Dr. Frederik Holst
Dr. Frederik Holst
"The ethnic Muslim": Ethnicization of Religious Identities in Malaysia Dr. Frederik Holst (Associate)

Dr. Frederik Holst
Seminar für Südostasien-Studien
Invalidenstr. 118, Raum 102
Tel: +49 (30) 2093-66030
Fax: +49 (30) 2093-202166030

E-Mail: frederik.holst@staff.hu-berlin.de

Processes of ethnicization, defined by Eder et al. as such processes
"through which objective conditions of economic or political
grievances become the basis of political claims justified by reference
to a collective identity" (2002: 17), are a key element of Malaysia's
political and societal systems: Ethnic-based parties have for long
dominated the political agenda and continue to do so until today, but
at the same time, the construction and stabilization of ethnicized
groups and their contestations have been advanced by various actors
and from various directions. Maintaining these processes has been
crucial for the ethnic-based political elites in order to sustain
their positions

Until the 1980s, ethnicized categories of "Malay", "Chinese",
"Indians" or "Others" have been strucutrally defining Malaysia's
society, especially in terms of political and economic participation.
Parties which offered themselves as representatives of ethnicized
group interests have dominated government policies since independence.
This resulted in an environment where political contestations were
framed first and foremost as confrontations between ethnicized groups
which were seen as distinct from each other, but each characterized by
uniform and homogenous interests. The assumed confrontation between
the interests of ethnicized Malays on the one side and the remaining
part of the population on the other side has played a major role in
this context (cf. Weiss 2006).

In recent years, however, and especially since 1998, shifts have
occurred in these processes of identitization: With an increasing
political diversification within the ethnicized groups, the stability
of ethnicized party boundaries has become shaky. The elections of 1998
and 2008 have shown that large portions of the electorate no longer
see ethnicized group interests as the main point of reference. By
drawing from a broader spectrum of political demands, spaces for new
alliances beyond ethnicized group boundaries have opened up (cf. Wong
However, in conjunction with this challenge to the established
political system, developments can be identified where the dichotomy
"Malay" vs. "Non-Malay" has been extended or shifted respectively to
one of "Muslims" vs. "Non-Muslims" and a more and more frequent
interchangeable use of "Malay" and "Muslim" and vice versa.

The established (semi-)authoritarian system would be a major
beneficiary of such a process because the existing - especially
ideological - structures would remain intact if the identity category
"Muslim" would be construed as homogenous and static as the category
"Malay". For the major ethnic-based political actors, such a
development would be essential for their political survival, as in the
aftermath of the 2008 elections, ethnic-based parties have already
shown signs of desintegration due to their lack of coherence in a
quickly changing political environment.

With a multi-disciplinary approach in the context of area studies,
this complex configuration shall be analyzed under several aspects.
Primary research questions deal with the genesis, the respective
actors and the discursive development of this new direction of
ethnicization and identitization in Malaysia. Especially the
entanglements and cross-references between ethnic- and religious-based
identity ascriptions which are pushed forward by various actors
(parties and state-religious institutions but also civil society
groups) are focal points of this research project. Connecting to
preceding research (Holst 2012), these processes are not merely seen
as developing in a top-down direction but shall rather be examined on
several layers, the manifestations, the implementations and the
impacts of ethnicization.

Quoted references:

Eder, Klaus, et al. (2002): "Collective Identities in Action - A
Sociological Approach", Ashgate, Aldershot.
Holst, Frederik (2012): "Ethnicization and Identity Construction in
Malaysia", Routledge, London.
Weiss, Meredith L. (2006): "Protest and possibilities - Civil society
and coalitions for political change in Malaysia", Stanford University
Press, Stanford.
James Chin and Wong Chin Huat (2008): "Malaysia's Electoral Upheaval",
Journal of Democracy 20(3): 71-85.