Becoming Malay : a sociological examination of religion in Malaysia
Sarah F. Herron
May 9, 2018
Department or Program
This paper explores the macro-level role of religion in Malaysian society with specific references to structural functionalism. The author asserts that religion, namely Islam, is used as a political tool by the majority Malay population to sort people in and out of the majority. Given the correct “key,” or professed religion, the government will grant specific groups political representation and economic assistance, as well as general social acceptance into the dominant population. Individuals who are not Muslim possess the wrong “key,” and therefore face a “closed door” excluding them from many parts of the political, economic, and social spheres. Case studies examining Indian Muslims and aboriginal Orang Asli tribes in Malaysia illustrate the complexity of how religion, and other identities coupled with religious identity, functions in the larger Malaysian society. Additionally, the historical section and analysis of the Constitution provides context for the historically rooted conditions that impact the modern narratives of identity and religion. The larger goal of this work is to problematize the rarely stated, but commonly held assumption that Sociology as a field is rooted in Western intellectual history and therefore, almost by necessity, focuses on the West. Foundational sociological theorists may not provide a wholistic framework for understanding the role of religion in Malaysian society while interdisciplinary sources and new research can. By utilizing a diverse array of research done by anthropologists, Asian studies scholars, political theorists, and religious studies specialists, sociological questions about non-Western cultures can be framed, explored and potentially answered.