The finding should worry a lot of people in Malaysia. Of Muslim youths aged 15 – 25, “More than 70% — among them slightly more males than females — want the Quran to replace the Federal Constitution of Malaysia,” said the survey report recently published on the website of Merdeka Centre, an opinion survey organisation.
Yet, the same report noted that few Muslim youths read the Quran often or understand it well. That being the case, the desire for the Quran to replace the existing constitution seems to signal less any true understanding of Islamic concepts of governance and jurisprudence, but more a frustration with and loss of confidence in the constitution.
Here’s what the report said about familiarity with the Quran:
Just 18.1% read the Quran often, 8.6% never do so and the rest of them read it sometimes. Their low understanding of the Quranic verses could be a factor for the rather low reading rate which necessitates the knowledge of Arabic, which is taught at rather low proficiency levels in High School. Only 0.9% of youths understand all the verses and 11.7% understand most of them, while the vast majority (78.4%) understand rather little. Age makes little difference to their ability to understand the Quran. Rural youths appear to experience more difficulties than urban youths.
— Muslim Youth Survey 2011 Malaysia and Indonesia
As most of us know, Malaysian politics is becoming increasingly tumultuous. Perhaps a large number of Malaysians feel disenfranchised by the rigidities of the political system, or the favouritism often alleged of the incumbent political elite. It’s a small step from there to believing that even the constitution is failing to protect the interests of the small guy, in which case one might as well chuck the constitution out.
Throwing out a constitution is an extremely destabilising move, for then a country is left with no referees nor any agreed rules of the political game. A no-holds-barred contest easily surfaces. Replacing a constitution with a religious text when a large minority of Malaysians do not subscribe to that religion is a sure-fire way of provoking unrest. Reasonable-minded people will say this is so stupid it is virtually unimaginable. Maybe so. But if a significant number of Malaysians begin to seriously push for it, the attempt alone can be destabilising. Thus, this is trend worth following closely.
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Two German institutions were behind the survey, which was conducted in Malaysia and Indonesia. They were the Goethe Institute and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. In Malaysia, Merdeka Centre partnered the German organisations; in Indonesia, Lembaga Survei Indonesia did likewise.
The study was conducted in both countries in October and in November 2010. In Malaysia, 1,060 people were surveyed; in Indonesia, 1,496. Surveys were conducted by trained interviewers, whose face-to-face conversations with each respondent took more than an hour.
While the two surveys were similar, they were not identical. It appears to me that some questions were phrased differently or had a different matrix of available answers. More crucially, nothing indicates that the “should the constitution be replaced by the Quran?” question was even asked in Indonesia, so we do not have a comparable figure from there.
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Digressing somewhat, readers might want to check out this report on BBC. Tajiks set ‘too-young-to-pray’ law at local mosque is a video story, dated 12 July 2011, about how the government of Tajikistan wants to ban anyone under 18 from mosques. Why? you might ask. BBC doesn’t quite say so, but I think it has something to do with the fear that the youth might be influenced by extremist preachers.
Somehow, I fear the Tajikistani government is missing the point. The more important thing to do is to ensure that the political order as exists delivers justice in all its forms (social, economic, criminal, etc) and satisfies the aspirations of the people. Only then can one be sure that there is no urge to look for alternative answers. If the current model works well, there is no need to fear competing ideologies.
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Yet, even as we argue that people look to the Quran merely because it is the most-readily known alternative in the light of the perceived failures of the current constitutional order, identification with Islam has deep roots.
As the above graph shows, nearly 80 percent of survey respondents identify as Muslims rather than as Malaysians. Their religious identity trumps their national identity.
It’s the same in Indonesia where 98.8 percent too disagreed (including those who strongly disagreed).
In both countries, gay equality is a long way away.
On pre-marital sex, about as overwhelming a majority in each country disagreed or strongly disagreed with it. The results were similar to that for the gay question.
However, in some other ways, Malaysia and Indonesia showed differences. More than two-thirds (69.3 percent) of Malaysian Muslim youths felt that headscarves were compulsory in Islam. Only 38.1 percent of their Indonesian counterparts felt that way. 14.7 percent of Malaysian participants said it was a matter up to the woman to decide; rather more (20.8 percent) of their Indonesian counterparts thought likewise.
That said, a closer look at the Indonesian data may suggest that other “excuses” for the headscarf were also in play. Perhaps they may not reflect a staunch Muslim view, but they do reflect a patriarchal one (e.g. that headscarves are more attractive, that they “raise the status of women” and “protect women from men’s glares).
Striking differences between the two countries can also be seen in their views of hudud laws. Muslim Malaysian youths favour them more than Muslim Indonesian youths.
The survey suggests that Muslim youths in Malaysia are more conservative than in Indonesia, and that in Malaysia they look more to Islamic law too. It also means that although sensational news reports emerge regularly from Indonesia of mobs going on rampage enforcing Islamic norms or attacking other religions, it is in Malaysia where there is a yearning for Islam to replace secular constitutional arrangements. If this is a recipe for political instability, then we should be watching northwards rather than southwards.
(All four charts were imaged from Merdeka Centre’s report.)