The activist daughter of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says Muslim leaders must focus on education and health instead of war and strife.
Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has been at the forefront of a fight to preserve her country’s values.
An activist and writer, she is a member of the Sisters in Islam (SIS), an NGO, and has been a vocal critic of what she calls the “Arabisation” of Malay culture, particularly under the influence of oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
For pious Muslims, the debate around the hijab and facing-covering veil is a sensitive subject, which Islamophobes in Europe have exploited to attack migrants from war-stricken places such as Syria.
But the 62-year-old Marina says it’s time for Muslims to confront the problems that stem from a rigid interpretation of religion – something which powerful men have used for their own gain.
Malaysia, an island country, known for its ethnic diversity, serene beaches and colonial-era architecture, stands out in the Muslim world for its economic progress – it’s top export are integrated circuits, and Kuala Lumpur has stayed clear from conflicts that have bogged down other Muslim nations in the Middle East.
Her father, Mahathir, ruled the country from 1981 to 2003 and is credited for the country’s economic growth.
Since coming to power again in 2018, the 94-year-old statesman has recalibrated Malaysia’s foreign policy – Malaysia will no longer be a silent spectator to injustices affecting Muslims.
Last month, Mahathir hosted a conference of Muslim leaders in Kuala Lumpur which irked Saudi Arabia as it was seen as an alternative to the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
In an interview with TRT World, Marina shared her views on Malaysia trying to strike a balance between rational handling of diplomacy and a tide of conservatism.
Tell us about Sisters in Islam? Are you its founder?
No, I’m not its founder. I was a supporter for a long time, but I actually joined in 2009. Sisters in Islam was founded 30 years ago. It was an initiative of Muslim women, journalists, lawyers and academics who were part a debate around a law that would ban domestic violence.
A lot of men said such a law can’t be introduced because religion allowed them to beat their wives. But the women who were part of Sisters in Islam were puzzled because they found it hard to believe that God would allow female believers to be beaten up.
These women did their own research and contacted scholars. They figured that there were many interpretations of the Ayat 4:34, which talks about hitting and there there’s no consensus on what it means. Also, the hitting part comes at the end of a long list of ways on how to solve (domestic) conflicts.
That opened up the debate and the law was finally adopted in 1994 – making Malaysia the first Muslim country to have a Domestic Violence Act.
You have often talked about the erosion of Malay culture. Can you tell us why you feel so strongly about it?
I am as old as Malaysia, and I have seen it evolve. Malay culture is really quite relaxed. But the Iranian revolution influenced a lot of people with the introduction of political Islam, and that’s when we started to see women taking hijab.
More cultural changes followed as along with the hijab, women started wearing jubah, the long dress that covers the entire body and often comes in dull colours. I have also seen women in niqab (face-covering veil), which is very alien to our culture.
It doesn’t suit very hot humid climate here. I think clothes are a reflection of culture and environment. It’s quite clear something like the jubah is suited for a desert climate.
On the eve of the Muslim holiday festival of Eid a few years ago, I was in a market looking for new clothes, and all I could see were long jubahs.
Some call it the Islamic fashion, which I don’t like because it implies that the rest of us who don’t dress like that are not Islamic. The term has been modified to modest fashion, which is a bit more acceptable.
Our national dress (such as kebaya) is very modest and colourful. There is a movement now to bring back our costume in the shape of #bringbackthekebaya, which is one of our national costumes.
Another example of the cultural change that I see is how people are exerting a lot of Arabic into their speech. Like instead of saying Terima Kasih, which means thank you, people are using Arabic terms.
Why? We have a perfectly acceptable word, which we have been using for centuries, it’s lovely because it literally means ‘accept my love’.
Is Saudi Arabia funding religious institutions in Malaysia?
I suspect so. I can’t say for sure. I know it’s happening in Sri Lanka and in Cambodia.
A lot of religious schools are coming up, and I am just wondering who is funding them. None of this is transparent.
There has been a change of attitudes, for example, towards Shia Muslims. For the longest time, we didn’t bother with Shias because there aren’t many. But suddenly there’s an uptake in this anti-Shia stuff. I am wondering where would this attitude come from because generally, we are quite relaxed about such differences.
Do you think Malaysia’s foreign policy is shifting especially following the Kuala Lumpur summit?
I can not speak for the government.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister is very fed up of disunity in the Muslim Ummah. The whole thing about Saudi Arabia attacking Yemen is mind-boggling. Kashmir, Rohingya and Uighurs are all human rights issues, so it’s not just about religion.
The Kuala Lumpur summit was not meant to talk about religion but the social and political issues that need to be resolved. If we are so busy fighting then how are we going to develop our countries, how are we going to serve the people? I think that’s what frustrates him (Mahathir).
Does the Muslim world need a leader?
I am wondering about the idea of having a leader in the Muslim world because nobody else has that. There is no leader in the Buddhist or Christian world. But somehow we feel we need one.
I do feel that given that the rest of the world sees us as a kind of a monolithic group, which we are not, they somehow feel that we also need to have a common leader.
What do you think about the rise in Islamophobia?
We complain about Islamophobia, but we are not really doing much to end that stereotyping and prejudice by behaving the way we do.
Islamophobia is terrible, but I don’t think we are entirely not at fault. We can’t complain about it and at the same time keep our people illiterate, impoverished and bombing the hell out of each other.
Muslim leaders must focus on their people, and spend money on health and education instead of on weapons they buy from the west.
If I put my feminist hat on for a while, then I think all these countries are ruled by men, and they have their egos that need to be stroked, and that’s it.
The interview has been edited for clarity.