Malaysia is a country unlike any other: Full of promise and fragility. Its history, cultural and religious diversity make it a rich, compelling and surprising land. Chinese, Indian, Malay and, in a broader sense, Indonesian cultures live side by side, while Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all partake of its multi-layered heritage. Moreover, Malaysia possesses a first-rate economic and geostrategic potential. In the coming years, it can be expected to assume increasingly greater regional and international importance alongside its neighbour, Indonesia — two emerging countries that have often been neglected to the advantage of China and India, which, we are told, represent the only two Asiatic powers.
Today, as the centre of gravity of the new world economic order shifts eastward, the two countries will play significant and critical roles. Malaysia will be a force to reckon with.
But substantial difficulties and obstacles remain to be overcome. Nothing is, or will be, easy. With every passing day, Malaysia reveals the many facets of the challenges facing it and of its doubts. Sixty per cent of the population is Muslim; Islam has emerged as a permanent reference in political debate. Between the ruling party (UNMO), which has held power for more than 50 years, and the coalition of opposition parties, conflicting slogans, symbols and controversies arising from the Islamic reference are a fact of life. There is talk of an Islamic state, of the Sharia, of an Islamic criminal code, of reform, of change. The Arab uprisings and the Islamist victories have already blazed the trail. The Malaysians look on intently, analyse and hope for a better future with less corruption, true freedom, democratic transparency and free media. The road ahead is long and fraught with obstacles.
The country’s Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or atheist citizens often feel that they are captives in a debate that marginalises or exploits them. Like the mirror image of many Muslim citizens in the West, they may be perfectly respectful of the constitution, of the laws and prerogatives of the civil state, but it is as if they are slightly excluded from the shared narrative upon which the Malaysia nation is founded. It has proved difficult for them to achieve the fully equal status that would establish their sense of belonging to a pluralist society. It is striking to note the same dynamic of social, cultural and religious fragmentation that we find in the pluralist societies of the West (but here, for non-Muslim religious minorities). Moreover, there exists a similar immigration problem, primarily of Indonesian origin, that feeds political tensions (including a frequently hostile policy towards the very immigrants the country needs). A populist rhetoric has surfaced and is attempting to exploit these tensions (religion, culture, immigration, etc.): The politics of emotion and of identity threaten Malaysia’s social cohesion. The fault-lines are visible, especially on the eve of anticipated elections.
Development has not been without costs. For more than a generation, the country has attempted to reconcile American-style modernism with respect for tradition. The contrast between the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and other cities is striking. Here, looming skyscrapers surround the celebrated twin towers that challenge America’s tallest. Political strategy has often consisted of “Islamising” modernism, capitalism, even consumerism — a strange mixture indeed. Then, just around a corner, on a visit to the state of Perlis, a sudden glimpse of a creative spirit that seeks to unite tradition, aesthetics and ethics at the heart of the modern world. There, a superb structure built on supporting piers, known as the “floating mosque,” reflects the extraordinary maritime landscape. Fifty per cent of its electricity consumption is generated by wind turbines and, when completed, solar panels will account for its remaining energy needs: A “green” mosque beneath whose dome Islamic scriptural references are inscribed in the five national languages, to signify that Islam is not the property of one language and one culture.
This mosque is ultimately far more “modern” than all the blind mimicry of American models. Our task, after all, is to consider the ethical principles and the technical capacity available to us in our day, while not for an instant forgetting the ethical principles that underlie diversity and the environment itself. Our task is to provide modernity with a soul, to breathe life into spiritual and humanist creativity. What a pleasure to pray in such a mosque: one senses the encounter of intelligence and creative imagination. From Perlis, far from the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur, flows the intuition that the “floating mosque” may well be the symbol of Muslims’ greatest contribution to an era in search of meaning: To express its specificity in universal terms, in full respect of pluralism and to respond in full awareness and with all necessary expertise, to the challenges of our time.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.