"The Islamic State Model Works"

In recent years, Malaysia has demanded a normative Islamization of society. Relations with the other religions in the multi-faith, multi-ethnic country have thus become a frequent topic of debate. Two Malaysian Islamic activists spoke with Qantara.de about democracy, the Islamization of society and their experiences with Europe

Farid Shahran (photo: Anna Zwenger)
Dr. Farid Shahran is a member of the Malaysian NGO Angakatan Belia Islam Malaysia / Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), which works in the educational and social sectors to improve civil society

​​Dr. Shahran, can an Islamic organization like ABIM play a formative role in spreading social change and reforms, and in the democratic process?

Farid Shahran: My organization is a nongovernmental organization; we are not a political party. But we are nonetheless strongly involved in the process of developing civil society here. We organize seminars and conferences and are engaged in the social sector. We are active throughout the country, sending our staff members to help people in need, and we also work in the field of education. All of this in our opinion strengthens democratic values. We want to make our own contribution, based on our religious beliefs.

In a pluralistic society like Malaysia, in which many religions coexist, doesn't the Islamization of politics contribute to a division in society?

Hatta Ramli (photo: Anna Zwenger)
Dr. Hatta Ramli is a leading member of the Malaysian opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which advocates a straightforward Islamization of Malaysian society

​​Hatta Ramli: Societies are always divided, for example along economic lines. But the main dividing lines are religious and ethnic. In Malaysia we have not yet experienced any major religious conflicts, but we did have rioting in 1969 based on ethnic strife. Responsible for the problems were enormous economic inequalities. As an Islamic party, we have not driven any kind of division. We must fight for the votes of Muslims as well as those of non-Muslims.

Shahran: I don't think that we split society. We consider the values we stand for, which also form the foundation of our work, to be universally applicable. They are just as valid for Muslims as they are for people of other faiths. Of course, our background always remains Islam, but we do not try to proselytize or to contribute to religious enmity. We want to improve human coexistence, irrespective of faith.

There are many prejudices against the Islamization of society, especially thanks to the rhetoric of the "war against terror." Dr. Shahran, do you see yourself criticized unjustly or limited in any way as an Islamic movement, on either the national or international levels?

Shahran: Because of prejudices both in the Western media and in the context of national conflicts, there is a tendency to stereotype all Muslims. Violence has nothing to do with the ideology of Islam. There are many reasons why radicalism and terrorism evolve, but they always have political roots and not religious ones. Some Islamic groups unfortunately link the conflicts with religion and faith. We, too, feel the prejudices, fear and skepticism that are projected onto us. But we are not extremist and do not encounter any problems with our work attributable to the fact that we are an Islamic organization.

Can Malaysia, as a country with religious pluralism and an Islamic state model, still build secular structures?

Ramli: The current system is working. And we do not believe that secularization is the right path. We want to work and live with religious people; we believe that this instills a system of values that is indispensable to our politics.

Shahran: Islam can coexist with any religion – that is the principle behind the faith. We concentrate on strengthening the community of Muslims. This doesn't mean that we simultaneously want to weaken others; we want to contribute to better understanding, but not to the secularization of the system.

What kind of experiences have you had with regard to the dialogue between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds?

Shahran: For me, dialogue doesn't only mean finding out what we have in common. There are major differences in the interpretation of religion and religiosity. In the West, people see religion as something personal, while for us Muslims it is a way of life. This is why Islam intervenes in all areas of life. A dialogue must therefore address these differences in order to really bear fruit.

You have close contact with Germany, a western, European society. What are your personal impressions?

Ramli: In Germany, as part of Europe, a strong feeling of solidarity can be discerned, the "European Union feeling"! At the same time, we encounter here a fear of Islam and Sharia; people are suspicious of our political ambitions. But Germany is nonetheless seeking dialogue, not least because there are inner tensions here with the Muslims. Turkey, as a Muslim country, can likewise contribute to this dialogue – this is something that is not discussed enough.

Shahran: Many Muslims hope that Germany and the European Union will be able to offer a counterweight to the superpower USA. Germany should try to overcome its religious and cultural problems with the Muslims living on its own turf.

Interview: Anna Zwenger

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida