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Islam as a Tool of Modernization

A big worry in Iraq and the wider Middle East is that Islam and modernization are enemies. But Malaysian history over the past three decades shows that this belief is mistaken. In fact, Islamization has proved to be an effective political means of reconciling the majority of Malays to the country’s rapid economic development.

In the early 1970’s, when it was still an overwhelmingly agrarian country and Islamization was just gaining momentum, Malaysia embarked on its so-called “New Economic Policy” (NEP), designed to help the majority Malays gain a bigger share of the country’s wealth. After three decades of spectacular economic growth, many Malays have become prosperous and content not only through secular capitalism, but through the country’s renewed sense of Islamic identity, one which – for the most part – embraced modernization. (Of course, paradoxes appear every now and then, such as when globalization is advocated alongside demands for stronger censorship.)

Islamic-minded politicians such as Anwar Ibrahim gained prominence when Islamization took off in the 1970’s. But the Islam they promoted was not backward looking; instead, it sought to shape a modernizing economic policy that took note of Muslim sensibilities.

Faced with the grassroots popularity of this movement, by 1982 the government of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed decided to co-opt Anwar Ibrahim into his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party within the country’s ruling coalition. The strategy worked well, and helped defuse Islamic opposition to the wrenching changes that accompanied the country’s rapid economic modernization.