Alexander Wain

Alexander Wain

Friday, 05 October 2018 09:47

A continuity of prejudice

The wave of populism currently engulfing Europe has seen an exponential rise in the fortunes of the continent’s far-right.

In recent years the neo-fascist Marine le Pen has reached the final round of the French presidential elections; Holland’s rabidly Islamophobic Party of Freedom has become the second largest party in the Dutch parliament; the autocratic and anti-Muslim Viktor Orban continues to govern Hungary; and, the British people have voted to turn their backs on European integration in favour of an isolationist nationalism hostile to outsiders.

Even in Sweden, the traditional bastion of stable democratic rule, the far-right Sweden Democrats have become the third largest party in the Riksdag, denying either of the country’s two major parties a majority for the first time.

Such developments have invited comparisons to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. During that earlier period, populist politicians exploited economic unrest in order to promote their own xenophobic agendas, using valid concerns about falling incomes, rising inflation and declining living standards to rail against supposed “intruders” whom they claim are destroying European society from within.

But while 1930s populism directed its ire against Europe’s Jews, today Muslims have come under attack. This shift largely reflects changing demographics; Muslims now constitute Europe’s principle “stranger” and, therefore, the most obvious target of xenophobia. The accusations directed against them, however, differ little in substance from those encountered by the Jews more than 80 years ago.

In the 1930s, Jews were habitually depicted as parasitic, unscrupulous businessmen who hoarded vast amounts of wealth plundered from their Christian neighbours. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I, German Jews were also accused of actively conspiring against their countrymen so they might profit from the resulting chaos. Most shockingly, rumours abounded of so-called “blood libel”, of Jews kidnapping and murdering Christian children (the most vulnerable members of society) so their blood could be used in Jewish rituals.

Although the specifics of these accusations differ from those now hurled at Muslims, the substance remains the same. Muslims are, therefore, also parasitic because their extreme poverty means they sap the resources of an already overburdened state, pillaging the jobs that rightfully belong to the poorest members of the “indigenous” population. Muslims also represent a danger to European security; any one of them might be a terrorist seeking to attack his adopted country for his own gain. And although not accused of murdering children, the traditional European stereotype of Muslim men as violent and lustful has resurfaced in a new form; across northern England in particular, it is commonly believed that the Quran encourages paedophilia, with gangs of Muslim paedophiles now roaming the streets in search of vulnerable Christian girls.

But if little variation exists between the underlying justifications employed by contemporary far-right politicians seeking the expulsion of Muslims from Europe and Nazis demanding Europe be purged of its “Jewish threat”, in one respect there is a significant difference. Since the horrors of World War II, Europe has enacted strict laws preventing the persecution of religious minorities.

Implemented with the intent of preventing another holocaust, these laws have made it socially and politically unacceptable to target specific religious groups for persecution. This has necessitated an evolution in far-right discourse; to render their message more palatable, the far right have begun to employ a common mantra: Islam is not a religion but an ideology. Islamophobia is therefore presented as a legitimate form of political critique, as the condemnation of a dangerous ideology, rather than as a form of ethnic or religious prejudice. And while religions cannot be banned, ideologies can.

Such intellectual acrobatics have become regrettably commonplace in Europe, even entering the political mainstream. With European media outlets demonstrating themselves all too ready to propagate a negative image of Islam, a dangerous environment of public hostility has emerged in which Muslims could, should history repeat itself, find themselves in a very precarious situation.

The Muslims of Europe must therefore unite to meet this threat. They must demonstrate to their fellow Europeans that, far from a danger, they constitute an enrichment of European culture and identity, a strength that will only benefit the continent in years to come. If Muslims convey this message both quickly and successfully, they may yet reverse the tide of prejudice currently encroaching upon their new homelands.

Alexander Wain, is a specialist in the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and China, is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia. He can be reached via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Published in: New Straits Times, Friday 5 October 2018

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Friday, 06 July 2018 18:47

Is Hang Tuah for real?

A lack of evidence is a perennial problem stalking all those interested in early Malaysian history. Although once home to several prominent pre-modern kingdoms, Malaysia has not preserved the textual resources nor rich archaeological record necessary to produce authoritative history.

A consequence of this is heated debate, most notably concerning the historicity of certain prominent individuals, such as famed Melakan warrior Hang Tuah.

In recent years, several radically opposing views have developed concerning Hang Tuah, from Rohaidah Kamaruddin’s claim to have found confirmation of his existence in Japanese records, to Ahmat Adam’s assertion that Hang Tuah is “a fictional character that existed in the classic texts of Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah only”.

This last, rather controversial, opinion has begun to garner widespread support in Malaysia. It is, therefore, worth examining further; could Hang Tuah really be fictitious?

Our modern image of Hang Tuah derives largely from the late 17th to early 18th century Johor text, Hikayat Hang Tuah. This in turn draws upon Sejarah Melayu, also from Johor, but dated more than half a century earlier, to 1621.

Problematically, Hikayat Hang Tuah shows obvious signs of embellishment and appropriation. For instance, at its heart sits a war between Melaka and Majapahit, caused by Mansur Shah’s marriage to a Pahang princess. Although this conflict is the backdrop to much of the Hang Tuah story, no other early Malay, Javanese, or European source attests to it. Sejarah Melayu, for example, merely claims a young Hang Tuah visited Majapahit in the company of Mansur Shah when the latter married the daughter of the Batara of Majapahit. No war is mentioned. Rather, this Melaka-Majapahit conflict appears to be a cypher for the Johor-Jambi conflict of 1666-1688.

Occurring shortly before Hikayat Hang Tuah was written, this conflict likewise began because of a royal marriage, before proceeding through a similar series of events to those described in Hikayat Hang Tuah.

More particularly, many of the actions attributed to Hang Tuah during this war correspond to events in the life of Abd al-Jamil, the Johor Laksamana who triumphed over Jambi, suggesting that aspects of the latter’s biography have been transposed onto Hang Tuah.

This need not mean, however, that Hang Tuah is merely a fictionalised version of Abd al-Jamil; Hang Tuah’s biography, with its roots in Sejarah Melayu, written long before the Johor-Jambi conflict, extends far beyond any resemblance to Abd al-Jamil.

It is true, however, that all the stories surrounding Hang Tuah, whether in Hikayat Hang Tuah or Sejarah Melayu, seem designed to convey one message: loyalty to the monarch. Could Hang Tuah, therefore, be nothing more than a convenient fiction designed to convey this traditional Malay value?

Several reasons make this unlikely.

First, early Malay writers did not compose purely fictitious narratives. Rather, they merged genuine historical events with myth, co-opting the otherworldly aura of the latter to enhance the status of the former.

Thus, Sejarah Melayu heavily mythologises the origin of Melaka’s ruling house, both to sanctify its sultans and justify their right to rule.

Doing so, however, does not imply those individuals or their dynasty were fictitious; it merely bolstered their legitimacy. By the same token, a mythologised account of Hang Tuah does not mean he was imaginary, only that his biographer wished to enhance his standing.

It should also be borne in mind that early Malay epic biographies centred on a single individual are rare. Aside from Hikayat Hang Tuah, only one comparable example exists from the same period: Hikayat Aceh, an equally mythologised biography of Sultan Iskandar Muda. Since the latter was undoubtedly a real person, no precedent exists for a pre-modern Malay text centred on an entirely imaginary figure, suggesting Hikayat Hang Tuah refers to a real person.

Finally, the Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires (written 1512-1515), generally considered authoritative on Melakan history, refers to only three (unnamed) Melakan Laksamana, one under Mansur Shah and two under Mahmud Shah. Significantly, Sejarah Melayu also identifies just three Melakan Laksamana, reputedly the only three bearers of the title: Hang Tuah under Mansur Shah, followed by Khoja Hussain and Hang Nadim under Mahmud Shah.

According to Sejarah Melayu, Khoja Hussain died after Mahmud Shah’s scandalous marriage to Tun Fatimah, the daughter of his Bendahara, while Hang Nadim survived the Portuguese conquest to command the Johor navy. Pires records precisely the same information about his final two Laksamana, thereby corroborating Sejarah Melayu’s account.

Within that context, the possibility that Pires’s first Laksamana is Hang Tuah must be taken seriously. Moreover, Pires also mentions Mansur Shah’s Treasurer, said to have been a Tamil and the grandfather of the aforementioned Bendahara. According to Sejarah Melayu, the latter was Tun Mutahir, whose grandfather was Tun Ali. This last individual was indeed Mansur Shah’s Treasurer, as well as the son of Tun Rana Wati, daughter of the Tamil merchant Mani Purindan. Again, therefore, the texts confirm each other.

More significantly, however, Sejarah Melayu describes Tun Ali as Hang Tuah’s patron, while Khoja Hussain and Hang Nadim were supposedly his son-in-laws. As we can state with confidence that these three people existed, it is clear that figures from within the broader Hang Tuah tradition are demonstrably verifiable.

Combined with the points discussed above, this dramatically increases the probability that Hang Tuah was also once a real person. 

The writer, a specialist in the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and China, is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.

Published in: New Straits Times, Friday 6 July 2018

Source :



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Thursday, 22 October 2015 17:25

Ḥamza al-Fanṣūrī

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Friday, 19 January 2018 15:06

Israel must respect rights of others

On Dec 6, United States President Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This decision, since rejected by the international community, has caused significant consternation amongst Muslims, for whom Jerusalem (in Arabic al-Quds, ‘The Holy’) was both the first qibla (direction of prayer) and the scene of the mi’raj, or the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent into Heaven.......................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)



Friday, 21 July 2017 14:28

Islam a part of Europe

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Friday, 07 April 2017 10:26

The search for Hang Li Po

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Friday, 11 November 2016 10:00

Islamic world, China share core values

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's recent six-day trip to China revives a long tradition of Malay-Chinese co-operation stretching all the way back to the Malacca sultanate. During the early 15th century, three of Malacca's sultans travelled to China, where they vied with other nations to forge a special relationship with the Middle Kingdom.....................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)