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83 New Identities, New Politics: Malaysia’s Muslim Professionals Bridget Welsh Bridget Welsh is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asia Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University. She is also a consultant to Freedom House and a member of the Malaysia-American Society Board. Note: Special thanks is due to Robert Hefner, Ann Marie Murphy, and Mercy Kuo, who provided constructive feedback on this report and the research. This study would not have been possible without the assistance of Siti Rahayu, Chong Wu-Ling, and Desiree Hwang, who assisted in the collection of material. The author is also especially grateful to Philip Koh and Harris Mohamed who assisted in arranging critical interviews. This report is an abbreviated version of a longer, more detailed study forthcoming in 2008. Any errors that remain are the author’s. 84 Executive Summary This article examines Malaysian Muslim professionals working in law, journalism, medicine, academia, and business to assess both the degree to which Islamist capture has occurred and whether changing socio-political identities associated with Islam within professional organizations have affected democracy and pluralism in Malaysia. Main Argument: Amid a societal climate of growing Islamization, Muslim professionals in Malaysia have emerged as a new, powerful elite that has inculcated religious issues and concerns into its professional organizations. The number of Muslim professionals in Malaysia has grown, and the public engagement of this group has expanded. The emergence of this new elite has yet to translate into conservative Islamist capture, but rather has both fostered stronger networks among Malaysian Muslims and raised tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. The creation of “Islamic space” among Muslim professionals has had a mixed effect on democracy and pluralism. On the one hand, the empowerment and growth of this educated, dynamic community of professionals has broadened political participation and expanded channels of engagement between the state and civil society. On the other hand, the views of Islamic governance articulated by some Muslim professionals have challenged the secular rights of Malaysians, contributed to ethnic tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims over the polarization of views on religious rights, and fostered racial intolerance. These conflicting trends are likely to continue as the number and importance of Muslim professionals increases in the future. Policy Implications: • Malaysia’s Muslim professionals will play a decisive role in charting the country’s future, particularly with regard to the political role of religion and the quality of political governance. As such, it is vital that the state engage this growing cohort in Malaysian society. • It is important to open up debate within and among Malaysian professional organizations by expanding democratic space and community networks among Muslim professionals. • Efforts to extend professional training and increase professional standards would serve to dampen the rise of inter-ethnic misunderstanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in professional organizations by providing a shared outlook and by reinforcing dialogue among professionals across ethnic groups. 85 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...


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