Rural Malay Reactions to Islamicist "Resurgents"

I noted various changes in the fieldwork site of Bogang (Negeri Sembilan) between my first period of research, from 1978 to 1980, and my second, from 1987 to 1988. First, the public address system housed in the village mosque and used to call people to prayer was always operational (and set at a higher volume) during the second period, in sharp contrast to the situation during my first fieldwork, when it was typically out of order. Second, the quintessentially Islamic salutation “assalamualaikum” was far more frequently used, and other Islamic symbols and idioms permeated local discourse. Third, young male dakwah [‘evangelical’] adherents now appeared in the village on a fairly regular basis to “spread the word.” And fourth, the dress of girls and young women had become much more modest, and some of them had taken to wearing the long skirts, mini-telekung (head coverings, like those worn by Catholic nuns in the United States), and other headgear donned by female dakwah adherents in the cities.

Transformations such as these are in some respects superficial, but they are important public markers of the shifting religious climate in villages like Bogang. Other, less “tangible” changes include the further delegitimization of spirit cults, shamanism, and other ritual practices subsumed under the rubric of adat [traditional custom]; the development of non- or arelational forms of individualism, realized by conceptualizing serious wrongdoing (such as the harboring of spirit familiars [pelisit]) in terms of “sin” (dosa) rather than “taboo” (pantang [larang]); the emergence of a more pronounced pan-Islamic consciousness, a key feature of which is greater awareness of current trends elsewhere in the Muslim world, where Islamic resurgence, efforts to forge worldwide Islamic solidarity, and radical separation between Muslims and non-Muslims is the order of the day; heightened concern with demarcating local (i.e., intra-Malaysian) boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims; and, related to this last point, greater suspicions of all non-Muslims, as expressed in the intensified bodily vigilance of males and females alike.

While many of these shifts are broadly compatible with the stated objectives and overall agendas of dakwah leaders, we should not jump to the conclusion that ordinary Muslims are firmly behind or centrally involved in the resurgence. Indeed, we should start with a clean slate and the most basic questions: How are the legal and other initiatives cited earlier being received by ordinary, especially rural, Malays? And, more broadly: What is the nature of ordinary, particularly rural, Malays’ perceptions of and attitudes toward the resurgence? The answers to these questions are elusive for two reasons. First, some of the legal and other initiatives noted earlier are of very recent origin and have yet to have their full impact in rural areas. And second, such questions have been largely ignored in the literature, even though most observers are well aware that Malaysia’s Islamic resurgence is a predominantly urban, middle-class phenomenon.

The short, admittedly imprecise, answer to the question regarding ordinary, especially rural, Malays’ perceptions of and attitudes toward the resurgence is that, while some of them support it, many, perhaps most, are clearly hostile both to various elements of the movement and to the state agents and others who endorse it. This hostility exists even though ordinary Malays experience Islam as central to their daily lives and cultural identities, and embrace in principle most, if not all, efforts to accord Islam greater primacy among Malays and in Malaysia generally. In Bogang, for example, many elders lament that those who have sought to sanitize local religion by cleansing it of its “parochial accretions” are ignorant not only of the true teachings of Islam, but also of the ways of local spirits (jinn); these elders hasten to add that the neglect of spirits due to the nonperformance of rituals such as berpuar and bayar niat has led to repeated crop failure and, in some cases, the demise of rice production altogether.

Others speak scornfully of the fact that members of certain dakwah groups (for example, Darul Arqam [now banned in Malaysia]) have thrown their televisions, radios, furniture, and other household commodities into local rivers to dramatize their disdain of the polluting influences of Western materialism and to underscore their commitment to returning to the pristine simplicity of the lifestyle of the Prophet. These dramatic gestures were highly publicized—and undoubtedly exaggerated—in the government-controlled national press at a time when the government was actively attempting to discredit the more radical elements of the movement. Though practices such as these are not typical of the dakwah movement as a whole, they loom large in some villagers’ perceptions of the resurgence in its entirety. More to the point, they fly directly in the face of the most. pressing concerns of rural Malays, especially the poorest among them, who seek to improve their standards of living—ideally to attain middle-class status through the acquisition of more land and other wealth-generating resources—and who struggle desperately to avoid further impoverishment and proletarianization.

Other residents of Bogang talk about the sexual inappropriateness and hypocrisy of the members of some dakwah groups (Darul Arqam?) who, according to villagers’ understandings of accounts in the local media, allegedly engage in “group sex” while enjoining fellow Muslims to observe strict sexual segregation. Still others feel that the dakwah emphasis on sexual segregation is largely redundant, since sexual segregation has long been a feature of rural Malay society. Perhaps more important, they feel that it represents a glaring example of the resurgents’ ignorance of rural Malay culture and yet another indication of their profound hostility to it.

SOURCE: “‘Ordinary Muslims’ and Muslim Resurgents in Contemporary Malaysia: Notes on an Ambivalent Relationship,” by Michael G. Peletz, in Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 241-243

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