Skip to main content




Malaysia’s Muslims grapple with being ‘good enough’, as conservative voices get strident

Wrestling with criticism and what it means to be Malay-Muslim, some worry that the pressure could drive the young into the arms of extremists like ISIS. Kane Cunico reports.

Malaysia’s Muslims grapple with being ‘good enough’, as conservative voices get strident

Shereen Ezaini feels that people are fussing over very trivial matters. (Photo: Kane Cunico)

KUALA LUMPUR: Shereen Ezaini wears a hijab when she goes out, observes the five pillars of Islam such as fasting and praying five times a day, and plans one day to go on the Haj. It is, in the 29-year-old’s own words, “living life the way a Muslim’s life should be”.

But somehow, that just is not good enough in the eyes of some fellow Malaysian Muslims.

Remembering her days at university in 2009, the young mother of two said: “I was at a lecture wearing jeans, and I remember my lecturer, she told me that I am not being ‘Muslim enough’. The blouse that I was wearing fell to my knees.”

Looking incredulous, she continued: “I am not ‘Muslim enough’ because I am wearing jeans? Or I am not Muslim enough because I am drinking Starbucks?”


With a rising tide of moral policing and debate over what is halal (permissible in Islam) and haram (forbidden in Islam) in recent years, Ms Shereen is not the only Muslim in Malaysia who has heard such criticism, or felt somehow pressured by the voices of religious fundamentalism.

WATCH: What some have to say (2:58)

In 2015, concerns about growing conservatism made headlines when security guards at some government buildings went overboard in trying to enforce dress codes even on non-Muslim women. That same year, multi-medalled gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was criticised by religious authorities and conservative netizens because she wore a “revealing” leotard.

In 2016, Auntie Anne’s, a pretzel chain that has been operating in Malaysia for years, had issues with its halal food certification because of - among other technicalities - a menu item named a “pretzel dog”.

Gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was criticised for wearing a "revealing" leotard at the SEA Games in Singapore. Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi. (Photo: AFP)

And during the Pokemon Go hype, the mufti of Federal Territories, Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri, declared that it was haram for Muslims to play the augmented-reality game. Just this past Valentine’s Day, the National Muslim Youth Association warned women to stay away from using emoticons and too much fragrance.

Ms Shereen sees such events as making a fuss over the “trivial”. “Malay Muslims tend to focus on unnecessary things, for example, the ‘I Want To Touch A Dog’ programme'; so many unimportant issues they are taking very seriously,” she said.


But, couple this trend with the number of Malaysians arrested for suspected terror links, and political campaigning that has turned to Islam to woo and retain the Malay vote, and many worry that moderate-Muslim Malaysia - once a beacon of religious pluralism and tolerance - is shifting inexorably towards a stricter, more fundamentalist Islam.

According to Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes survey 2015, 11 per cent of people in Malaysia held favourable views of ISIS, and nearly a quarter were unsure of their views - this despite the Malaysian government declaring ISIS a terrorist organisation.

A suspect with links to a terror network being arrested in Malaysia. (Photo: Royal Malaysian Police)

Is sympathy for a more extreme view of Islam creeping into the mainstream in Malaysia?

“No,” insists GrabCar driver Zeli Amat, during a drive through downtown Kuala Lumpur. The former businessman said he has moved house some “20 times” around Malaysia. “I have lived in so many neighbourhoods. The sentiment on the ground is still good. There is no strong focus on extremist ideologies.”

Mr Zeli, 45, believes Malaysian Muslims are merely becoming more observant of Islam. He himself reconnected with his faith after what he admits was a secular life filled with mistakes. “I can see the Islamic values getting stronger. A lot more people are wearing the hijab, a lot more people are going to the mosque,” he said.

But Mr Asyraf Ismayatim is less prosaic. A Masters student of political science at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), he has been monitoring chatrooms, student forums and blogs. He feels the university culture take on a more “conservative slant” over the years.

“There are hardline comments from foreign-exchange students who reject integration, comments that female students’ clothes are too tight. Even on the IIUM Facebook page, there are some ultra-conservative comments surfacing,” he said.

IIUM lecturer Ahmad El-Muhamady, whose field is political violence and terrorism, says, that more and more, Malaysian Muslims are using “signifiers of Islam” to pass judgement on one another.

“What are the criteria that we can use to say that you are ‘Muslim enough’? It could be your dress code, it could be the interaction between genders, or it could be (that) if you are educated in the UK or the US, you are less Islamic than me because I studied in the Middle East and am more educated in religious matters,” he said.


It’s this struggle with the question of “what is a good Malay-Muslim”, or “what does it mean to be Muslim in Malaysia”, that lies at the heart of Malaysian society today, some observers believe.

Research interviews among young people aged between 18 and 35, conducted by not-for-profit research centre IMAN, reveal that many are grappling with their Malay-Muslim identity.

If you want to identify with being a proud Malay, said IMAN founding member Dina Zaman, “there will be those who say we are lazy and we are this and that”. “The only (other) identity we have is to be Muslim, but we also have issues being Muslim because ‘we are not good enough’,” she added.

Ms Dina, a former journalist and published author, cited the issue of whether Muslims should be wishing Christians a merry Christmas as an example of how edicts, guidelines and fatwas can sometimes be confusing for Muslims.

“The Federal Territories’ mufti said that it is okay to wish Christians, so I forwarded it to my mother, who then forwarded it to her friends,” said Ms Dina. “She said all the aunties were very confused, saying ‘our ustaz (Muslim scholar) says we cannot wish people Merry Christmas’.

“The mufti says this, another person says that, what is what, who do we follow? Everybody has their own opinion.”

This state of equivocation and identity confusion is exactly what extremists do best at exploiting, according to Mr Ahmad. As an advisor to Malaysian police’s special rehabilitation programme, he has spent years counselling militant detainees.

The more-than-200 suspects currently detained are proof of the illiberal portion of Malaysian society, “but at the same time, we have the so-called liberal side of society and the moderate side of society”, he said.

“So, as young people who are just coming out from the university, they look at this society and ask, ‘What is going on and which route do I take?’ They are coming to a crossroad.”

At this juncture is where the extremists come in ready with answers - a “specific world view” about how Islam should be practised in daily life, disseminated via digital media.

“(Democracy) has been hijacked by certain groups trying to impose their values upon others. This is the phenomena (where) groups of people might say, ‘I don’t think that you are Muslim enough’,” he said.


Hamzah Nazari knows what it is like to grapple with “being a good enough Muslim” - so much so that he once hoped to die in jihad as a martyr.

The 31-year-old former political journalist’s half-Malay, half-English racial heritage meant he found it hard to fit in in his early years at an all-Malay high school.

“As a 13-year-old, it was very confusing. I stuck out like a sore thumb. And in high school, we learnt how Malaysia was colonised by the British,” he said. “I got called anjing penjanjah, which means colonial dog, and I got into a lot of fights.”

Growing up with a very religious father in a conservative Muslim family, Mr Hamzah was seven when his dad told him about the conflict in Palestine and explained jihad to him. “I responded that we should go there and help them and if we die, we go to heaven. I told my mum (about it) and she was not very happy.”

Mr Hamzah spent much of his teenage years apart from his father, and says he would have been a prime target for radicalisation. Not having been taught the meaning behind the teachings of Islam “left space for me to misunderstand a lot of things”.

“When I was a young man in my 20s, I was not a very good person and I was less of a good Muslim then. I was worried about whether or not I would go to heaven,” he said. “So my friends and I were hanging out and discussing how to go to heaven, like this was a real issue for us, looking for a way to die in jihad.”

Mr Hamzah carried that with him until about two years ago, when he was sent to Palestine as a reporter in Gaza. “I believed what I was doing (reporting the news) was a good thing … I had gone there hoping to die, when in actual fact, that is not what jihad means,” he said.

These days, he strives to be a good Muslim by “being a good son, a good brother, employee, a good member of society, being helpful and being peaceful, and being a good example to other people”, he says.

But there are challenges. Mr Hamzah says he can sometimes see why one might be “pulled to one side or the other”. “You have your extremist Muslims or your ‘very conservative Muslims’, so to speak. And you have your very liberal and secular people.

“What they have in common is that they only think that there are only two sides to the conversation. And they believe that there is no middle ground. So what I see is that there is a very large middle ground, but it is very silent.”

That wide grey area, he adds with a smile, is where he finds himself these days.


Writer and human rights activist Marina Mahathir isn’t alone in believing that many Muslims, like Mr Hamzah, lack guidance.

Said Ms Marina: “You know it is really odd, because most Malay Muslims grow up with a lot of so-called religious education. All of us are taught to read the Quran.

“But what does not happen is an understanding of the ethics and principles of Islam. It is very rote. You know all the rituals, the basic lore and all that. But you do not fully understand the ethics of it, and that is the problem.”

Indeed, this reporter’s discussion with Grab driver Mr Zeli appeared to spark certain questions in his mind, because he decided to approach the second imam (worship leader) after performing his Friday prayers at a mosque in Damansara.

What, Mr Zeli asked - among other things - was his sense of the personal problems faced by Muslims in modern Malaysia?

Muhammad Syafiq Alhamdan, a young man in his 20s who has been an imam for two years after reading Islam at university, said his worry was that young Muslims were being corrupted by modernity and globalisation.

Pausing for a long while to reflect on the question, he said: “What is hindering them (from being good Muslims) is their clothes. Girls these days, when they wear the baju kurung, we can see their silhouette from the back. So that is not good. It is sad.”

It is views like this that make Mr Zeli feel a certain disconnect with how his mosque approaches real-world issues, he admitted afterwards.

“The mosque is not being the focal point for people to seek advice. They are not creating a friendly environment. It is still about, ‘Oh, you cannot do this or you cannot do that,’” he said.

Mr Hamzah calls this a culture of “don’t question” which is common in the Muslim community.


And so, younger Muslims are turning instead to social media and messaging apps with questions about the issues that affect them.

Trawling through Twitter, WhatsApp and other platforms, IMAN’s research team found that their questions involved everyday problems such as, “my husband was really lazy today, or, I do not know how to deal with my boss,” noted Ms Dina.

Everyone turns to social media, she said, because “there are no alternative spaces to ask”.

And this is where groups like ISIS turn on the appeal, reaching out with slick material and advice.

“It appeals to the young, because they feel ‘these guys are not talking down to me, they sit with me and they accept me’,” said Ms Dina.

“Our researchers who have dealt with ISIS members say that they can sit down over Skype or tea, and they can talk and talk, like a ‘yo, bro’ session.

“They will say things like, ‘You have problems with your girlfriend? Let’s talk.’”

Ms Dina said she knew of someone who was asked to join ISIS but declined. “They said, ‘Fine, we are not going to pressure you.’ And people appreciate that (approach), because they are not pressured to be ‘the good Muslim’.”


A part of that pressure has been driven by the accelerating politicisation of Islam in recent years, in Malaysia.

After the ruling Barisan National’s poor showings in the 2008 and 2013 elections, the coalition has been trying to reconnect with the Malay voter by appealing to religion. For example, last year, the United Malays National Organisation aided its long-time rival, the Islamic party PAS, to fast-track a Bill that would allow Kelantan’s Islamic courts to enforce stricter punishments.

Ms Marina said: “The politicisation of Islam has been going on for a long time. The thing is that nowadays, it is weaponised through laws.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at a rally addressing ethnic Rohingya Muslim refugees in Kuala Lumpur last December. (Photo: AFP)

Observers agree that conservatism and the Islamisation of society has been a long and slow-building thing.

“It has always been here, but it is just coming to the surface,” said Mr Hamzah. “Social media and the Internet have allowed people to express themselves. Before, people were very limited in whom they could share their opinions with.”

This conservatism - the influence of a more “Arabised” form of Islam - is eroding Malay culture, says Ms Marina.

According to scholars like Dr Ahmad Fauzi, the ‘Arabisation’ or ‘Salifisation’ of culture and religion in Malaysia has its roots in the 1980s, when Muslims from Malaysia and other developing countries studied in Saudi Arabia on scholarships funded by Sunni Saudi donors. Dr Ahmad Fauzi says this exposed many to a more “intolerant and exclusivist” form of Islam, and those former scholars now fill leadership positions in Malaysian society.

Said Ms Marina: “I know one young woman who is doing traditional dance and she is fabulous at it, but she feels so much pressure to stop (as) it is considered un-Islamic, because she performs it without her headscarf.”

She added: “Today, we ourselves do not know that much about our own culture. Many Malays, if you ask them who are the great Malay writers, they probably cannot name them. We are losing a lot of the Malay arts, in Kelantan for instance, the dikir barat (a musical form of Malay group singing, dance and percussion).”


Not all of it is about religion, believes Ms Marina, who advocates for justice and equality for Muslim women through Sisters In Islam. Particularly when the criticism pertains to women who have dared to forge a path.

Calling it the “tall poppy syndrome” among “anonymous males”, she said: “If someone is achieving something you have to bring them down. It is a very sad phenomenon.

“Like (indie-pop and R&B artiste) Yuna. She is doing so well, but wow, one hug from Usher and boom, you know, it is like she is going to hell; and little bit of hair, oh, she is going to hell.”

“People always find something (to complain about, and it is) always directed at women. It is easy for them to say this online. The other day I launched an online quiz for Muslim women to know their rights. There were photos of us. You look at the comments: ‘Tudung mana? Where is your headscarf?’” said Ms Marina.

Mr Hamzah hopes all the criticism and negativity does not perpetuate stereotypes. “I think the biggest misconception that people have of Malay Muslims is that we are confrontational and we are judgmental.

“I don’t believe that is true. I think that there are a few people who are… very narrow-minded in their view of what Islam is, and those people are very loud.”

To Mr Ahmad, such voices pose a threat to pluralism in Malaysian. “The majority of Muslims in this country are tolerant of other people, and they want to live side by side with others to build this country,” he said.

“But suddenly we find out that there are certain people who are not really tolerant and take the extreme position on certain issues. When we allow these kinds of groups to function or to dictate state policy, then we run into trouble.”


Where does all this leave people like Ms Shereen, Mr Hamzah or Mr Zeli feeling?

All are optimistic that, at the end of the day, Malaysia’s cultural diversity will be the bulwark against any shift toward religious extremism.

Said Mr Zeli: “Politics in Malaysia, at the moment, it does not look good. But we are still peace-loving people. We are moderate Muslims, and it means we are not extremists. I still think we are quite flexible in a way because we are a multicultural country.”

Ms Marina agrees. “If you just go by government policies, (it may look) like we are becoming less and less moderate. But when you look on the ground, I still have faith in people… because I think they see beyond this sort of game. I think they understand what it's about and they are not going to fall for it.”

The best representation of Malaysia, said Mr Hamzah, is “the diverse groups of Chinese, Indians and Malays sitting at the coffee shop watching football together. Or the diverse groups at weddings. It does not get better than that”.

As for Ms Shereen, she still feels disturbed by how much negative judgement is levied by the conservative-minded who, in her view, are “misinformed or uninformed”. But she believes things can get better.

“These people who are trying to preach a more extreme form of Islam, they are just the minority. I am optimistic that at the end of the day, these people will learn and change. If they do not change, they will be left behind.”

Additional reporting by Nadia Samdin and Mysara Aljaru

Source: CNA/yv


Also worth reading