished online: 17 Aug 2011.

    To cite this article: Sven Alexander Schottmann (2011) The Pillars of Mahathir's Islam: MahathirMohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World, Asian Studies Review, 35:3, 355-372, DOI:10.1080/10357823.2011.602663

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  • The Pillars of Mahathirs Islam:Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslimin the Modern World

    SVEN ALEXANDER SCHOTTMANN*

    La Trobe University

    Abstract: Unlike his bourgeois economic nationalism or diplomatic posturing onbehalf of the developing world, Mahathir Mohamads encounter with Islamremains a largely understudied aspect of his 22-year rule of Malaysia (19812003). There is a marked reluctance to take seriously his pronouncements onIslam and engage with his representations of what being-Muslim should entail inthe modern world. This essay takes the view that Islam, in fact, represents asignificant component of the former Malaysian prime ministers politicalrepertoire, and that an analysis of what may be described as MahathirsIslam can provide a compelling alternative account of his momentouspremiership. It argues that while Mahathirs engagement with Islam was fraughtwith contradictions and has produced a number of negative consequences thataffect Malaysian society as a whole, his discourse also contained the ingredientsof what Bellah and Hammond (1980) have famously described as civil religion.Mahathirs public representations of Islam in particular, his championing of theindividually responsible believer and interpretation of the message to the ProphetMuhammad as a this-worldly and pro-active theology of progress can thusprovide religious validation to the cosmopolitanism of the street that has helpedunderwrite the social peace of multi-religious Malaysia.

    Keywords: Malaysia, Islam, politics, modernity, secularism, democracy, Muslimleadership, Mahathir Bin Mohamad

    Malaysias former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is seldomconsidered a luminary of late twentieth-century Muslim thought. Few students ofIslamic politics have included him in their lists of progressive, modernist orliberal Muslims engaged in the thoroughgoing reform processes currently under

    *Correspondence Address: Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University, Kingsbury Drive, Bundoora, VIC

    3086. Email: s.schottmann@latrobe.edu.au

    Asian Studies ReviewSeptember 2011, Vol. 35, pp. 355372

    ISSN 1035-7823 print/ISSN 1467-8403 online/11/030355-18 2011 Asian Studies Association of AustraliaDOI: 10.1080/10357823.2011.602663

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  • way across Muslim societies (e.g. Esposito and Voll, 2001; Kurzman, 2002).Conversely, most political science-type analyses of the legacy of one of Asiaslongest-ruling elected leaders (19812003) have drawn our attention to everythingexcept his articulation of Islam and being-Muslim. While Mahathirs bourgeoiseconomic nationalism, increasingly strident anti-Western outbursts, alleged social-Darwinism or culturally-argued authoritarianism have been quite well examined,his actual contribution to the Malaysian governments articulation of the role to beplayed by Islam in a modern or modernising society such as Malaysia remainscomparatively understudied. The scholarship of, among many others, HussinMutalib (1993), Khoo Boo Teik (2003), Patricia Martinez (2004), Meredith Weiss(2004), Ooi Kee Beng (2006), Michael Peletz (2005) and Joseph Liow (2009) affordsexcellent insights into the wider socio-cultural, economic and political contextswithin which Mahathirs engagement with Islam was set, but few of them have thusfar taken at face value Malaysias former prime ministers public religious discourse.

    This essay argues that what Mahathir presented as the proper understanding ofour religion (e.g. Mahathir, 2000) was more than just a key component of hispolitical rhetoric. Because his representations of correctly understood Islam socentrally underpinned the governments Islamic policies of the 1980s and 1990s,looking at Mahathirs articulations of religion may indeed help provide freshinsights into Malaysian politics during these decades of pivotal change. Theseinsights may be particularly relevant due to the potential long-term impactof Mahathirs religious discourse, which appeared to have albeit largelyinadvertently underscored some very democratic qualities of Islam and of themodern-day believer. In doing so, Mahathir may have helped to strengthen thecapacity of Islam as a facilitator rather than a hinderer of any future politicalliberalisation and democratisation processes (see Schottmann, 2011). The fact thatMahathirs insistence on Islams quintessentially democratic nature and hisunderscoring of its practical and this-worldly qualities was in large part self-servingand necessary to establish himself as a legitimate commentator on Islam should notdistract us from the potential long-term significance of the former prime ministersengagement with the religion.

    This essay contends that it is possible to conceive of Mahathirs publicpronouncements on religion as Mahathirs Islam:1 a relatively coherent discoursethat emphasises pragmatic and rationalist interpretations of the teachings of theProphet Muhammad. Mahathirs Islam insisted that individual Muslims had theright to engage in rationalistic re-readings of the sources of Islamic law. Everysufficiently literate Muslim (and not just the religiously-trained ulama) thus had thecapacity to gain insights into the hikma or wisdom behind Gods revelation, enablingthem to reinterpret the Quran, the Prophetic Tradition and the works of theclassical scholars in light of the changing exigencies of time and space (e.g.Mahathir, 1984a; Mahathir, 1996a). Mahathirs Islam not only incorporated hisassessment of the grim situation facing the Muslim world, but also proposed a rangeof solutions and corrective measures that the faithful of the present day shouldadopt.

    This essay aims to provide a hitherto neglected Islamic account of the Mahathirpremiership. It seeks to take the Malaysian premier seriously as a late twentieth-century Muslim social agent engaged in a meaningful conversation with the

    356 Sven Alexander Schottmann

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  • precepts of his faith. It does so through a textual analysis of a wide range ofpreviously largely unexamined primary data, including many of the speechesMahathir made during his two decades as prime minister, as well as his considerabletrack record of publications.2 I am also able to rely on information I gathered intwo interviews that I conducted with Mahathir in 2008: one in Putrajaya in Mayand one in Melbourne in October. I use this range of sources to develop a clearerpicture of the religious discourse that Mahathir sought to present to his listeners,viewers and readers throughout the 1980s, the 1990s and the first decade of the newmillennium.

    I believe it is vital to take seriously, and on its own terms, what the man who wasthe centre of Malaysian politics for more than two decades said about Islam. Theobjective is not to revisit essentialist debates on Islam or to suggest that Mahathirsideas on the relationship between Islam and society were understood in a somehowisomorphic fashion by the 25 million or so Malaysians (nearly half of whom, ofcourse, were non-Muslims). I am also certainly not under the illusion that his publicdiscourse was not carefully calibrated for impact: he was clearly driven by the needto respond to the electoral inroads made by Malaysias Islamist opposition and indoing so demonstrate his own credentials as a Muslim leader. Rather, I aim toprovide a survey of the role that Mahathir had assigned to religion within the over-arching framework of his political project. I seek to examine at greater depthMahathirs argument that Islam was not an obstacle to progress, and his argumentthat when properly understood Islam even compelled its adherents to work hardand seek Gods pleasure by advancing materially the Muslim umma (community,nation).

    A Theology of Progress

    Mahathirs public discourse on religion fell into four broad fields, in the followingdescending order of importance: 1) the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as athis-worldly manual encouraging material success; 2) the inapplicability of thesecular principle to Islam; 3) the range of virtues and behaviours Muslims shouldadopt; and 4) a depiction of a suitably contemporary practice and observance ofIslam. All four themes can be found in basic form even in some of his writings fromthe mid-1960s. It is only after the late 1970s, however, that Mahathirs Islambecame a major component of his political discourse. The presence accorded toIslam in Mahathirs speeches and writings grew over time and culminated in his 2001declaration that Malaysia was an Islamic not a secular state. By the early 1980s,however, most of Mahathirs arguments on the complementariness of Islam andmodern society were already clearly developed (e.g. Mahathir, 1983a; Mahathir,1984b). Even if the increasing prominence of religion was driven by strategicconsiderations, its long-term presence means that it is not unreasonable to supposethat Mahathir was earnest in his assertion that Islam should have a role to playin the modern world, and that it therefore makes sense to take seriously hispronouncements on the subject.

    Mahathirs public engagement with Islam was dominated by the representationshe made of the essential compatibility between Islam and material progress. Whathe called the jihad of the Muslims leading the Malaysian government (Mahathir,

    Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World 357

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  • 2000) may have become more emphatic as his premiership progressed commensurate with the rise of his Islamist opposition. But even though Mahathirwas clearly driven by the need to contain the opposition, long before the late 1990swhen the Islamist PAS (Parti Islam Semalaysia/All-Malaysian Islamic Party) wasable to regularly gain a majority of the ethnic Malay vote at the federal level (seeFunston, 2006, p. 138), Mahathir had insisted that the jihad of development wasnot only meritorious, but a divine duty for Muslims, something wajib ormandatory under Islamic law (Mahathir, 1983b). Development was thus not only anoble struggle, but the exemplification of faith in action. My argument is thatMahathirs condensation of the message of the Prophet Muhammad into atheology of progress3 went beyond adding a religious veneer to an ostensiblysecular development policy. What one is able to observe instead is distinctive: thepositing of Islam as a divinely-inspired injunction for the advancement of societythrough development.

    Mahathirs engagement with Islam revolved around one simple question: whatwent wrong? How could one explain the dramatic and seemingly final decline ofIslamic civilisation over the past two to three centuries, especially when Muslimsliked to think of the brilliant successes of the first 500 years of Islamic history asmanifestations of Gods favour to the People of Muhammad? What conclusionsshould Muslims thus draw from the far from satisfactory conditions of the present,marked by fratricidal wars between Muslims (Mahathir, 1986a), the suppressionof Muslims at the hands of their enemies (Mahathir, 1994a), and perhaps forMahathir most importantly of all, the embarrassing poverty of Muslims which, as hesuggested, many non-Muslims had begun to attribute to Islam itself? (Mahathir,1987a). What had Muslims done, or not done, to warrant such a drastic fall fromgrace? What could help account for the loss of military and political power that sawthe establishment, formally or informally, of European control over virtually allMuslim lands? What factors had led to the destruction of once vibrant commerceand networks of trade, the loss of artisanal skills and the atrophy of intellectualinquiry?

    Our rightful share of the bounties of Allah

    In Mahathirs analysis, present-day backwardness4 made it incumbent uponMuslims to seek ways out of this misery. They were duty-bound to live up to theexpectations of their faith by seeking their rightful share of the bounties of Allah(Mahathir, 1994b), and to work hard to reconnect to the golden ages of Muslimcommerce, arts and science. In doing so, they would return to what he described as acorrect understanding of Islam (Mahathir, 1996a). The primary audience for hisdevelopment discourse was the new Malay-Muslim middle class sprouting on theurban peripheries of Kuala Lumpur and other larger Malaysian towns since themid-1970s.5 These New Economic Policy (NEP)-induced New Malays wouldfinally realise the century-old vision of Malay nationalists for kemajuan (progress)and pembangunan (development), able to fill the vast lacuna between the traditio...

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