Why Were My Malaysia and Indonesia Visits Different?
May 1, 2024

Ahmet T. Kuru || 1 May 2024

I have been studying Islam and democracy for two decades as a professor in the United States. My initial research focused on the Middle East, especially Turkey, where I was born. Since the publication of my book’s Indonesian edition, “Islam, Otoritarianisme, dan Ketertinggalan,” in 2020, I have become more interested in Islam and democracy in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia.

My book is an academic analysis of the political and socioeconomic crises facing many Muslim societies today. It analyzes how Muslims had a golden age of science and economy between the eighth and eleventh centuries, and why they have crises today. Since its publication by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, my book has been reviewed by dozens of Indonesian media outlets. I attended several webinars organized in Indonesia to discuss my book. I also taught an online course at Indonesia’s International Islamic University.

The culmination of my relations with Indonesia was my visit to Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Bali in November 2022. During my talks in these cities, I received a very warm welcome and experienced a very deep hospitality. This encouraged me to visit the neighboring country, Malaysia.

I scheduled my Malaysia visit in January 2024 to promote the Malay translation of my book titled “Islam, Autoritarianisme dan Kemunduran Bangsa.” When my talks in Malaysia were announced, however, I received hostile attacks on social media. Some conservatives and Islamists falsely labeled me as part of a “liberal” network against Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah. Then my main book launch event was cancelled. When I asked the organizers the reason, they said that the Turkish ambassador to Malaysia defined me as an opponent of their government and asked for my event’s cancellation. I never saw such reactions in my other book tours in Indonesia, Morocco, Bosnia, Netherlands, or Norway. Conservatives and Islamists provided constructive criticisms in those countries, and some Turkish ambassadors came to my talks to ask questions there.

Despite these reactions, I was able to give four talks at other institutions in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya. Yet policemen came to my events. In the last event, the cops interrogated my publisher and asked about my hotel address and passport number. I reported those policemen to Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s advisers and a cabinet minister. Both the advisors and the minister assured my safety.

The following day, I went to the Kuala Lumpur airport to fly to Pakistan where I will have a series of book talks. Yet the same policemen came to the gate, interrogated me, and tried to seize my passport. I escaped an arrest attempt by contacting again the Prime Minister’s advisors. All of these developments made me concerned about my safety and I canceled my talks in Lahore and Islamabad and returned home to the United States.

Many friends, intellectuals, and readers showed me hospitality in Malaysia. I met important academics, politicians, and journalists. My talks were well-attended and over a dozen articles and interviews were published in Malaysian media to support me. I am grateful for all of this support. But still, the Islamist reaction, the cancellation of my book launch, and the police harassment left a bitter taste and I do not feel comfortable visiting Malaysia again.

I am not the only Muslim intellectual who faced sharply different experiences in Malaysia and Indonesia. Mustafa Akyol, for example, was arrested by sharia police and his book was temporarily banned in Malaysia few years ago. But his books have been appreciated in Indonesia. There is a long list of Muslim intellectuals who received a warm welcome in Indonesia.

What explains this sharp difference between Indonesia and Malaysia? A major difference exists between the Islam-state relations in the two countries. Indonesia has two major non-governmental Islamic movements—Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyyah, each having tens of millions of followers. This has created diversity and decentralization in Indonesia. Moreover, NU, who invited me to G20’s Religion Forum (R20) in Bali and Yogyakarta last year, embraces Islamic spirituality and accepts Indonesia’s cultural traditions. Both NU and Muhammadiyah respect Indonesia’s foundational credo, Pancasila, referring to the belief in God, humanitarianism, national unity, democracy, and social justice. Islamic criminal law only exists in the Aceh region. Additionally, Indonesia is a big country that does not easily comply with the demands of Turkey or other governments.

In Malaysia, by contrast, Islam-state relations are much more centralized and formalistic. There are no non-governmental Islamic movements comparable to NU or Muhammadiyah. Islamic groups, such as the followers of Naquib al-Attas, are much smaller and close-minded. The ulema are mostly official partners of the state in governance. Sharia courts and sharia police in Malaysia have imposed an orthodox notion of religion. They even banned the public expression of Shia Muslims. There is no Pancasila-type open-minded set of principles. Instead, the Malaysian Constitution combines Malay ethnic identity and Islam: “Malay means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom.” For Malays and converts, leaving Islam officially is not an option – both civil courts and sharia courts reject that. Several regions tried to impose Islamic criminal law and there are ongoing debates to adopt it by Malaysia’s Federal Parliament. Additionally, Malaysia has a hard time saying “no” to Turkey.

These are my brief observations based on my visits and my study of the two countries in the last four years. The experts of these countries may find other differences or disagree with some of my points. But we would all agree that Indonesia and Malaysia are two important countries for the future of democracy in the Muslim world. Many other Muslim-majority countries are ruled by monarchs, military leaders, or other dictators, and the number of electoral democracies in the Muslim world is very limited. In fact, democracy is facing a global crisis, including in my country, the United States, where President Joe Biden’s unconditional support to Israel’s bombing of Gaza has made his reelection more difficult and increased the chances of Donald Trump’s election this November.

Under these difficult circumstances in the Muslim world and globally, Indonesian democracy appears to be crucial. Protecting Indonesian democracy is important to promote equal citizenship and human rights in the Muslim world and worldwide.

Ahmet T. Kuru (PhD, University of Washington) is the director of Center for Islamic and Arabic Studies and past Bruce E. Porteous Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University. He was a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia University. Kuru is the author of Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009), which received Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR)’s Book Award. He is also the co-editor (with Alfred Stepan) of Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey (Columbia University Press, 2012). This essay first appeared at https://www.kompas.id/baca/opini/2024/04/28/mengapa-kunjungan-saya-ke-malaysia-dan-indonesia-berbeda

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