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141 the national bureau of asian research nbr project report | april 2009 Transnational Islam in Malaysia Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the School of Distance Education (SDE), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang, Malaysia. An acknowledged expert on political Islam in Malaysia, Dr Ahmad Fauzi has published internationally in such leading journals as Indonesia and Malay World (London), The Islamic Quarterly (London), Asian Studies Review (Brisbane), and Journal of Asian and African Studies (London). Executive Summary This paper explores the diverse ways in which transnational Islam—and, in particular, the connection of Malaysia’s independent, non-state Islamist movements to transnational Islam—impacts Malaysia’s socio-political terrain. The paper gives particular attention to Malaysia’s key broad-based ideological, Sufi-pietist and radical-militant Islamist movements, assessing their transnational affiliations and influences. The paper argues that transnational Islam in Malaysia is more fluid and dynamic in its non-state configurations which are characterized by efficient organization, innovative techniques and a wide pool of potential transnational partners. Although Islamist movements have become more focused on Malaysian-oriented issues and discourses, none has denied the utility and need to retain their transnational dimensions. Main Findings MalaysiaenjoysarichhistoryoftransnationalcontactswiththeIslamicworld,whichhasinfluencedthe development of its indigenous culture and plural society. While Malay-Muslims lay more importance to their Islamic rather than Malaysian identity, they are comfortable living alongside people of other faiths. This successful negotiation, along with Malaysia’s racial and religious diversity, has earned the “moderate” label for Malaysian Muslims. Islamism and rising Islamic consciousness, thus, do not necessarily foster radicalism or hostile ethnic relations in the country. Extensive transnational linkages have been a primary factor for the government’s powerlessness to curb or effectively monitor Islamist activities in Malaysia. While all Islamist movements have traces of transnational and, in particular, Middle Eastern influences during their germinating phases, as Islamists gain experience through interactions with the state, they tend to gravitate toward more Malaysia-oriented positions. Radical-militant movements are new to Malaysia’s Islamist scene, which has been almost devoid of militant insurrection on a realistic scale. However, the possibility of Islamism in Malaysia assuming a militant expression cannot be ruled out. The Malaysian state has been commended for its vigilance in tackling the root causes of terrorism so as to obviate such a possibility. Malaysia has pushed for multilateral cooperation among Southeast Asian countries in combating terrorism under the Kuala Lumpur-hosted Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT). Policy Implications The Malaysian government would do well to integrate the Islamists’ transnational contacts into • • the mainstream. The government should not regard these transnational actors as a challenge to its ability to host foreign Islamic dignitaries who are often used to legitimize the state’s brand of Islam and Islamization. Friendly foreign governments such as the United States would actually benefit the Malaysian • • government by helping to bring these transnational Islamists into the mainstream, rather than associating them with the terrorist threat. However, taking into account the strong anti-American sentiment in Malaysia, even among ruling • • elites, U.S. statements supporting the Malaysian government’s policies on Islam and Islamists actually do more harm than good. Such open support divests the government and its policies of public legitimacy. U.S. support should thus remain covert. 143 Transnational Islam in Malaysia u Hamid T he rising profile of Malaysia as a prosperously developing and yet fervently Islamic country necessitates a study of the dynamic interaction between its local political imperatives and transnational Islamic variables. Such a study reveals that transnational Islam forms an integral aspect of contemporary Islamism in Malaysia. In the era of the global “war on terror,” however, official quarters discourage transnational influences in the country, cautioning against independently driven external channels and media. The only transnational nexus which can safely be flaunted without drawing suspicion or outright resistance is the economic network. This paper views transnational Islam in Malaysia from a wider perspective, with equally serious attention given to non-economic and non-governmental channels of transmission and exchange. Although Malaysian Islamist movements have over the years become more focused on Malaysian-oriented issues and discourses, none has denied the utility and need to retain its transnational dimensions. Independent Islamist289 groups involved in transnational Islam in Malaysia may be broadly categorized into broad-based ideological movements, Sufi-pietist movements and radical-militant Islamist movements. This paper elaborates on these groups and movements, foregrounding their transnational character. As the paper shows...


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