The emergence of Islamic liberalism in Southeast Asia over the last two decades has been characterized by its highly uneven reception across and within national contexts. In Indonesia, particularly in the 2000s, Islamic liberalism had some public space to develop even though it was met with a wide variety of opposition. In Malaysia, however, liberalism is a thoroughly negative category in political and religious discourse. The concept has a significant political value as a means of policing religious interpretations and oppositional political claims without a corresponding development of Islamic liberalism as a public discourse.
In part the mobilization of anti-liberalism is the product of two important trends in Malaysian politics: the proliferation and growing power of Malaysia’s Islamic bureaucracy and the increased public activism of a broad array of Islamic NGO’s. These two trends reinforce each other in generating the controversies over Islamic practice or religious diversity that have punctuated Malaysia politics over the last ten years. In spite of these recurring controversies, Malaysia maintains an international reputation among North Atlantic governments as a “moderate Muslim” nation. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts to craft a state Islamic ideology of moderation (wasatiyyah) is viewed by the Malaysian state, however, precisely as a bulwark against the further spread of liberalism within domestic politics. This seminar will examine such ideological inversions at work in Malaysian politics located in the concepts of Islamic liberalism and moderation.
Carlo Bonura is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Southeast Asian Politics. He received his PhD. from the University of Washington in political science, and his research spans the fields of comparative political thought and Southeast Asian politics.
Previously Dr. Bonura was a research project officer/associate with the Comparative Political Thought Project organised by the Centre for Political Ideologies in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford (2008-11). He was also appointed the Luce Assistant Professor of Muslim Societies in Southeast Asia in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA (2003-2008).