By Hilman Fikri Azman
January 25, 2019
One issue that has been cropping up in the
Cameron Highlands by-election is whether or not the position of Islam and the
Malays is under threat post GE 14. To answer this question, we may need to
glean some lessons from history.
Conventional theories of social change
place economic factors as the primary drivers of change. The rise of bread
prices, for instance, played a pivotal role in sparking the French Revolution
Economic pressures and seizures of goods
also compelled Mohammed Bouazizi to immolate himself in Tunisia, setting off
the “Arab Spring” in 2011. In this incident, economic factors played a key role
in triggering monumental change.
However, Francis Fukuyama has challenged
this conventional school of thought. In his book ‘Identity’, Fukuyama explains
how recently, identity has replaced economic factors as a major driver of
Fukuyama’s intellectual framework on the
politics of identity is relevant in Malaysia because recently, the politics of
identity has taken centre stage in our political landscape – in particular,
Malay-Muslim identity has played a
significant role in defining the Opposition post GE-14. It has been effective
enough to bring together two Malay parties that used to be enemies to the point
of supporting each other in a number of recent by-elections – most recently in
In the Cameron Highlands campaign, PAS
President Abdul Hadi Awang said that Muslims in Malaysia suffered a crippling
blow following the change of government in GE14. Acting Umno President Mohamad
Hasan meanwhile has accused Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad of being a DAP
Has this approach succeeded in appealing to
the people? The initial impression is that this narrative has succeeded in
capturing the imagination of the rakyat. A large number of Malaysians,
especially amongst the Malays, have expressed fears and discomfort regarding
the position of Islam and the Malays.
Here, the politics of identity in Malaysia
is different from the politics of identity of groups such as the Black Lives Movement
in America and the LGBT, because it does not arise from a history of
oppression. Rather, it arises from rhetoric about how Islam and Malays are
threatened by the new government.
But, how are they under threat? More
accurately, what does it mean for Islam and the Malays to be under threat from
the new government?
If we analyse this question in detail, we
can evaluate each issue more justly and objectively. Threats and fear mongering
should not cloud our understanding of current issues.
When threats and fear mongering are mixed
with politics, the result is instability and discontent – especially among
those who might fall prey easily to such tactics.
Islam explains clearly the role that fear
should play in an individual. Ibn ‘Ata’illah mentions in his Sufi book al-Hikam
(The Wisdoms) that fear and hope should only be directed to Allah Taala.
According to Ibn ‘Ata’illah, fear and hope
should be cultivated in an individual to the point of Ihsan – the stage
where an individual feels that they are being constantly watched by God. That
is what leaders should be promoting; not shifting that fear to identity.
When fear is used in a political context,
this is putting something in an incorrect place. Putting something in an
incorrect place goes against the concept of justice in Islam. Therefore,
political fear mongers are running afoul of principles of justice that should
be practiced in political Islam.
On the topic of fear, the Prophet (pbuh)
says in one of the Hadith narrated by al-Bukhari: “cheer the people up by
conveying glad tidings to them and do not spread fear”. In this spirit,
Muhammad ‘Imarah concluded that the preservation of peace and elimination of
fear is the highest goal of Islamic governance.
Why is fear such an important element then,
as seen in the campaigning in Cameron Highlands? Because it is fear that makes
the politics of identity relevant.
We can see clearly that while change may
not be driven by economic factors but by identity, in the end, the politics of
identity is still practiced for utilitarian reasons.
This is normal in politics, and political
parties need to be pragmatic about evolving political landscapes. In this
matter, identity and fear are tools that can ensure the survival of PAS and
Idealism without pragmatism cannot see a
political party through the challenges and strong currents of politics. Those
who are not fit and not pragmatic will perish in the cutthroat mire of
The question is: how should the government
respond towards these identity-based narratives? Should they be reactionary
regarding the ‘threatened’ identity? Is it right for discourse about economics
and ideas to be drowned out by the politics of identity and racism?
Sociologist Malik Bennabi has emphasised
that building a new civilisation must be based on ideas and a culture of
discourse. If we want to maintain the spirit of new Malaysia, we should
champion political discourse that is based on economics and ideas, to the point
where it should overcome the domineering politics of identity and fear.
An approach to politics based on ideas is
the best way forward for Malaysia, because of its universal nature, which cuts
across race and religion. If this culture can be expanded and accepted by
Malaysians, all issues that are said to threaten Islam and the Malays can be
discussed in a mature and objective manner.