Last week (17-21 of January 2016) I went to Malaysia as a member of Majelis Tarjih Muhammadiyah to conduct a visit to several Islamic institutions in Malaysia, especially to those who deal with issuing fatwa. During the visit I underwent very important experience. This experience showed me the difference between religious climate and behavior of Indonesian people and Malaysia. In my reflection what I got during my trip seems to be readable from view point of social theory. This paper will apply the theory of Karl Marx on religion to examine what I experienced during my visit to some Islamic organizations in Malaysia.
I went to Malaysia with other seven members of Majlis Tarjih. Before going, we planned to visit institutions like JAKIM (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) and JAIS (Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor) to learn about their experience as Islamic fatwa council in formulating as well as disseminating fatwa. Having waited for long time after sending a letter of permission, just few days before the meeting, both organizations decided to not accept us. There was no clear reason behind their reluctance. However, in the later day, when we visited INFAD (Institute for Fatwa Research affiliated to Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and sub-organization of JAKIM), we were told the reason, was because Muhammadiyah is considered as deviating group in Malaysia. In addition, Muhammadiyah is deemed as not the follower of mazhab Shafii and because Muhammadiyah is part of Wahabi ideas.
For me, the assessment of some religious institutions in Malaysia concerning Muhammadiyah as deviating and Wahabi group is not surprising. I have known this appraisal before. But, what makes me a bit bewildered and shocked was their unwillingness to accept the guest and to carry out dialogue. They did it in the name of guarding purity of Islam ala Ahlul Sunnah wal Jamaah. They even rejected to just listen another point of view and refused the visit of the group who want to take benefit from them. This kind of behavior was a bit astonishing for me. It is unbelievable in this information era we still find exclusive way of thinking. It is not exaggerating then if I call this kind of phenomenon as religious exclusivism and ghetto-minded manner.
Another shocking incident was what happened next in the airport of Johor Baharu Malaysia. From Jogjakarta we brought seven packages of books produced by Majelis Tarjih. We carried books of tafsir, prayer, zikir, some journals, etc. We planned to dedicate them as gifts to several institutions we intended to visit. Unfortunately, in the airport we were prevented to bring the books coming out from the venue. We were stopped by Malaysian police. Afterwards, all of books were inspected. When the police found and saw the logo of Muhammadiyah in the cover of books, they decided to seize them. All of the books, they said, have to be scrutinized in advance by religious authority of Johor State. Because whatever contradicts or not in accordance with the official religious teachings of Malaysia, will not be allowed to enter Malaysia. Again, I feel how exclusive the policy and religious climate in Malaysia. I begin to realize that what is missing in this jiran country is the freedom of religion.
Religious Phenomena in Malaysia
Ghetto minded is a religious paradigm signed with exclusive behavior. It rejects what comes from outside of its circle or outside what is already familiar. It treats everything new outside its boundary as a threat or dangerous. Unfortunately, according to my last experience, this climate of exclusivism is so prevalent in Malaysia.
In terms of practicing of Islamic law, the constitution of every state in Malaysia (except Perlis state) restricted the practice of Islam only based on the tenets of mazhab Shafii. Anybody who has different practice of Islam will be accused by society as going astray or Wahabi. In fact, as I will later know, this is what happened to the people of Perlis who are being blamed by people of other states for not embracing mazhab Shafii. In general I found that the society of Malaysia due to narrow-mindedness and enforcement and coercion of government, cannot acknowledge another perspective of practicing Islam. In education level, in madrasah or Islamic school, what is taught to students is merely the official teaching of mazhab Shafii. Only in the university, we can find that the teaching of comparative schools of law (muqaranatul mazahib) is given to the students.
In enacted law of Malaysia, the official religion of the country is Islam. Not only that, every Malay people are also obliged to embrace this religion. However, in another Malaysian ethnic, such as Indian and China ethnic, there is a freedom for those ethnic to follow what faith they feel convenience. Moreover, in Malaysian law, follower of other religions besides Islam are prohibited from propagating their faith. Any symbol of other religions have to be clearly distinct from the symbol of Islam. For instance, in the last few years, the government of Malaysia prohibit the Christian from using the world “Allah” to refer to their God, because the Government consider it will confuse muslims from their God.
This is religious phenomena in Malaysia, where the government could involve in making any specific policy relating to religion. In addition, in Malaysia the official and approved interpretation of Islam is only mazhab Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah. Another sect of Islam, like Shiism and Ahmadiyyah are officialy banned. As a result, in daily life, because of differences in teachings and practices, the follower of non-Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah are always be discriminated and distinguished.
Likewise, everything related to religion in Malaysia is under control of government. This is the reason why every preachers has to hold official authorized license to do Islamic dakwah in society. Without that kind of authorization, they have no right to sermonize Islamic message to public. Similarly, another strict policy related to religion is that every preacher who conveys Friday sermon has to read script written by ministry of religious affairs. It is strongly forbidden for muslim clergy in this country to preach without prepared script. Moreover, they are also not allowed to speak about politics in his preaching. Not only that, in the end of their sermon every preacher also has to read special supplication (prayer) for Sultan and his family for their welfare and prosperity, because the Sultan of every state in Malaysia are given by the constitution the highest authority in religion. They have the right to monitor and control religious behavior of citizens.
Marx Theory of Religion
Religion can have many functions. In Max Weber theory for example, religion is an effective cause behind the advancement of society. It is Protestantism, he argues, that leads European society coming to the age of capitalism. However, religion can also serve as a tool for oppression. This is the core what Karl Marx formulated in his theory of religion. He believes that religion is the causal in the condition of oppression. Religion has alienated people from what is ideal for them and attributed it to God. In addition, he maintains that religion has made human being escape from the realities of this world to the next life. Because of religion, the conditions of this life, like political oppression, could be simply accepted and tolerated.
Karl Marx views religion as a only means to maintain status quo. In his book On Religion he states: “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless situation. It is the opium of people”. What Marx meant by the statement that “religion is the opium of the people” is not simply that religion is the crutch for the foolish of society, but rather it means as a drug that a ruler use to conceal the problems we experience and to bring hope for the future.
In his theory Marx use social-conflict approach in viewing the religion. According to this approach, religion as a phenomenon of human behavior, maintains social inequality by advancing a worldview that justifies oppression. Karl Marx viewed religion as a social control used to maintain the status quo in a given society.
Application of the Theory
What happened in Malaysia in my opinion is the manifestation of Karl Marx’s theory that the religion is manipulated to serve the oppressors. This is in fact the opposite of the phenomena in Indonesia, especially in the period of new order. Under the Soeharto regime, there was so called depolitization of Islam in which Islam is separated from political realm. By contrast, in Malaysia Islam is utilized to support the interest of the ruler. Both Indonesia in era of Soeharto and Malaysia, however, share the same thing, which is the authoritarianism system.
As a matter of fact, behind what is manifest in religious phenomena in Malaysia (that everything must be monolithic, homogenous and uniform under the control of the state) there are the interests and advantages of the ruler. These advantages are not only maintaining stability and order, but also preserving political power and opposing the dissent. Therefore, in totalitarian society, religion is only a layer that covers political interest. In this context, the stability, homogeneity as well as uniformity in all aspects of life, including in religion, is a basic prerequisite to maintain the power. As a consequence, the Malaysian government, or more exactly Malaysian Kingdom, has to unify the practice of Islam. They fully realize that to be powerful, they have to be able controlling everything within their dominance.
The Malaysian administrator are totally aware that controlling the practicing of Islam is also part of requirement to control masses. In addition, controlling of religiosity is part of endeavors to ensure that the power will be always in their hand. Thus, I personally believe that the unification of practicing Islam in Malaysia is not for the sake of Islam itself, but rather for political benefit. Because in nature, Islam strongly rejects such kind of unification. In Islam there is an acknowledgment of diversity and plurality of performing Islam. Here, I see that the government of Malaysia believes that if there is a freedom of religiosity in Malaysia, in which everything is permissible, then there will be another kind of freedoms, which is freedom of politic. In another word there will be unintended domino effect. This, according to Malaysian government, is too risky and in turn will threaten the power that already in the hand of the ruler.
From the lens of Marx’s theory, the reason why besides mazhab Shafii are restricted and discriminated in Malaysia is actually to ease the government to control the society. If the application of Islam is too diverse and varied, the Government will face difficulties to control citizens. In addition, the reason why Islam is the only approved religion in Malaysia, while the ethnic of Malay is only 55 % from all Malaysian citizens, is in reality to maintain the power and to ensure that it will not go to other ethnics, namely India and China, which are significant in number. So, here religion is utilized as a means to negate the right of other ethnic to come in power.
It is very common in Islamic countries with monarchy system, that we find the intertwined relation between religious doctrines and politics. In this kind of political system, king become a guardian of doctrine, whereas religious preacher or clergy become a justifier of existing power. This is the phenomenon we observe in Saudi Arabia. The same also happens in Malaysia. However, while in Saudi Arabia the official mazhab is Hanbali, in Malaysia the approved teaching is Shafii. The commonality among them is both kingdom use religion as a tool to conduct social control and uphold their authority and supremacy. In the name of unified practicing of religion, the Kingdom controls religious behavior. It is unavoidable here religion is exploited as a means to guard the power of those who are in the throne.