The Islamisation of Malaysia: religious nationalism in the service of ethnonationalism

Michael Barr, Anantha Raman Govindasamy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


The relationship between religious, ethnic and national identities in Malaysia has long been fraught with uncomfortable tensions-especially for the 50 percent of Malaysians who are outside the dominant Malay-Muslim communal grouping. Until the accession of Dr Mahathir to the prime ministership at the beginning of the 1980s, it was clear that ethnic identity trumped religious identity, even though being Muslim was already intrinsic to being accepted as Malay. Being a non-Malay Malaysian was to accept a subordinate, but not a drastically uncomfortable role in the nation. Since the 1980s, however, religious identity appears to have replaced ethnicity as the central element of nation identity as the society has been systematically-even aggressively-Islamised. Yet appearances can be deceiving, and there is a strong case to be made that Islamisation in Malaysia is basically a variation of the original Malay ethnonationalism, using the nearly complete symbiosis between Malay and Muslim identity as the point of articulation that allows religious nationalism to serve as a cipher for ethnonationalism-but a version of ethnonationalism that is much less accommodating of minorities than was traditional Malay nationalism. This article places contemporary events in a historical context and then focuses on just one aspect of Malaysia's program of Islamisation that is both contemporary and central to national identity-developments in the education system, and particularly within the secondary school history curriculum-to demonstrate that in this instance at least, religious nationalism is operating as a surrogate for ethnic nationalism and has, in fact, intensified ethnic nationalism by raising the stakes for the communities that are outside the core national group.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-311
Number of pages19
JournalAustralian Journal of International Affairs
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2010


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