Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia by Joseph Chinyong Liow (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. hbk. 282 pages)

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Francis Robinson



For much of the twentieth century, race and ethnicity formed the basis of
Malaysian politics and, therefore, dominated its discourse. This book explores
how over the past thirty years the politics of Malaysia, which was
only approximately 60 percent Muslim, moved strongly in an Islamist direction,
indeed, “how Islam—in particular its ideological and institutional
expressions—informs the configuration of power, the nature of legitimacy,
and the sources of authority in Malaysian politics and society today” (xii).
To do so, Liow first examines the genesis of the Islamist agenda from the
perspective of the two major political parties—the Islamist opposition
Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) and the dominant United Malay National
Organisation (UMNO)—showing how the latter went through several
changes as it evolved to place Islamism at the center of its sociopolitical
agenda. He then proceeds to show how the UMNO-led government of Malaysia began to create institutions of Islamic governance, a process he
terms the “bureaucratization” of Islam, which formed the basis for Prime
Minister Mahathir’s claim in the 1990s that Malaysia, constitutionally a
secular state, was an Islamic state. As he does so, he notes the tensions that
these developments caused between the federal and state administration on
the one hand and civil and religious law on the other. Liow moves on to
explore the debate from the 1990s between PAS and UMNO, and within
PAS itself, on how Islam might be expressed as the organizing principle
for society and politics in a religiously plural Malaysia and how the non-
Muslim communities responded to the parties’ endeavors ...

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