Michael Vatikiotis: Of Islam and pop idols

By Michael Vatikiotis  (From International Herald Tribune of Friday, October 7, 2005)

KOTA BHARU, Malaysia The Oct. 1 bomb attack on tourists in Bali has justifiably revived concerns about trends in Muslim society in Southeast Asia. Commonly accepted assumptions about the moderate nature of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia are being challenged by the persistence of terrorist attacks and now the deployment of suicide bombers.
But does the anger driving young men to blow themselves up in crowded restaurants come solely from the complex phenomenon of growing religiosity?
The day the bombs went off in Bali, the capital of the Malaysian state of Kelantan declared itself an Islamic city with a fanfare that many people found very surprising.
There was no declaration of jihad, no long speeches haranguing the Great Satan. Instead, to make this event relevant, especially to young people, the state government in Kelantan, which has been governed by the Malaysian Islamic Party for more than a dozen years, hosted a pop concert and a fashion show.
It was a unique and confusing situation for anyone who thinks of Islam as an incubator of anger and hatred aimed at the West. Kelantan's revered chief minister, Nik Aziz, is an elderly man who wears a loose robe, a turban and shuns modern luxuries. Over the past decade or so of his rule in this Eastern Malaysian state, he has tried to impose Islamic laws that call for stoning and amputations and separate the sexes at supermarket checkout lines. Kota Bharu, the state capital, has no bars serving alcohol and at public events men and women are separated.
Yet here he was presiding over a concert given by Malaysia's wildly popular pop idol, a diminutive Malay boy who goes by the name of Mawi.
Mawi is a product of Malaysia's booming reality television industry, an extension of Western entertainment culture that many religious scholars in Kelantan were quick to frown upon. But the muttering mullahs were silenced by the need for Malaysia's Islamic Party to recognize an inescapable fact: Conservative Islamic rhetoric is a turn-off for the young.
Stroll through Kota Bharu's vibrant night bazaar and the call to prayer of the muezzin is drowned out by booming rock music. The fast food outlets are full and, try as the authorities might, boys will talk to girls. Young people just aren't buying the vision of a throwback to Arabia in the seventh century. In the general election last year, the Islamic Party only narrowly won the state - and most young people voted against it.
The Islamic Party knows this and is adapting fast. More progressive leaders have assumed senior positions in the party, and there are plans for activities and policies aimed at attracting the youth vote. The Mawi concert, which drew a crowd of more than 40,000 on the first night, was complemented by a fashion show in Kota Bharu where designers paraded models wearing stylish but conservative gowns that included head scarves - although make-up was allowed.
Of course, there are those who worry that this process of adaptation is dangerous, and that people are being lured over to the religious right using popular culture in an Islamic garb. Critics anticipate that the Kelantan state government will use the Islamic City label to progressively clamp down on anything deemed un-Islamic.
But so far the only effect has been to push the United Malays National Organization, the national governing party, which presents a secular image, into matching Mawi fever with an Islamic forum where leading Muslim scholars were invited to slam the state government's temerity to allow pop music to be performed.
This tells us something else about Malaysia's own brand of Islamic politics: It is sometimes more about the competition for power than the quest for souls. So long as the Islamic Party and UMNO continue to slug it out at the ballot box, there will be overt displays of piety in politics.
Does this provide the tiny group of international terrorists bent on sowing chaos in the world with potential recruits? Yes, it does. Nik Aziz has seen his own son detained for alleged involvement in a radical Islamic group. But then the militants are also finding recruits, perhaps more readily, in Muslim communities in Britain, France and Germany, where Muslims feel marginalized and alienated rather than part of a culture they can relate to.