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Stealthy Islamism Riding on Mat Kilau’s Stellar Success

A controversial movie has raised pertinent questions about the reach of extremist Islamist views across various sectors in Malaysian society.

The recent movie “Mat Kilau” raised both furore and adulation in equal measures when it was screened nationwide in Malaysia several months ago. The resulting controversy provided cheap publicity for the movie, so much so that ticket sales reached RM96 million (USD21 million) 40 days after its release, making it the highest-grossing local film in Malaysian history. What made the movie a political lightning rod was its unabashed ethno-religious framing of Mat Kilau’s short-lived struggle against the British colonial government.

The movie’s overt ethno-religious messaging, while successful at pulling in the predominantly Malay audience, sparked heated debate in public discourse, particularly on the way it depicted non-Muslims and non-Malays. The British were inhumanely cruel and parasitic, the Chinese were greedy and treacherous, and the Sikhs were foot soldiers ready to do the murderous bidding of their colonial master.

This demeaning and grossly oversimplified characterization of non-Muslims and non-Malays is intended. The ethno-religious agenda becomes apparent when one traces the financing of the movie to the producer, Abdul Rahman Mat Dali. He is the managing director of the Az-Zahrah Islamic hospital in Bangi, Selangor. More importantly, he is the former vice president of Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, ISMA), a non-governmental group that advocates the supremacy of Malays and Islam (Ketuanan Melayu dan Islam) in Malaysia. Abdul Rahman spent RM8 million (USD1.77 million) of his own money to bankroll the movie, which was clearly used as a medium to spread the extreme right-wing ethno-religious agenda espoused by ISMA.

Compared to other major Islamist groups such as ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia) and IKRAM (an Islamic grassroots NGO set up in 2009), ISMA ideologically stands much further to their right. Among ISMA’s stated objectives are shaping Malay Muslims’ minds and defending Islam as Malaysia’s national identity. Its mission is to lead the ummah to revive the dominance of Malays and Islam. ISMA is not popular among non-Malays and Malays who do not share their exclusive views. For ISMA to spread its agenda beyond its conservative urban Malay demographic, it needs to diversify and operate surreptitiously. Abdul Rahman is one of ISMA’s proxies; producing the movie “Mat Kilau” is one of ISMA’s tools.

Other proxies are less well-known and thus less controversial. They share ISMA’s agenda and aim to mainstream ISMA’s views in public discourse and the government. ISMA and these proxies share the same prime movers behind the scenes. To use a non-syariah compliant analogy, the proxies are simply old wine in new bottles. These proxies are typically professional associations, think tanks or anodyne-sounding NGOs that help to paint a veneer of legitimacy and acceptability over the extreme agenda of ISMA. Examples of ISMA’s proxies are the Malaysian Alliance of Civil Society Organizations in the UPR Process (MACSA), the Center for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (CENTHRA), the International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education (WAFIQ), IRIS Institute, and iPeguam (a Muslim lawyers’ association). (UPR, part of MACSA’s name, stands for Universal Periodic Review, an evaluation process by the United Nations Human Rights Council of its member states’ human rights records.)

It begs the question whether Malaysia should draw the line when it comes to tolerating groups that promote hate speech and undemocratic views and follow Indonesia, which has banned radical Islamic groups that oppose the country’s democratic constitution and principles.

The creation of these proxies allows ISMA to have a wide reach in the arena of public discourse. First, their innocent names and image make them more amenable to unaware urban liberals and non-Malays, who are all too eager to engage and collaborate with “moderate” Islamists on common causes, a rare opportunity in today’s highly polarized Malaysian society. Malaysiakini, for instance, whose readership is predominantly urban-based and non-Malay, has Aminuddin Yahaya, former president of ISMA, as its Malay-section columnist. However, few know that Aminuddin Yahaya is anything but moderate.

Second, ISMA uses these proxies to hijack discourse on human rights. The inclusion of the words “human rights” and “civil society” and the omission of “ethno-religious” markers on the organisations’ names eased their entry into public discourse and purported advocacy of human rights, democracy, and decolonization, which has long been the domain of the liberals and the left. Groups like MACSA, CENTHRA and WAFIQ frame their agenda within the language of freedom of religion and other individual rights that are central to liberalism. That is ironic because ISMA and other like-minded Islamists have for many years demonized “liberalism” and its affiliated ideas such as “secularism” and “pluralism.”

One example of ISMA employing human rights language to advance its agenda is the publication of the MACSA Inaugural Islamophobia Report: 2017-2020. The report documents alleged incidents of Islamophobia in various sectors of Malaysian society such as education, media, workplace, and politics, importing a trend from Western countries to Malaysia. The incidents MACSA charges as “Islamophobic” are mostly those of criticisms of how Islam is practiced and politicized in Malaysia. The report aims to silence opposing views and to place its version of Islam beyond reproach. It is ironic and even galling for MACSA to claim that Muslims in Malaysia suffer from hate speech in a country where statements deemed even slightly offensive to Islam are already heavily policed ​​— and considered seditious.

The philosopher Karl Popper coined the term “paradox of tolerance,” where an open democratic society that promoted unqualified tolerance even for the vilest views would soon turn into a repressive intolerant society. The prime example of this paradox was democratic Weimar Germany’s tolerance for fascism that ultimately gave rise to Hitler and his Nazi party and turned Germany into an authoritarian state. It begs the question whether Malaysia should draw the line when it comes to tolerating groups that promote hate speech and undemocratic views and follow Indonesia, which has banned radical Islamic groups that oppose the country’s democratic constitution and principles. Perhaps a hate speech law is urgently needed in Malaysia to regulate extremist groups such as ISMA. ISMA might not advocate violence but its ideas and means of disseminating them are insidious and dangerous. It is a paradox that Malaysia must resolve, for nothing less than democracy itself is at stake.

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