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New Identities, New Politics: Malaysia's Muslim Professionals

Bridget Welsh

A profound deepening of religious identity has occurred among all the major ethnic groups in Malaysia. Nowhere is this development more evident than in the Malay-Muslim community that now comprises the majority of the country’s population and holds political power. [1] This deepening of Islamization in Malaysia began in the early 1970s, with the narrowing of political space in the wake of the 1969 racial riots and the emergence of political Islam as the populace’s main vehicle for organizing and voicing concerns, and further extended from the 1980s onward as the state embraced Islam for political legitimacy. [2] In 2001 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called his country an "Islamic state"—a label that has reinforced the contestation over Islamic and secular values as one of the country’s main political issues. The role of Islam in Malaysian politics has important implications for democracy and pluralism in that Islam shapes the rights, political values, and political participation of different communities and affects relations among groups in this multiethnic society.

Societal groups play a major role in shaping how this contestation over the role of political Islam will evolve. One of the most important groups in this dynamic is Muslim professionals. Throughout the Muslim world professionals play a vital role in influencing political values, often serving as a conduit that feeds into the formal political elite. From Egypt to Indonesia, lawyers, professors, doctors, journalists, and businessmen are role models and leaders in everyday life and have considerable influence in shaping norms and in setting the public agenda. Muslim professionals in Malaysia similarly play this defining role. Muslim professionals now comprise 40% of all the professionals in the Malaysia, up from 4% in 1970. The expansion in numbers and influence of Muslim professionals has coincided with the deepening Islamization in the country. [3] How these professionals identify with their religion and bring religion into their professional lives has an impact on democracy and pluralism in the country.

This report examines the political impact of changes in religious identity among Muslim professionals in Malaysia and the extent to which professional organizations have been captured by conservative Islamist ideas. The report focuses on the professional organizations in which Muslim professionals operate in their work lives. In other countries, such as Egypt, Islamist capture within professional organizations has brought curbs on rights, decreasing tolerance, greater isolation by Muslims toward others, increased tensions between groups of different religious interpretations (both...

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[1] For purposes of this essay, Islamic "conservatives” are those who emphasize the central tenets of Islam as unchanging and all encompassing and thus assert that Islamic education and law must prioritize only the study of the Quran, recorded acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah), and associated commentaries. Islamic "radicals” are those who need not be theologically conservative, but who insist that society and politics must be restructured according to the Quran and sunnah. See Robert W. Hefner, "Islamic Schools in Contemporary Indonesia: New Trends in Educational Culture and Politics,” The National Bureau of Asian Research, Southeast Asia Education Survey Report, 2006, 6–7.

[2] For a broader discussion of Islam in contemporary politics, see Patricia Martinez, "Mahathir, Islam and the New Malay Dilemma,” in Mahathir’s Administration: Performance and Crisis in Governance, ed. Ho Khai Leong and James Chin (Singapore: Times Books, 2001), 120–60; and Patricia Martinez, "Islam, Constitutional Democracy and the Islamic State in Malaysia,” in Civil Society in Southeast Asia, ed. Lee Hock Guan (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, 2004), 27–53.

[3] These figures are based on interviews conducted in January 2007 and on data gathered from the Malaysian government’s Third Malaysia Plan and Ninth Malaysia Plan (published in 1971 and 2006 respectively).