NON-MUSLIM Malaysians have been closely following the development of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi’s "Islam Hadhari" programme.
It was a central campaign issue in the election, and it has been seen by many as Umno's answer to the Pas vision of an Islamic state. Indeed, the Prime Minister's simple message obviously won the hearts of many Malay voters with statements like: "We can't promise heaven. It is up to God. We can only work to become good Muslims". These words also obviously resonated with non-Muslim voters as well.
So interest has been aroused in the Islam Hadhari programme for Malaysia. When did the concept first appear? What are its basic elements? How should non-Muslims react? Abdullah launched Islam Hadhari at the national level in September last year, when he was still Deputy Prime Minister. So the concept is quite new, and also still very much under construction. Abdullah began to flesh out his programme in a series of rallies ahead of elections on March 21. His basic message is a vision of Islam Hadhari with the central unifying focus that "Islam is a religion for development".
Islam Hadhari, according to the PM, stresses moderation in all aspects of life, and is what modern Malaysia needs. "It is about working hard, hunger for knowledge and information in science and technology", he told crowds of potential voters. . In this election, he also turned to the plight of poor Malay farmers in the Islamic heartland of the north-east, and he received their support. Islam Hadhari refers to a highly civilised Islamic community that is progressive, developed, dynamic, and capable of handling contemporary challenges. The important thing is not that these elements have not been present before in Umno's Islamic vision for the country. The key is that this is the first time they have been forcefully gathered into a comprehensive programme.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Professor Shamsul Amri Bahruddin observed in a recent interview that Islam Hadhari "is basically about moderate or reasonable Islam … middle path". What Pas wants is an Islamic state based on Hudud. This middle path means that it is up to each individual to build a more comprehensive understanding of religion. Beginning from this platform, issues such as multi-culturalism, religious tolerance, and development goals can be debated and discussed at a national level.
Abdullah's Islam Hadhari programme addresses the challenging role of religion in a rapidly industrialising nation caught up in the global waves of Islamic revivalism. Some of the elements of Islam Hadhari include:
* Construction of an inclusive framework based on respect for religious tolerance and relevance for a highly pluralistic society.
* Promotion of socio-economic progress in the context of modernisation and globalisation.
* Emphasis on the individual — imbuing the values and knowledge to become a good Muslim and the need to be honest and hardworking.
Islam Hadhari is certainly evolving. Abdullah is at the beginning of his term of office, and it is anticipated that his programme, and his aspirations for the Muslim community in Malaysia, will become clearer as his own style of governing Malaysia firms up.
The programme is visible confirmation that Umno, the main component in the ruling Barisan Nasional, is striving to achieve a more progressive and tolerant interpretation of Islam to suit modern times, and Malaysia's unique racial and religious composition. Abdullah has the Islamic credentials to galvanise this ambitious programme, and there is an obvious confidence in his leadership among his fellow Muslims. The basic elements of the programme, including striving for progress, development, and tolerance in a multi-religious, multi-cultural context, are welcomed also by non-Muslim Malaysians. Thus their support for the universal character of Islam Hadhari, and the common values which it represents, will be critical for its success at the national level.
To maximise its own ground, Abdullah's Islam Hadhari projects an inclusive agenda that respects religious pluralism in Malaysia. Non-Muslims certainly find a comfort zone in the articulation of an alternative to what is generally perceived as Pas' more archaic and even regressive vision of an Islamic state. But the modern, tolerant, progressive face of Islam Hadhari, backed by the PM's own religious credentials is like a breath of fresh air, and should be closely monitored and nurtured by non-Muslims.
The writer is a member of the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research. The views expressed in this column are her own.