By Clive S Kessler, Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology, The University of New South Wales
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's moment of truth is approaching. After succeeding Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2003 he won a huge personal mandate in the 2004 elections. Facing new national elections in the next year or so, he would be happily situated if his stewardship of the nation gave him much of which to boast. But it does not. He has occupied the crease but has few runs on the board.
With real achievements to his credit, the embittered sniping attacks of his doughty predecessor might seem merely petty. But the uncertainty of Badawi's direction and record lends them plausibility. Some see Badawi's failure to assert himself in purely personal terms: either of temperament, that he is both decent and diffident, or circumstance, referring to the cruel impact of his wife's death.
But the truth is probably deeper, situational and structural rather than personal. The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) no longer dominates Mexico and the Kuomintang governs Taiwan no more but the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), in concert with its associated parties, continues to rule Malaysia, as it always has since independence. The Malaysian state apparatus is a glove that, closely fashioned to purpose over half a century, fits only one hand, the UMNO's - and its several ever prodding and grasping fingers point and push in contrary ways. A reformer of the UMNO and its grip upon national life would be stymied. No reform is possible without taking on the insistent interests to which the UMNO must not simply be responsive but from which it is built. Prime Minister Badawi may want to be a reformer, but he is no Gorbachev. He will not dismantle the power structures upon which the UMNO's and his own dominance rest. "Nice guys finish last" is an old piece of baseball wisdom; conversely, the toughness that Dr Mahathir showed as leader over two decades can now be seen and better appreciated as not simply personal and temperamental but perhaps structurally essential.
In this context Prime Minister Badawi has struggled to define his own agenda and direction. Asked about Dr Mahathir's famous Vision 2020 goals, he neither rejects nor endorses them but instead asks about 2057, the centenary of national independence. A similar strategy of seeking both to appropriate and contain - and in that way place his predecessor in a more distanced and diminishing perspective - has marked Badawi's stance towards Dr Mahathir's handling of the politics of Islam, which has provided the central dynamic of politics within the ascendant Malay-Muslim arena. For half a century this has taken the form of an incessant and unedifying "Islamist policy auction" between UMNO and the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), in which, over the long term, UMNO is forever outbid and in time compelled to match PAS's ever escalating demands, or try to do so. Dr Mahathir tried to break that neo-traditional clericalist Islamist stranglehold by seeking to promote a modernist approach that saw the Islamic faith as belonging to all the faithful, not just the conventionally trained experts; he sought to engage the power-seeking clericalists and scripturalist absolutists in dialogic cooperation with the wider community of the faithful, especially the modern, educated laity of good and sincere faith.
Dr Mahathir was never able to project himself as a successful spokesman for the kind of "modernist Islam" and "Islamic modernity" that he sought to promote: because he was always a selective, not a thoroughgoing or consistent, modernist. His Vision 2020 embraced technological and economic modernisation but was decidedly ambivalent and unenthusiastic about, even unsympathetic towards, some of the key sociocultural dimensions of modernity such as human rights, individual freedom, and "lifestyle" pluralism; while he never had the religious standing or credentials to make him a convincing proponent of the kind modern, essentially democratically anticlericalist, Islam that he sought to encourage. As an aspiring Islamic modernist - an advocate of a modern Islamic religious culture and of a wholehearted embrace of modernity by Muslims on Islamic terms - he was flying on two weak wings; he had strength and sinew on neither side, not that of Islam nor that of modern culture. In the end his "counter-Islamisation" intended to contest the traditionalist-clericalist agenda proved counterproductive.
Prime Minister Badawi's response here has been strategically similar to that on the Vision 2020 national development goals. Far better credentialed in Islamic terms than Dr Mahathir, he has sought to declare a new approach called "Islam Hadhari" which he says has its roots in Dr Mahathir's religious policies yet at the same time subsumes and also exceeds them. Yet the notion of Islam Hadhari is woefully unexplained and unelaborated; it remains discursively underdeveloped and intellectually impoverished despite the great official investment in seminars, prime ministerial lectures worldwide, and ensuing books on the subject.
How is the term "hadhari" to be understood? In contradistinction, ironically, to its opposite, "badawi" - meaning, in Arabic, "bedouin", or tribal, ungoverned, born politically of untamed force. In his time former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim popularised the notion of "masyarakat madani" or civil society, where madani connoted settled places of law and lawfulness, restraint and governance, and hence the urban and urbane civility to which they gave rise. Similarly, the term hadhari points - in contrast to the wild regions of tribal social forms and ungoverned political force - to the more advanced places of human settlement, with their social complexity and complex sociability, places of civility and civilisation, of human refinement and improvement.
Yet Prime Minister Badawi's ungrounded assurance is simply that Islam Hadhari means a "civilisational Islam" that seeks to engage with and encourage progress. Beyond this vague assertion what more might the term imply? That, more than just a religion, Islam is also a civilisation whose evolution has to be understood in broad human scope, as well as the specifically religious terms of which the old religious elites are expert custodians. That the history of Islamic peoples, societies and cultures has been pervasively shaped by the Islamic faith; and also that the development of the Islamic religion - including the doctrinal faith and law and piety of living Muslims over the centuries - has been shaped by the worldly career of the Islamic cultures and civilisation that have been its vehicle. That the faith that was vouchsafed to the Prophet Muhammad by Allah is, for all Muslims of good faith, divine; but that everything that was subsequently made of that revelation by human beings - the faith's career in the world - is a "human construct", not itself divine or sacred, and that, wholly made by humans, it may and forever needs to be remade by humans, as times change and human capacities evolve. That Islam remains "a work in progress" - not in the sense that a known and pre-existing, even foreordained, agenda remains to be completed under backward-looking clerical supervision but because next week's agenda will only be identified and discerned between now and then, shaped within informed human understanding. Such an "unpacking" of the term Islam Hadhari might provide the basis for, and so both unleash and give legitimacy to, a genuine modernist Islamic sensibility and politics. But this has not been attempted, not even this possibility has been officially glimpsed, in Malaysia.
Instead of original creative thought in authentic, historically informed Islamic terms, all that is offered substantively is "ten key values" of the utmost blandness, generality and unexceptional conventionality. Ten years ago people were obsessed with defining "Asian Values", now people want to specify "Australian values", and in Islam Hadhari we see the latest phase of an intellectually banal preoccupation with "Islamic values". All this talk about "values" is the expression of a crippled, even defunct, sociology that is intellectually vacuous; it is circular, since it explains social reality in terms of supposedly determining values that are simply "shorthand" summaries of the realities that they are invoked to explain. It is also politically impotent. As current Malaysian experience shows, this approach cannot generate a new Islamic sensibility, an effective human agenda, an authentic and plausible politics.
Islam Hadhari remains a failed challenge and a lost opportunity. Yet it is only in such a genuinely civilisational understanding of Islam and the full implications of what Islam Hadhari might imply that the political impetus might be found to counter the ambitions of the encircling authoritarian Islamists. Can Prime Minister Badawi and the UMNO generally yet grasp this essential key to their own survival? Perhaps it is not too late.
WATCHPOINT: As national elections approach, keep a close eye on how, and how assertively, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi positions himself in relation to Malay-Muslim issues and interests, especially pro-Malay affirmative action, modernist understandings of Islam, and towards conciliation and accommodation of non-Muslim interfaith concerns.