A Stricter Islam Displaces Old Ways in Malaysia


Source: The wall street journal

KUALA LUMPUR—Kelana Indra Sakti is one of Malaysia’s most successful shamans. Framed testimonials from his customers hang from his office walls. In the driveway of his house he keeps a stretch Mercedes-Benz limousine given to him by a grateful client. His name, meaning “Adventurer, Heavenly Magic,” was bestowed on him by one of Malaysia’s wealthy sultans.

Lately, though, Mr. Kelana has supplemented his consultations with readings from the Quran.

“People just expect it these days, so I do it,” said the 70-year-old shaman.

Islam in Malaysia, and Southeast Asia, is taking a more conservative turn. The Muslim faith, brought here by Arab traders hundreds of years ago, has coexisted for generations with Malay customs such as shamanism, other forms of traditional medicine and the country’s sizable Buddhist, Christian and Hindu communities.

But more recently, conservative Wahhabi doctrines, often spread by Saudi-financed imams, are redefining the way Islam is practiced and, for some, eroding the tolerance for which the country has been known.

Signs of change abound, from the Arab-inspired architecture of Malaysia’s administrative capital to the more widespread application of Shariah, the Islamic law code largely based on the Quran.

In the northeastern state of Kelantan, one of the most conservative parts of the country, lines in supermarkets are separated by gender, and men are banned from watching women’s netball tournaments. In December, Malaysia’s first Shariah-compliant airline began flying. The airline guarantees pork-free meals and bans alcohol, in line with Islamic teaching, and its flight attendants are required to cover their heads with the hijab.

Politicians, meanwhile, are now competing with each other to show off their Islamist credentials. The opposition Pan-Islamic Party strict adherence to Shariah has helped build its support in rural areas. And a government investment fund—under the control of the Muslim-oriented ruling party—was recently set up to pay for village leaders to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

The government’s recently established Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia writes sermons delivered in mosques nationwide each Friday, according to Malaysian analyst James Chin of the University of Tasmania.

Some Muslim academics and opinion leaders have begun to push back, saying the Arabization of Islam in the country has gone too far. Last year, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, complained that Malaysians were being taught formal rituals over the substance of the faith.

Malaysian security officials now worry that the changed climate is encouraging younger Muslims to turn to less tolerant forms of the faith. Security forces have detained over 120 people for suspected ties to Islamic State in the Middle East; scores of others have traveled to Syria to join it.

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