More arabs than the arabs or more american than the americans?
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi
Taking the cue from PAS’ astounding defeat at the recent polls, there seems to be a kind of a backlash against everything that is perceived to be manifestations of the party’s vision and influence in making the malays more religious in a puritan, fundamentalist sense. The most prominent and vexing of these is “arabizing” the malays at the expense of malay culture and heritage. The new minister for Culture, Arts and Heritage expressed uneasiness over this erosion of malay cultural heritage in a recent interview in a local daily. NST journalists Sarah Sabaratnam and Loretta Ann Soosayraj took this further in its Life and Times feature on April 28 titled “More arabs than the arabs”, gathering the opinions from the malay cultural elite and eminent personalities from the arts fraternity. The proscription of Makyong, Main Puteri and Menora by the Kelantan PAS government comes to fore whenever this subject is brought up, as the extreme example of the desire to cleanse malay culture of its pre-Islamic influences took the form of institutionalization. But it is also the every day things that malays do like preferring the kopiah over the songkok, the wearing of jubbah and serban, doing away with “bersanding” at weddings that raise the ire of those in the vanguard of the preservation of malay cultural heritage. This trend of “arabization”, like the new “dress code” as pointed out by the director-general of Istana Budaya, is said to be threatening the survival of malay cultural heritage.
Eddin Khoo, director of Pusaka, a non profit organization was quite right when he pointed out that this arabization of the malays is very much related to the “rise of religious, ideological politics over the past 2 decades, accompanied by theological dogmatism and puritanism…” and “we must acknowledge that much of this thinking has been supported by political power”. But does Islamist politics explain everything? One may be forgiven to view the re-assertion of Islamic religious life among the malays as a monolithic phenomenon, one deriving from the politics of fundamentalist Islamist politics, if one were to view this from afar through the sweeping monochrome of the western media. For local commentators, to be oblivious of the diversity of Islamic currents in Malaysia is not quite excusable.
The article is deeply flawed and unbalanced as they only took the views of personalities who view Islam in Malaysia purely as an appendage to the malays’ cultural heritage, negating the varied, knowledge-based expressions of Islam which has become increasingly important in shaping the modern malay identity through higher education abroad, social mobility and increased interactions with people of other cultures through their professions and sojourns in foreign lands. PAS’ conservative fundamentalism is just one strand of this re-appraisal of Islam among the malays. The leitmotif here is that Islam is merely a cultural identifier for the malays consisting of rites and customs derived from some religious beliefs to be transmitted to successive generations, in the same way that we pass down the rituals of a Makyong performance. But this is unfortunately a minority view among modern educated malays and the professionals who have somehow not been consulted for their views.
In the transformation of Islam from a set of rituals integral to the malay identity to that of a deep personal conviction in a set of metaphysical truths that subordinates one’s beliefs, personal conduct and relations in society, this no doubt entails some modifications or even abandonment of long held cultural traditions, in the same way that the arabs had to give up some of their pre-Islamic traditions that cannot be reconciled with Islam’s metaphysical philosophy and ethics. The views of the well-meaning Eddin Khoo who said, “they claimed that people who partake in these traditions (such as wayang kulit, makyong, main puteri and menora) engaged in spirit and devil worship and “main hantu” (playing with ghosts)”, do not sit well with today’s muslims in general because he does not see any distinction between those art forms proscribed by the Kelantan government and zapin or dondang sayang. But for the modern malays who have arrived at an understanding of Islam through knowledge and study, art forms like menora and makyong, unlike zapin or dondang sayang are problematic because the rituals and beliefs involved may compromise the principle of Tauhid, the belief in Oneness of the Divine Transcendent, a fundamental and paramount pillar of the Islamic faith. It is for the same concern over the violation of the principle of Tauhid that rituals like seeking intercession at the graves of pious men, Mandi Safar and Puja Pantai are no longer practiced by modern malays as the practice of Islam becomes increasingly knowledge-based. In this regard, the measures taken by the PAS government in Kelantan are superfluous, creating unnecessary confusion and stirring fatuous, impassioned debates until today. By the time the PAS government came to power in 1990, Menora and Makyong were already dying art forms. The protests against the proscription came not from the Kelantanese but the arts fraternity in Kuala Lumpur who have failed to grasp the transformation of Islam among the malays. If there was any lesson form the proscription of these art form by the PAS government, it is that culture and religion should be free from the whims of men in government and of politicians. It rightly belongs to the people and should be allowed to evolve organically. Policy makers must not appropriate it from the people and should resist from legislating for an against specific forms of the arts. This should be left to education and finally individual choice. In this respect, the old ministry of culture and tourism has been no less guilty of institutionalizing culture, manufacturing “malay culture” for the sake of drawing the tourist dollar and adapting it to colour television. Since when have those bright multicolour costumes and strangely energetic dances been part of malay cultural heritage?
Malaysia’s cultural elite and the arts community should also learn to display tolerance and openness towards ordinary people’s preferences in everyday life, even if this may go against their perceived notions of what constitutes “malay culture”. As the malays become more educated and to move away from Islam as cultural identity to Islam as a system of metaphysical beliefs and ethics, it is inevitable that some “arabization” of malay life takes place, given that geographical origins of the faith and its holy places of pilgrimage, and secondly, Islam being a religion that emphasizes knowledge and learning, it happens that its major texts are in the Arabic language and traditionally scholars gain their knowledge from middle-eastern institutions. Modern educated muslims by and large have no problem with actor and director Khalid Salleh “If I buy a topeng tari from Bali and put it on my wall as decoration, does this mean that I am being influenced by Hinduism?”, but at the same time he must reciprocate the same respect and liberty to muslims who wish to dress differently, “as Muslims grow older, they put on the jubbah. This, to them, is the image of Islam. But who is to know what is in their soul?”. The great actor’s prejudice and disdain towards this religion-inspired cultural transformation among a significant section of modern malays is caricatural – dressing like arabs equals intolerance, fanaticism and holier-than-thou attitude. Indeed, the tone throughout the article was discomfortingly of such prejudicial slant, that adopting some aspects of middle-eastern culture is equated as being under the sway of PAS’ radical fundamentalism and sympathizing with the muslim terrorists, even if muslims and arabs have been wearing the serban and jubbah for centuries before Osama Ben Laden. Of utmost importance to the discussion, “arabization” should not be confused with following Islamic injunctions on certain matters like the dress code for female and male believers. As Islam itself means “submission”, it requires believers who have accepted Islam’s metaphysical truths on their own free will to submit to the religion’s external formalities like the daily prayers, paying the poor dues and Hajj, and to follow a minimum standard of ethics and behaviour.
Nevertheless, it is unfortunately true that Islamic resurgence tends to be associated with hard-line conservatism that blights elements of local culture in favour of “arabization”. This however has to be seen against a backdrop of politicization culture and religion when they should rightly belong to the people. Hard-line puritanism in part arises from and encouraged by the authorities’ monopolization of what constitutes acceptable Islam, which today goes by the name of “Islam Hadhari”, in the contest between the two political parties vying to be the champions of the malays. As a result, discourse on Islam is constrained to these 2 opposing roles and discussion and debate on the role of Islam in society on matters like justice, fairness, poverty eradication and the dynamics between Islam and local culture could not take place freely. But between official Islam and conservative puritanism is a spectrum of views on the role of Islam in society that has hardly been explored and engaged with by commentators on culture and society in Malaysia.
Nevertheless if the concern over the rapid decline of malay cultural heritage by the new minister, echoed and amplified by practitioners and defenders of malay traditional arts, is indeed timely and laudable. But can this be blamed on the increased awareness and knowledge-based practice of Islam among the malays in the last 2 decades or so? It is interesting that on the same day the feature article on arabization of the malays appeared in the NST, Utusan Malaysia carried the headline “Bahasa Melayu kian luntur – masyarakat bersikap tidak peka gunakan bahasa rojak”, where in Dato’ Seri Dr. Rais Yatim lamented that many people today cannot speak the national language properly, corrupting it with excessive and inappropriate borrowing of words and phrases from English and turning it into “bahasa rojak”. What afflicts the malay language is precisely what afflicts malay culture. It is not Islam or the elements of middle-eastern culture that is largely responsible for the malays to abandon their cultural heritage. Neither are borrowed Arabic words corrupting the malay language. Today we are inundated with hedonistic, consumerist materialism through a lack of a sensible, coherent and consistent cultural and educational policy. It is true that being a willing player in the corporate globalization game, we are vulnerable to invasion by such consumerist culture which aggressively try to make us gullible to crave the same food and drinks, wear the same shoes and clothes, watch the same movies and TV shows, and listen to the same mindless music as the american consumers. This is the much greater reason why malay youths are reluctant to wear the songkok and baju melayu, and find keroncong and ghazal foreign to their ears. If the authorities have a clear and consistent vision on local culture, it could have instituted measures to damper the smothering of malay culture and language by this pernicious side of globalization.
The decline of malay traditional arts, is perhaps less alarming than the corruption of bahasa melayu and the decline of malay literature. The widespread everyday use of bahasa rojak suggests that the erosion of malay culture and identity has reached such a critical stage, that the last defences so to speak have been breached, reflecting the abject failure and inconsistencies of our cultural and educational policies. That malay politicians and cabinet colleagues of Dato’ Rais Yatim are the foremost practitioners of bahasa rojak and ostentatious display of materialism indicates the extent to which malay cultural identity has been undermined.
In the broader Malaysian society, it is not only the malays’ culture and language that is facing the threat of corruption and obliteration. In a multicultural Malaysia, whose richness of its peoples’ diverse traditions has been taken for granted all this while, the chinese and indians should be equally anxious over the survival of their cultural heritage. But this threat to their culture is not from arabized malays but the very same consumerist materialism that does not respect local cultures and traditions everywhere. So finally we are speaking the same rojak language, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food and listening to the same music, as imitators of American consumerist culture, the pinnacle of our success in the “bangsa malaysia” project.
Instead of blaming Islam as causing the erosion of malay culture, a rational and knowledge based reassertion of the religion but without the insularity and obsessive puritanism long associated with conservative political Islam will serve as a bulwark for the malays from being engulfed and obliterated by hedonistic, consumerist materialism. The diverse muslim civilizations that stretched from Spain to the malay world during the different periods of Islamic history have shown that wherever Islam planted itself, it was capable of absorbing fertile ideas and elements of beauty and goodness from the cultures it came in contact with as long as they were not in conflict with the religion’s fundamental beliefs and ethics. Without this intellectual and spiritual bulwark of knowledge-based Islam, the malays seem to absorb only the crass and the ugly from western culture, and not its refined elements in art, music and literature and its edifying ideas in philosophy and the sciences. Conversely, Islam also serves to moderate our tendency towards excessive, irrational sense of nationalist pride that makes us stubbornly cling to shreds of our inherited tradition in the name of cultural preservation.