Malaysia's Minarets or Designs on Dominion?

            I never made it into the soaring and spectacular Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (  A ruthless downpour canceled our excursion.  The rain came sideways.  Bolts of lightning lit up the afternoon sky.  It was only late at night that we approached the brightly illuminated, and truly beautiful, Twin Towers, as they are called.  For all of their beauty it’s hard to tell, frankly, whether the towers are minarets--prayers ascending to a merciful God--or whether they mimic the former World Trade Center in New York City and thereby represent Malaysian designs on dominion.  From what I learned, there’s a lively internal debate underway in Malaysia about how to relate piety and power.  The truth about the Twin Towers is elusive.  I couldn’t help reading them with a tinge of sadness in light of 9/11.

I have to admit I came to Malaysia with preconceptions, even a little fear.  I knew Sharia law was in place (although only for Muslims—about 60 percent of the population).  The entry permit I had to fill out on the plane made it clear that the penalty for drug trafficking was death.  I had no reason to fear the law, of course.  But as one who finds the death penalty and State-sponsored killing pretty abhorrent, generally, such an overt and public embrace of capital punishment struck me as harsh.  There was no such warning about, say, human trafficking.

My anxieties weren’t allayed when on my arrival in the hotel I turned on the television to one of the most blatant pieces of political propaganda I’d seen in years.  The news “report” extolled the (obviously successful) efforts of the government to nurture virtuous and strong children and families.  Garrison Keillor’s line about Lake Wobegon came to mind:  all of the kids were above average.  I actually took some perverse consolation in the fact that the young people who semi-loudly partied in the hall outside my room apparently hadn’t gotten the “family values” message.

The word “Petronas,” I learned, links the words “petrol” and “nas,” which means “nation.”  So the towers are, literally, symbols of an oil nation.  Malaysia has experienced its economic boom as a result of its oil, and with the aid of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.  The towers are grandiose—but Malaysia is hardly the first (or the last) culture to succumb to this imperial temptation in architecture.

So it was fascinating, and a relief, that in the conversations I had with activists and academics, I sensed a far more nuanced cultural debate underway in Malaysia.  Journalist Jalil Ali bluntly asserted that “there is no freedom of the press in Malaysia,” and argued courageously on its behalf.  Yet TV personality Nizal Mohamed offered that it was incumbent upon public intellectuals to be committed enough to “walk the talk [of justice], but smart enough to play the game.”  Mohamed’s thoughts were echoed by Professor Ahmad Murad Merican.  Merican contended that the problem in Malaysia wasn’t only lack of freedom, but also included lack of wisdom and organization on the part of reformers. Technical mastery is not the same as truth.  Individual prophets of truth were liable to get picked off by ideological censors unless they had some collective agency to self-regulate. 

I sensed a generational divide here; Ali spoke for an earlier generation of oppositional leaders.  Mohamed and Merican perhaps represented a generation aware of diverse avenues for expression that moved beyond polarizing rhetoric.   In terms of U.S. rhetoric, the former was Jeremiah Wright, Jr; the latter Barack Obama.

Our conversation was sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies in Kuala Lumpur.  IAIS promotes what the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, calls Islam Hadari, or “Civilizational Islam.”  This phrase is on one level a challenge to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, sort of a rhetorical “bring it on!”  But more substantively, Islam Hadari seems analogous to the ideas of reconstructionist Judaism, famously shaped by Mordecai Kaplan to educate Jews into their own “civilizational” values.  Islam Hadari is thus a project to educate Muslims into self-critical practice of the progressive, and peacebuilding, core values of Islam.   

There are ten such core values, according to IAIS publications:  faith in God and piety, a just and trustworthy government, a free and independent people, good opportunities to lean, balanced and comprehensive economic development, a good quality of life for people, protection of the rights of women and minorities, moral integrity and absence of corruption, safeguarding of natural resources, and a strong defense.

This impressive program was associated with Badawi’s rule from 2003 to 2009.  It builds in complex ways on the wider Islamic revival begun with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  It has also shaped the recent outbreaks of democratic activism across the Arab world.  The intellectual leaders of the movement, including Mohammad Hashin Kamali, Osman Bakar (a Temple University Ph.D. graduate), and Zarina Nalla are to a person impressive scholars and activists.      .

I was encouraged. Yet, when I asked about Islam Hadari at Selangor University, I heard the slightly chilling words of its Vice Rector: “it’s over.  We don’t need to talk about that.”  He waved his hands in the air, and concluded:  “every regime has its slogan.”  The result, as it seemed to me from the tone of our conversation, left a dualism between nihilism and Islam.  Either everything was sacred in a controlled universe of Sharia, or “nothing was sacred,” as one speaker put it.  But can twin towers of office space ever really be minarets, where prayer brings the prophets to bear on profits?

It was the question I was left with at the end of our “Fountain Tour.”  Would traditional values disappear in the nihilist play of market values and dominating power, or would the influence be, at least, mutual—with prayer shaping civil practices?  If Islam Hadari is indeed “over,” the chances for the latter are, I fear, greatly reduced.  But the Arab Spring suggests that perhaps the limited sample of my Fountain tour wasn’t enough.  And as I recall the joy I experienced among young people in Jakarta, and the enthusiasm of students in venue after venue, I take heart.  Thanks for traveling with me.