The Kelantan government’s decision to declare Kota Bahru an Islamic city should be an interesting occasion for anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, educationists, and scholars in general to study it academically. It should work well for comparativists in political theory to see which one works best - Islam Hadhari or Daulah Islamiah.
Scholars interested in studying what I would call the dimension of “inscription, installation, implementation, and institutionalisation” of an idea may wish to ask the following questions. What is the geneology of the idea? What is Kota Bahru’s distinct brand of utopianism? What is its fundamental character as an Islamic city? What sets it ideologically apart from cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, or even New York City, the Vatican, Brasilia, Beijing, or the newly-built Ave Marie (Naples, Florida, USA)?
Will Kota Bahru be a showcase and proof of the concept of an Islamic utopianism that exists and flourishes amidst the morally and economically-decaying city of Kuala Lumpur? What might be the nature of the base and superstructure of this Islamic city? How will the concept of work and play be different than in other cities and how effective will it exemplify an experiment in reversing ‘alienation’ of Man from its Labour? If Kuala Lumpur and other major Malaysian cities are struggling with the ‘the culture of the human rat race’, how will Kota Bahru show that it is not going to be spiraling into that cultural sphere?
Will it develop into a Kelantanese Multimedia Super Corridor? If Cyberjaya is a showcase of international corporate domination of the Malaysian multimedia industry, how will the Islamic city show the opposite? If the city of Cyberjaya and Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor have an international advisory panel of global corporate raiders and cut-throat competitors, who are the advisors of this new Islamic city?
Will it need gurus from Silicon Valley and Hollywood to create its own ‘infotainment’ industry? Or will the Tok Guru Nik Abdul Aziz be a good enough advisor to those cottage industries that do not need high-flying geek-speaking international exploiters as advisors? Will Kota Bahru be a showcase ala a ‘city up on the hill’ as the early American puritan leader John Winthrop might call it, where religious ethics will govern every sphere of governance?
Will the city encourage the development of the arts and humanities that actually liberate human beings and promote social progress, and not become one that capitalises on the exploitation of human desire? If Kuala Lumpur strives artistically on Malaysian idols, television stations that sell junk produced by profit-hungry Hollywood-cloned arts industry, will this Islamic city do similarly? Or will it be a showcase of a better ‘culture industry’ - one that puts the human being back to its dignified place through the city’s initiative of a ‘cultural revolution’ of sorts? Will crime rate be the lowest in the nation?
Will this Islamic city be governed in such a way that its citizens will not be tempted to rob, steal, rape, slash, burn, burglarise, or con each other daily as in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Penang, Alor Setar, or even in Kangar, Perlis?
Will the Islamic city be the safest haven in the country as it will be based on such principles of governance that will educate its citizens to prioritize basic needs more than greed? Will the children in this new city be allowed to listen to degenerative music such as Death and Black Metal, gangsta rap, hip hop, or reggaton and dangdut - music that satisfy human being’s lowest instincts and not the higher intelligence?
Will the children of this city be latch-key kids left alone by the working parents who are busy making ends meet in an economic condition that is based on cut-throat competition? In other words, given the nature of the functioning of the family unit, will the children of the citizens of this newly-announced Islamic city be better behaved that many of those in Malaysia’s inner cities such as in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Penang, Ipoh, and Sungai Petani?
Will this Islamic city be environmentally friendly and ecologically secure, unlike the cities of Kuala Lumpur, Shah Alam, Penang, Johor Bahru, or even Melaka? Will its citizens get to breathe fresh air instead of breathing KL or Penang smog? Will Kota Bahru’s governance be characteristic of a strong local government in which, guided by good spiritual principles with minimum corrupt practices, the citizens will know what is good and what is not in the process of development?
Role of anthropologists
Anthropologists from inside and outside the country might be interested in doing a longitudinal study of this city - a study that looks at impact of Humanity and its Environment in this Malaysia’s first Islamic city. The study can best be modeled after ones conducted for example by the Italian sociologist Manuel Castells who looked at the development of technopoles. Anthropologists, especially from the Western world including Australia and New Zealand interested in the development of Islam in Southeast Asia, might benefit from the study of Kota Bahru as a city rooted as an “imagined community”, as Benedict Anderson would say. It is no longer an imagined community for that matter - the spirit of the Constitution of Madinah is made into an installation.
Anthropologists will do well in this area, moving away from the obsession with studying other cultures from the oftentimes truncated view of ‘Orientalism’ shaped by the mind of the Western colonialist. The relationship between anthropology and colonialism has long been known and in the past, offices of the colonisers in London and Leiden have long had patron ‘anthropologists’ who spent their academic life studying ‘natives’, as if the latter were objects to be studied, defying the Heisenberg principle that “objects do behave differently when they are observed”.
Anthropologists from abroad who became ‘experts’ in Malaysian studies including those studying the Islamic societies might have a different agenda when they embark upon life-long studies of these natives. Can a British or a Dutch or even Australian anthropologist be able to fully and meaningfully narrate the essence of the Islamic life of the people of Malaysia? Can they do this without bringing in their colonialist or neo-colonialist agenda into their ‘scholarly’ work that will then be used as ‘intelligence’ to further colonise the natives?
Schemers of the colonial empires and robbers of Asia’s intellectual properties such as Francis Light, Frank Swettenham, JWW Birch, de Josselin de-Jong, and latter-day scholars-in-colonial-boots disguised as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead-inspired anthropologists knew that ‘knowledge is power’. They knew that the ‘knowledge of the natives’ would be useful in designing better versions of colonialism when the business of colonising itself was no longer profitable. Many became agents and apologists to the colonial powers.
Hence we hear manuscripts produced in the colonies being systematically stolen and kept in museums and archives in London and Leiden. In modern times, we have modern centres of the studies of the ‘Orient’ to further sustain the production of bodies of knowledge “about the Orient”. Mental colonisation produces better results than colonisation by brute force. This is the fundamental character of the Dependency syndrome.
Anthropologists can study this Malaysian Islamic city, not necessarily to showcase what is not working in an Islamically-inspired governance of a city, but instead study what is possible as a political philosophy. At a time when Islam is a favourite topic of global misunderstanding, anthropologists must be clear-headed enough to produce narratives and storylines that bring out the best in that culture.
If the Western world is defining Malaysia as Southeast Asia’s “moderate Islamic state”, the Islamic city might hold an answer as to how this principle of ‘moderation” interplays with technology, culture, and consciousness. The ancient Islamic city of Baghdad was a showcase of the most intellectually advanced city in the world, of which the artifacts of learning inspired the European Renaissance and consequently the Enlightenment period. While Europe was caved in the Dark Ages awaiting light at the end of the civilisational tunnel, the Baghdad scientists of the era of Islamic Renaissance were developing the science of optics. That is the science that helped create Freud and Einstein’s reading glasses.
Let the city prove itself
The declaration of Kota Bahru as an Islamic city is also a challenge to the current government to clean up its decaying cities of corruption and abuse of power. The cities of Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Ipoh, Penang, Melaka, Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, and even Alor Setar and Kangar are cities that showcase architectural installations of foreign corporate interests that have successfully work in smart-partnership with local power-elites.
The cultural industrial complexes we see around us are a constant reminder of how neo-colonialism is deeply rooted in the base and superstructure of our society. The Kuala Lumpur City Centre is the best of this symbol of installation of this ideology of neo-colonialism. Perhaps the city of Kota Bahru will be a good anti-thesis to the cities Malaysians have built on the advice of the colonial and post-colonial masters.
To study this imagined community called an ‘Islamic city’, we invite our global and local anthropologists - those who not only know the field but preferably, those who grew up in padi fields.