The Muslim Brotherhood And Malaysia – Part I

By Ganesh Sahathevan
Friday, February 1st, 2013 @ 2:14AM

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Ganesh Sahathevan investigated financial mismanagement in Malaysia prior to the financial crisis in the 1990s. He continues to research and report from Sydney, Australia, with a focus on Southeast Asian business, economics and politics. This work has led him into research of structures that support terrorist and jihadist activities in the region, and their links to similar structures in other parts of the world. He obtained the degrees of Bachelor of Economics (majoring in Accounting), and LLB from Monash University, and LLM from the University of Sydney.


In 1981, Malaysia was described by Ismail Faruqi (i), a Palestinian-American and one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most important leaders in North America, as the country that “Allah has blessed with a government and regime designed to serve the Muslim segment of the population….The Malaysian situation is to be studied by all Islamic government leaders for its uniqueness in post-colonial history.” (ii)

These words were contained in a letter addressed to Anwar Ibrahim urging his acceptance of an invitation from then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to join the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Faruqi was Anwar’s mentor, and the two were among the founding directors of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) (a non-indicted co-conspirator in Hamas’ fundraiser  Holy-Land Foundation case). Faruqi sought Anwar’s help in  the implementing the Islamization  of knowledge that covers  all areas of study including economics.

Mahathir and UMNO worked with the MB in 1981 to tighten the collaboration with the wider Muslim world, which began with the late ’60s with Malasiya’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahma. Under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Conference, Rahma funnelled arms and funds from Libya to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who were then fighting for a separate state in Mindanao, southern Philippines.

By 1981, Faruqi and others from the MB were well entrenched in Saudi Arabia working via Saudi-funded organizations such as the Muslim World League (MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). No one questioned their Muslim Brotherhood affiliation.

Thirty years later there is confusion among the Malaysian leadership as to how the relationship with the MB is to be managed. The arrest and dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1998 was probably the first rift in the relationship between the Malaysian Government and the MB. MB leading lights, no less than Anwar’s good friend Yusuf Qaradawi, had publicly defended him against charges of sodomy.

Qaradawi did so again in 2009 when Anwar was again accused of sodomy. This second defense has led to Malaysian government criticism of his scholarship and authority, despite the government’s bestowing on Qaradawi its highest honor for Muslim leadership, the Maal Hijrah, in 2009. The relationship seemed to have broken down irrevocably by late 2012, when a government Islamic scholar accused Qaradawi of inciting the Egyptian uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. (iii)

Meanwhile, the government had no objection to the Kuwaiti MB leader Tareq Al-Suwaidan presenting talks and seminars near the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, in July 2011 despite the Arab Spring’s being by then well and truly underway. (iv) Suwaidan spoke in the state of Selangor, which is led by Anwar’s Peoples’ Front, where he called on for free and fair elections in Malaysia. (v)

The Malaysian government is concerned about an MB Arab-Spring-style uprising occurring there, particularly since national elections will be called sometime this year. However, 70 percent of the population is Muslim and they are getting restless with the continued dominance of UMNO. The party has led the country in a coalition since independence in 1957.

The Muslim majority’s complaints, as in the Middle East, regard corruption, lack of opportunities, and the rising cost of living. Even if their general standard of living is better than that of their Middle Eastern brethren, 50 years of affirmative action policies have led often to unrealistic expectations. It is not considered extraordinary to desire expensive European cars and climate-controlled three-storey homes, complete with swimming pools. Hence, UMNO and its coalition partners have had to contemplate the unthinkable-the loss of power.

In this context, any threat that might be posed by the MB and its local supporters, while of concern, pales into insignificance. This would explain why Suwaidan was allowed free and easy access into the country despite the obvious threat he and the MB pose to UMNO’s rule.

It is also possible that the Malay Muslim leadership, be they in government or opposition, are united in the sense that the real enemy is the non-Malay and non-Muslim population, and that the MB continues to be welcomed for the link it provides to the Arab Muslim culture. This, however, faciliates the process of Arabization of Malaysia, despite the fact the Malay culture is Hindu-Buddhist in origin.

Embracing Arabization would surely help to eradicate any vestiges of the Hindu-Buddhist culture. This could be a reason for the MB acceptance in Malaysia, even at the time it was unlawful in Egypt. Saudi petrodollars may have opened the doors, but there was already a desire in Malaysia to join in the MB project.

MB influence on Malaysia’s Economy

The Malaysian economy is generally perceived to be rapidly industrializing, having successfully undergone the transformation from an agrarian-based economy to a manufacturing one in under 50 years.

That view, however, is somewhat simplistic for it fails to take account of the legal, financial, and civil administrative infrastructure that was put in place by British colonialists while they still ruled the country. Indeed, British nationals continued to administer many key areas of the public and private sector well into the late ’60s, more than 10 years after independence in 1957.

Hence the Malaysian economy was not so much transformed as dictated by demand and supply. It developed as it went along to support the demand for newer products. It was able to do so because there was already in existence a system that the British put in place to facilitate the trade of Empire.

The process of Islamization has seen a turning away from what the British put in place. Ismail Faruqi’s Islamization project, enthusiastically adopted by Anwar Ibrahim, was applied to practically every aspect of Malaysian life, including education, financial services, and the law. Meanwhile, existing structures were denied the resources to even sustain themselves and have since fallen into neglect.

For example, Anwar promoted Islamic banking with such religious zeal that the existing banking system was neglected. Today Malaysian banks remain, as they were some 60 years ago, glorified pawnbrokers unable to compete on the basis of skill with UK, U.S., or European banks. The fact that many Malaysian banks verged on collapse during the Asian crisis of 1997, despite their adaptation of Islamic banking principles, is a point often ignored.

The policies of Islamization were implemented alongside affirmative action policies initiated in 1970 to assist Malay Muslims. Consequently, Islamization became a tool for Malay nationalists who saw in it a means to eradicate any remnants of British rule. Hence, today the process of Islamization, and the coincident process of Arabization continues to gain pace even if Anwar Ibrahim is no longer in power. It does appear that the majority Muslim population is now driven by an inner desire for Islamization.

The changes that these twin initiatives have brought about would seem familiar to anyone who has visited Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. The Muslim community seeks work but only in the higher paying services, for example, in the law and the financial sector. Manual work is shunned and hence a large migrant workforce is to be found in most urban areas.

There is a large pool of unemployed or, rather, unemployable graduates. While these would have previously been products of British institutions or served an apprenticeship locally in some British system of training, they eschew alternative training systems, including those from the Middle East and other parts of Asia, which are considered equal if not better.

Meanwhile, the government’s ability to support the population in a style that it has been told to expect remains tied to oil and gas revenues. Said to fund more than 30 percent of government spending, these sources of revenue are shrinking as existing reserves are not being replenished at replacement rate.

Although the MB is not in power in Malaysia as it is now in parts of the Middle East, the country already displays the features of an economy based at least in part on the policies it promotes. The lure of Middle Eastern petrodollars seeking a Shari’a-compliant home seems almost always an incentive for conversion to a Shari’a-based economy. However, Malaysia has recently seen somewhat less positive results than expected. Malaysian media is not short of front-page articles about some proposed investment or another from a Middle Eastern potentate. What is not reported are the deals unconsummated and of these there are many.

Malaysia serves as an example of what an economy based on MB Shari’a policies would look like. The fact that non-Muslims continue to control significant parts of the economy (even if overall dominance of the economic system lies with the state) allows for a comparison of the secular and Shari’a systems and for controlling for differences that might arise when comparing two different economies. The evidence does seem to suggest that the country would be better off reaffirming its British common-law traditions and conventional banking rather than continuing its infatuation with a Shari’a-based economy.


(i) Ismail Faruqi: Muslim Leader In Montreal (1958-1967) And Founder Of The Main Muslim Brotherhood Research Institute In The West (1981)

(ii) Haji Fadullah Wilmot, A Man Of Peace And Tolerance: Part Two Of A Tribute To Prof Ismail Faruqi. New Straits Times, 5 June 1986

(iii) Now, UMNO’s ‘ULAU’ dishes out fatwa against Qaradawi

(iv) Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests

(v) Article in Malay, reproduced from the Selangor Times, a publication of the PKR led State Of Selangor 

Further Reading

I-Epistemology: Classification of Knowledge in Islam: An Islamic Architecture of Knowledge

Malaysiakini: PKR leader lauds Erdogan’s Muslim democracy

Andrew McCarthy: The Islamization of Knowledge in the New Egypt

Ismail Faruqi, Role of the Family in the Spread of Islam

I-Epistemology: Global Communication and Cultural Desensitisation: Repackaging Western Values for Non-Western Markets

I-Epistemology: Towards a New Paradigm for Economics

3rd International Conference on Islam and Higher Education (3rd ICIHE, Malaysia 2012): The Role of Awqaf in the Development of Islamic Higher Education: the Past, the Present, and Future Prospects

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, ACD/EWI Exclusive, Middle East Conflicts, Muslim Brotherhood

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