Capturing the state: contrasting cases of state-official ulama relations in post-authoritarian Indonesia and Malaysia

Event details

PSC Seminar

Date & time

Tuesday 12 November 2013


PSC Reading Room, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU
ANU Canberra


Norshahril Saat


Allison Ley
+61 2 612 53097

Two conclusions are made by studies on the religious and political behaviour of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) and Malaysian muftis (both defined as the €˜official' ulama). One, they are becoming more conservative and fundamentalist compared to the past (Crouch 2010; Ichwan 2013; Olle 2009). Two, they were co-opted by the state during the authoritarian rules of Suharto and Mahathir (Atho Mudzar 1993; Camroax 1996; Rais 1995), but have been more assertive and powerful vis-à-vis their respective states in the competitive political environments today (Hosen 2004; Ichwan 2005; Syafiq 2011). Has democratisation altered the balance of power between the official ulama and their respective states in favour of the former? By deploying the concept of state capture, this presentation demonstrates how the official ulama resisted state co-optation in four ways: swaying public policy in their favour; influencing the appointment of state personnel; enhancing their authority to make religious, social, and political pronouncements that affect policies in those areas; and accessing material and other resources that help them achieve other goals. I argue that the Malaysian muftis have been more successful in capturing the state compared to the MUI, despite the absence of regime change in Malaysia. Clear institutional and legal demarcations of authority, ideological homogeneity, and collective responsibility and elite cohesion facilitated the capture of the state by the Malaysian muftis. Being the self-proclaimed defenders of Islam, Malay supremacy and Malay royalty, which parallels the ideology of the ruling party UMNO, largely eased the Malaysian muftis's capture of the state. The absence of these factors in the MUI- a reflection of its organisational fragmentation- impeded its capture of the state as manifested in its unsuccessful bid to monopolise the sharia economy, halal-certification, and exclusive authority to define €˜deviants'. However, MUI's persistence in lobbying for an alternative Islamic order, through promoting programmes such as sharia tourism, sharia cinema, and sharia entertainment, demonstrates a capture in progress, rather than a failed capture.

About the Speaker - Norshahril is PhD Candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change, School of International Political, and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University (ANU). He is a recipient of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) Post-graduate Scholarship 2011. A graduate of National University of Singapore (NUS), he was also a recipient of the prestigious Tun Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan MA scholarship from Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and also the National University of Singapore MA scholarship in 2008. His research interest is mainly on Southeast Asian politics and contemporary Islamic thought. His articles have recently been published in journals Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life and the Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs.

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