By Steven Hill, Huffington Post, May 6, 2009
There are millions of moderate Muslims in the world, and they, too, are looking for a “new deal.” A president with the name of Barack Hussein Obama presents an opportunity, but the opening may not last long.
Some political observers see the world as divided into two hostile camps, a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the west. Many Americans tend to view Muslims as a monolith, our views having been burned into our perceptions by 11 September, the Iraq war and ongoing tensions in the Middle East. Yet in countries such as Malaysia – one of the larger Muslim countries in the world – a more hopeful future is discernible.
A stroll through the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur shows it to be a fascinating blend of the modern, the ancient, the post-colonial and the multi-multi-religious. The silver gleaming high-rises of the twin Petronas Towers – the second-largest twin towers in the world – are the tallest of a modern skyline that juts above a religious and ethnic stew.
In the shadows of the high-rises are traditional Asian wet markets, a maze of vendors selling everything from live poultry and eels for slaughter to the latest electronic gadgets (many of them black market). Around the corner, an itinerant dentist is yanking teeth on the sidewalk, his patients spitting blood and saliva into a bucket. The tension between traditional and modern development is worn on Malaysia’s sleeve.
Religion is apparent just about everywhere, from the public square to the private domicile. Malaysia’s population is 60% Muslim, and it shows. Walking along many streets in Kuala Lumpur, one can see a river of bobbing female headscarves, draped in luxurious, flowing robes of exquisite pattern and design. The overall effect is like watching swarms of colorful butterflies from the nearby jungles.
But contrary to the stereotype about Muslim countries, Malaysia is for the most part a tolerantly religious nation. Indeed, religious tolerance is enshrined in the nation’s constitution. Other religions thrive here – Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions. The indigenous people, known as Orang Asli, have their own animist religion, believing in the presence of spirits in inanimate objects. From block to block, one can see colorful temples, monks and priests of different religious stripes in flowing robes and costumes. Around each corner is the smell of burnt offerings wafting from homes.
Hindus comprise about 6% of the population, most of them descendants of Indians brought to Malaysia by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries as indentured laborers for oil palm and rubber plantations. One hundred or so years later, they have carved out a vibrant niche.
Hindus have an immense shrine just outside of Kuala Lumpur called the Batu caves, an intricate network of geological caverns that has been converted into a holy site. The spectacular caves are one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, and the focal point of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, which attracts over 1.5 million pilgrims yearly and is one of the largest annual gatherings anywhere in the world.
Not everyone is religious in Malaysia, however. Among younger Muslims and others with a more secular or westernized background, many have become less-than-practicing. Nearly a quarter of Malaysians are of Chinese ethnicity, a tenth are indigenous, the entire nation woven from its various strands into an ethnic and religious tapestry.
There are occasional tensions between the many religious and ethnic groups, but on the whole Malaysia shows what moderate Islam can look like – a nation where there is a dominant religion but also a place for other religions. Much as in the United States, which is dominantly Christian yet other religions thrive, here in Malaysia “traditional” doesn’t necessarily mean “intolerant.”
Indeed, many traditionally-minded Americans would have a great deal in common with traditionally-minded Malaysians. That’s because most people everywhere want the same things, namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, including the freedom to practice their religion.
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni has argued that moderate Muslims, whether in Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or elsewhere, should be seen as the world’s swing voters. Unfortunately the US has been losing its appeal to these moderate swing voters, and in the process losing the battle for hearts and minds.
The Obama administration should think carefully about the lessons of the past eight years, indeed the past 80 years. There are hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims in the world, and they are waiting for an American partner that is cognizant of its role in a long, difficult history of colonialism and imperialist interventions. They, too, are looking for a “new deal.” A president with the name of Barack Hussein Obama presents an opportunity, but the opening may not last long.
A version of this article was published in The Guardian (UK) and other publications
Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation. His book “Europe Rising” will be published by the University of California Press in September 2009