Just a “Liberal” “Girl”?: The Framing of Nurul Izzah Anwar over “Freedom of Religion” Remarks

Nurul Izzah Anwar comes from a political family. She is the current Vice-President of the Malaysian political party PKR (People’s Justice Party), and is also the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, a former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister who was jailed in 1999 and banned from politics until 2008 for charges of corruption and sodomy (but arguably because he was a prominent critic of the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad). Her mother Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is the President of PKR.

Nurul Izzah is also the current Member of Parliament for the parliamentary constituency of Lembah Pantai. In the last few weeks, she has been facing “heavy fire” from Malaysian Islamic scholars like the mufti of the state of Perak, the chairman of the National Fatwa Council, and the ulama of the largest and most dominant political party since Malaysia’s independence, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).

What did she say that was so offensive to the dominant religio-political powers?

Nurul Izzah Anwar. Via Refsa.org.

In a public forum entitled “Islamic State: Which Version, Whose Responsibility?” which discussed the existence of an Islamic society without an Islamic state, Nurul Izzah was asked whether freedom of religion applies to Malays in Malaysia (the constitution conflates the indigenous ethnic category of “Malay” with Islam, making all Malays automatically Muslim).

In her responses, Nurul Izzah quoted the main speaker of the event, who had cited a verse from Al-Baqarah (2:256). She added that this general Quranic commandment should not apply only to non-Muslims in Malaysia.

“And when you ask me, there is no compulsion in religion, even Dr Farouk quoted that verse in the Quran. How can you ask me or anyone, how can anyone really say, ‘Sorry, this only apply to non-Malays.’ It has to apply equally.”

Reporters and other politicians rapidly implied that her remarks were “dangerous and misleading“, that she trivialised the issue of belief, and that she was in fact showing “support for apostasy” of Muslims, as part of the larger “liberal ideology” of her political party.

A few days later she clarified in a statement that she was referring to the Malaysian state’s enforcement of Islam as the only religion of the Malays, and that while the verse applies to everyone, Muslims fall under shariah laws once they become Muslim. She also reiterated that she supports educational and dakwah programs to strengthen faith in and understanding of Islam.

Throughout this debacle, the infantilisation of Nurul Izzah became clear. The highly-educated 32-year-old woman with a Master’s degree in International Relations was variously described as a “golden girl…in need of help“, who was “rapped” for her remarks” and who ought to have done her “homework” and stop “politicising issues concerning the Islamic faith“.

Another theme that surfaced was the labelling of her political party as being “liberal” and “pluralist”. These labels are used pejoratively in Malaysia’s political context, which aims for a conservative and rigidly Sunni and Shafii Islamic approach to issues — seen as the purest Islam (other Muslim groups like Shias or Ahmadiyyas are rigorously persecuted). Promoting freedom of religion or other “Western-style freedoms” such as accepting LGBT people, which will lead to many problems (duh, obviously!), as argued by the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad:

“If we are free to do this and that, in the end we end up creating films which insult other religions and as a result, fight among ourselves… So don’t end up being too enamoured by Western ideologies. Men can marry men, women can marry women, and the family is destroyed.”

Political parties in Malaysia depend very much on the Malays, who are the majority population, for support. As Malays are overwhelmingly Muslim, Islam is used as a rallying ideology together with the special status of the Malays as the bumiputra (“sons of the soil”) of Malaysia. The conflation of “Malay” and “Muslim” in the constitution creates situations that are absurd, such as a non-Malay convert to Islam being legally regarded as Malay, or impossible, where a Malay apostate would also lose his/her ethnic status (what ethnic group are you then?)

Another rebuttal of Nurul Izzah’s comments by a religious scholar who said that “ignorance was to blame for her statement“, revealing how important the conflation of ethnicity and race is to the existing religio-political structure in Malaysia:

“How can we say religion is free and open, or place Islam on the same level as other religions. If this happens, think of why Islam is enshrined in the constitution and what is the purpose of the Malay rulers.”

Ruling Malay royalty such as sultan or raja still exist in Malaysia although they have limited executive powers. Nevertheless, the common idea is that these rulers traditionally have a mandate to rule by virtue of having lineage from the Prophet Muhammad.

Nurul Izzah’s father, Anwar Ibrahim slammed UMNO’s religious teachers for keeping mum on internal issues of tyranny, graft and corruption. Indeed, what would be the purpose of Malay royal rulers with all their corruption and oppression if they are reduced to merely rulers, without any divine mandate?

As a woman politician, Nurul Izzah is already subject to the kind of infantilising framing that male politicians would hardly be subjected to. However, the descriptions of the events that unfolded after she made her remark on “freedom of religion” show that in Malaysia, it’s more important to not upset the dominant conception of “Islam = Malay”. Not only does questioning the status quo result on personal attacks instead of any “argument based on sound Islamic principles“, it more dangerously questions the legitimacy of the current system of political governance in Malaysia.


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