Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses delegates of the ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), during the opening ceremony of the annual general assembly at the Putra World Trade Center (PWTC) in Kuala Lumpur on December 5, 2013. The ruling party UMNO's six day general assembly 2013 began with the official opening by the party President Najib Razak. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN / AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN

Basuki Purnama, the incumbent ethnic Chinese governor of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, told voters in September to ignore religious leaders who invoke the Koran to justify the claim that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims. Within days, tens of thousands of protestors rallied against Purnama, calling for him to be sentenced for blasphemy, a criminal offense in the Muslim majority nation. He is now on trial in a case that, depending on the outcome, could define the Muslim majority nation’s secular future.

Purnama’s political opponents have seized on the issue ahead of governorship elections scheduled for February 15. Anies Rasyid Baswedan, a rival candidate for the post and widely deemed a moderate, gave a speech to members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the extreme Islamist group that organized the rallies against Purnama, calling for Purnama’s conviction. Evan Laksmana, an Indonesia analyst with the ‎Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, tweeted a photograph of the rally, asking: “Will this picture be remembered as the day moderates die?”

They are increasingly on the back foot in Muslim majority Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia. Many moderates in Indonesia say that if radicalism is on the rise, it is more the fault of opportunistic politicians than changing currents towards more conservatism in global Islam. A similar trend is on the rise in Malaysia, where 60% of the population is Malay Muslim and the other 40% comprised of Chinese, Indian and other ethnic minority groups.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the long-ruling lead party of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, has always appealed to Islam to score points and win votes vis-a-vis its ethnic minority political rivals. Since the 1980s, Malaysia has seen the rise of Salafism, a conservative, often puritanical, movement within Sunni Islam often associated with religious extremism. Over the years, the sect’s views have become more prominent in mainstream politics.

In 2010, a new generation of Salafi adherents formed the Association of Malaysian Scholars (ILMU) with the aim of upholding Islam and “freeing” Islamic teachings in Malaysia from so-called deviant practices, according to Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, coordinator of the Malaysia Program at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Many of the ulama (Islamic scholars) associated with the Salafi sect have since joined UMNO, providing the party legitimacy among Muslim voters and grounds to compete with the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a more conservative party with a strong following in the Malay rural heartlands. PAS has long campaigned to introduce Sharia law in the northern region it controls.

In May, UMNO supported a PAS-backed bill to introduce hudud, or Islamic criminal codes, in the opposition held state of Kelantan. Political analysts say that UMNO’s support for PAS’s long-desired bill was the main factor behind the opposition coalition’s recent collapse, after its non-Islamic parties opposed the motion. PAS later splintered with a number of its members forming the National Trust Party (PAN), allowing UMNO to win two important by-elections in June. The move has set the stage for a strong UMNO showing at general elections expected in 2018, in spite of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s scandal-plagued term.

Malaysian Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on June 5, 2016. Photo: Aiman Arshad

Indonesian parties who have campaigned on Islamic messages have fared poorly at recent polls. Successive Indonesian governments have angled to position themselves between moderates and conservatives to ensure support from both constituencies. “During the 2000s, the government, especially under the previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, encouraged conservatives and Salafis with both money and political support, while extolling the large mainstream Muslim groups as exemplars of moderate Islam,” wrote Indonesia expert Margaret Scott in a recent essay.

Some wonder, however, if that dynamic will soon change in line with shifting grass roots sentiments towards more conservative Islam. While there is nothing new about Indonesian and Malaysian politicians making Islamic populist appeals to their Muslim-majority constituencies, it is unclear where it may lead each nation’s politics, as both engage in spirited debates about liberal and conservative understandings of Islam and how they should be reflected in law and society.

Academic Nawab, for one, wonders whether with the rise of the Salafist voices in UMNO if Malaysia will one day adopt Salafi Islam as its state ideology, as is the case in more conservative Muslim nations like Pakistan and Sudan. While not clearly imminent, Nawab noted in an essay that “the nexus between UMNO and Salafi ulama will result in the Salafis gaining a larger audience due to the public platforms that UMNO has created for the group.”

Recent research by Indonesia scholars Elizabeth Pisani and Michael Buehler suggests that Indonesian politicians who are motivated mainly be religious ideology are “least influenced by the preference of the electorate”, while those angling to prolong their political careers are more likely to support religious laws that are “popular or even populist.” As mainstream sentiments become more conservative, the populist promises of politicians will likely increasingly reflect these ideologies, including in regard to which laws are passed and rejected.

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