The Commercialization of Islam in Malaysia (and why it hinders moderation efforts)

First and foremost, I would like to preface this post by clarifying that I am by no means an expert on Islam and that this is an opinion formed based on the years of observation conducted whilst living in Malaysia.

With the negative view of Islam that most of the West tend to hold, it might be difficult for fellow Muslims to procure items which are deemed Islamic or exclusive to Muslims. Such items would usually be halal foodstuffs and head-scarfs which, thanks to the efforts of those who can stand above bigotry, are now rather easy to obtain. However, some countries seek to go beyond. ‘Why stop at labeling food when we can label a lot of other things halal or Islamic?’, was the question that seemed to pop up in the minds of these countries and one example close to home is, well, home; Malaysia.

This phenomenon of what I can only describe as the commercialization of Islam is something that I find to be not only egregious, disgusting and blasphemous but also serves to further divide the already broken-up community of Malaysia. It was only a while ago that a laundromat owner in Johor sparked controversy when he put up a sign stating that the establishment was exclusive to Muslims. While it was quickly resolved by the Sultan of Johor, it is only minor when compared to the scale of this divisive trend currently taking place. To have an idea of how far down the road we have gone, imagine yourself walking in a supermarket 10 years ago.

What do you remember?

There was usually a Giant, Tesco, Econsave or Carrefour there and there would be small shops that sold makeup or traditional medicine while you listened to the broadcasted advertisement about a new brand of milk that was being sold that day. Now, you barely  drive a few kilometres to get to the supermarket and you are already bombarded by big billboards advertising ablution-friendly makeup and a brand of goat’s milk that is apparently great for boosting your child’s intelligence because it contains all of the things the Prophet recommended that we eat (dates, black cumin etc.) Then, you reach the supermarket to commence your task of getting groceries but you cannot seem to escape the blatant marketing targeted specifically towards the Malays. To be more precise, ‘religious’ Malays.

Now, before I continue, I would like to remind you that I myself am a Muslim and I do my best as humanly possible to practice the religion. With that out of the way, what do I mean by ‘religious’ Malays?

For starters, look back to the examples of products that I mentioned earlier. If you take away the fancy descriptive words, they become simple herb-infused goat’s milk and (presumably) water-friendly makeup. That is what I see and that is also how I think most other people see, Muslim or otherwise. However, anyone living in Malaysia would become increasingly aware of the growing sensitivities of what appears to be most of the Malay populace especially in regards to this issue of religion. It is bad enough that the Malaysian community is divided  as is with the racial politicking and the abuse of religion to assert authority but this foul phenomena is splitting up the Malays between the ‘religious’ Malays (those who do everything in their power to let everyone know how pious they are) and the ‘non-religious’ Malays (those who have been living and practicing the religion the same way since the dawn of independence; moderately).  While there are a great number of factors that can be pointed out as a cause for the growing fissure in the Malay community such as the role of PAS in pushing for a more “Islamic” state when really it was more towards Arabisation of the country which led to the alienation of those who wished to practice the religion in their own right, this commercialisation can be said to be one of many nails that are to be driven into the coffin where the concept of a ‘united people’ may rest in along with the body of ethics and morality.

Ethics and morality? Yes, ethics and morality because, as a Muslim and a human being, religion should not be utilised for personal gain. That is one of the core principles of most religions and is almost always the one principle that we are reminded of. Yet, we live in a country where it is perfectly acceptable to sell normal underground water at high prices because it is said to have been exposed to the full 30 chapters of the Quran and for a university to sell an ‘anti-hysteria’ kit filled with everyday items for a whopping RM8750. I cannot make this up if I tried. It does not take a wise cleric to realise that this is a grave abuse of the religion and it unrepentantly tramples over the ethical notion of intentional misinformation and shows in full display the clear cut moral implications of blatant hypocrisy under the guise of ‘promoting Islam’. Clearly, this is definitely not similar to how US televangelists in the 90s and early 2000s would cheat their followers out of their money by claiming this type of useless mundane product will help ‘rid’ them of their sins or heal illnesses. It is obviously not a terrible and horrifying foreshadowing of the possibility of a ‘seed money’ scheme being carried out on Malaysian soil where instead of priests we see the opulent mansions of these ‘Islamic’ preachers embroidered by yachts and luxury cars.

And you want to know the worst part?

The people behind the creation of these products and businesses are clerics. The ones who claim the title of authority over this religion of ours despite the fact that every Malay in school is taught that only God can judge the actions of the creations.

If some people have jobs or make side-incomes from these businesses and products, that is fine because they only wish to make a living. My grievances are towards those that dare to even come up with the idea to turn religion into a business as it makes a mockery of the Prophet’s own frustrations with the way religion was handled in Mecca before he became enlightened. People like them not only insult the collective intelligence of us Malays as consumers but it also encourages the growth of entire generations of people incapable of thinking for themselves. They preach on what is right and wrong but yet their actions behind the stage are sickening. Furthermore, their deeds cause other Malaysians, all the non-Malays, to become wary of their Malay counterparts and vice-versa. I, along with many others, try to spread the message that Islam is a religion that should not be feared but our efforts are crushed to bits when people point to clerics like them. The figure of authority.

Think back to the supermarket example I mentioned earlier again, this time as a non-Malay. Imagine slowly being surrounded by images of encroaching Islamisation in the course of a decade while simultaneously being told by certain politicians that you are a ‘pendatang’ and that you should return to where you belong. You have little to no idea of what Islam is but you are already beginning to fear it. This fear is the message our clerics are promoting.

However, behind every dark cloud there is a silver lining. Some preachers have emerged to condemn this commercialisation of the religion and that more people are beginning to realise this. I have nothing against those who are pious because I believe that the pious would be educated enough to know that they should never participate in such a heinous business to begin with.

I would like to end this by saying that this article, while the opinion of a university student, is something where I would like to believe is my part in helping the country change.

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