Youth culture & Islamic intelligentsia: Ignoring the popular cultural discourse

Developing Just Leadership

Farish A. Noor

Dhu al-Qa'dah 12, 1416 1996-04-01

South-East Asia

by Farish A. Noor (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)

The denim-clad host of the music programme on the Metrovision channel looks like any other presenter on MTV. Her youthful good looks and her affected American accent make her identity seem truly universal but also bland and indistinguishable. She is part and parcel of the youth culture that is rapidly emerging in Malaysia today, and perhaps this smiling sentinel of the television screen is a herald of times to come. For Malaysia, it seems, is changing.

The changes in Malaysia have been acknowledged by its admirers and critics alike. Two decades of uninterrupted economic growth and political stability have managed to guarantee nearly-full employment and a constant rise in living standards for the population. The volume of consumption within Malaysia alone should deter even the gloomiest of sceptics, for here we see that the universal right to consume is protected most zealously. For the economic prosperity of Malaysia has partly been based upon this as well: the right to buy your own CD player, latest TV and Video entertainment system, and soon, private TV cable-channels as well. Therefore, as far as these economic and cultural rights are concerned, Malaysia can be said to have done no wrong whatsoever; on the contrary, her record has been one of successive achievements.

But while the elite and intelligentsia in this officially Islamic country are busy singing the praises to their careful and adept management of its economy, it is in another area altogether, that of her cultural and political identity, that Malaysia’s record seems to have been left unscrutinized.

The Imams and ‘Ulama speaking in the mosques every Friday may remind the Malaysians that they ought to be thankful of the peaceful development of their nation, but somehow the nature and content of this development is left undiscussed. Development there has indeed been in Malaysia, but for many in the metropolitan city centres such development has made its impact most visibly in the proliferation of karaoke bars and fast-food restaurants. The growth of Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonalds outlets are perhaps the most visible indicators of Malaysia’s transition towards mainstream global consumerist culture. That such consumerist culture has managed to penetrate every level of society is seen when we visit Kota Baru, the capital of the state of Kelantan (in the hands of the Islamic opposition party, PAS) where we can find a MacDonalds outlet smack in the middle of the town, a lonely outpost of capitalist consumerism in the heart of the Malay-Islamic periphery.

The rise of this consumerist culture would not have been possible had it not been for the loyal support of Malaysia’s youth, for it is they who are both the patrons and targets of this youth-oriented consumerism. The ever-increasing numbers of urban and suburban youths who flock to these centres of youth culture, be it in officially-Islamic Kelantan or in the Metropole of Kuala Lumpur itself, are added proof to the claim that such consumerist culture has gained popular foothold on the Malaysian imagination today. For those still in doubt, the government regulated television channel will confirm these observations when it broadcasts its regular karaoke contests to an audience hungry for such insubstantial entertainment.

Some of Malaysia’s leading intellectual figures have pointed out that in countries like Malaysia (like all of the other Asian NICs), we are indeed witnessing development, but not Asian development. In other words, the distinctively Malaysian contribution to this process of development has yet to be seen or felt, with the exception of token and cosmestic measures such as building towering skyscrapers with a traditional Malay fa‡ade on the front. The Islamic impact has been equally cosmetic in some respects, with the obligatory Moorish dome and shades of ‘Islamic’ green paint being favoured for the fa‡ades of new ‘Islamic’ developmental projects.

A curious picture thus emerges, which points to a strange symbiotic relationship between the Islamic elite and intelligentsia on one hand and the forces of foreign capital on the other. For while the Malaysian elite are busy courting capital investment from abroad to help finance and propel its drive towards development, they have actually neglected the spheres of popular culture (in particular youth culture) altogether, perhaps on the assumption that if and when development succeeds, the cultural redefinition of Malaysian society will immediately follow. Their attempts to reach out to the Muslim youth have largely been confined to instances of dogmatic lecturing, where dialogue has been replaced by static monologue and the leaders address their public from a pedagogic height. This has, in fact, only allowed the forces of foreign (mainly Euro-American) capital to intervene and mould the youth of Malaysia today, thanks to the neglect of the Islamic elite themselves.

While the Islamic elite and intelligentsia ponder the weighty questions of Islamic banking and Islamic education (all necessary and laudable projects in themselves), they seem to have abandoned the site of popular cultural discourse and provided no alternative cultural paradigms whatsoever. As a result, the concerns of the youth, and in particular Muslim youth, have been left unaddressed. It is ironic, for example, that for all their scholarly treatises on Law and Education, Politics and History, the Islamic intellectual elite have left other areas such as Human Rights and the Environment, Pop culture and Entertainment unaddressed. Yet these are the areas of concern that the youth themselves are most interested in, as witnessed by their readiness to embrace similar issues and concerns whenever they are brought Up by Western NGOs and the Western media. Thus into the cultural void left behind by the highbrows and doyens of Islamic thought, the disposable, transient and youth-friendly consumer culture promoted by (Western) capitalism has stepped in and found itself a comfortable niche.

Malaysia’s Muslim youth, like youth the world over, are both helplessly mesmerized by the charm of global consumerism as well as woefully inadequate to put up any resistance to it whatsoever. This is a fact which the elite themselves have not stressed upon: that while the youth of Malaysia are the primary consumers of this global youth culture (in the form of its lifestyle, entertainment and culture) they are not its producers. Perhaps it is because the same can be said of the Muslim elite themselves, who frequent the cultural centres of elite consumerist culture such as the golf and polo clubs that have mushroomed all over Malaysia as part of the development.

To break away from this state of dependency upon Western consumerist culture is something that the Islamic youth of Malaysia cannot do by themselves. They lack both the means as well as the resources, and as yet no credible alternatives have been given to them. Against the mighty weight of MTV and MacDonalds, the Islamic elite have only been able to produce endless diatribes about the evils of Western culture and lifestyle without offering something else in its place. With a shudder one is reminded of Francis Fulkuyama’s apocalyptic remark in ‘The End of History’ when he says that ‘the triumph of the West. of the Western Idea, is evident in the total exhaustion of any viable alternatives to (Western) liberalism’. The ‘Ulama continue to praise development while condemning the Western lifestyle it has brought, yet they have themselves been unable to bring about a radical paradigm shift that the youth so badly need at this stage, partly because they have failed to consult the youth themselves in the first place.

Malaysia’s Islamic youth are therefore at the crossroads: While their concerns have been neglected by the Islamic elite and intelligentsia, they are also being courted by the panderings of MTV and the shopping Mall. Where they will turn to next and where they will head into the future largely depends upon whether the Islamic elite are willing and able to listen to them and take their concerns seriously. The cost of the failure to do so may be nothing short of winning the short-term struggle for rapid development while losing the long-term goal of creating a more comprehensively Islamic society for the future.

Let it not be said that one day in the future the eminent Ulama and Doctors of the Islamic universities and think-tanks would wake up and realise that their grand ideological projects were foiled by something as (seemingly) innocuous as the smiling Barbie Doll.

Source: Impact International, London

Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996

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