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The rising sun and the crescent

Millennium markers - Japanese Occupation

THE view that Japan between 1942 to 1945 did not have a policy towards Islam but instead only towards Malay-Muslims has remained influential in Malaysian historiography. This was first proposed by Japanese scholars in the early 1960s.

The view is not surprising as available Japanese documentary evidence lends it much credence. Besides, it is also fashionable for Japanese scholars, such as Profesor Itagaki Yoichi, to separate ``Islam'' from ``Malay-Muslim'' whereas in Malaysia, such a separation was never made in the first place.

Japanese documents, either issued in Tokyo or occupied Malaya, formed the basis of Japan's policy towards Islam and the Malay-Muslims. These policies never touched on the basic precepts of Islam and there is no evidence of Japanese efforts to temper with the religion.

In reality, such an attempt would be politically and militarily untenable in Malaya where Malay-Muslims formed a significant portion of the local population.

It is quite clear that the major thrust of these policies was on the Malay-Muslims, in particular the Malay sultans who were the head of Islam in their respective states.

Thus, some of these policies spelt out the need to accord respect to the sultans vis-a vis Islam and indigenous customs because in the official mind, such actions would contribute to stabilise any public animosities towards the occupying army and induce the local population to co-operate with Japan.

Another policy, issued in Malaya by the 25th Army in Feb 1942, stated that sultans who did not resist the Japanese be allowed ``to maintain their political and social status under the supervision of Japanese advisors, while their police powers were to be exercised in co-operation with Japanese law enforcement''.

The same policy also reaffirmed the policy of non-interference in Islam and Malay customs which basically echoed an earlier policy guideline issued in Tokyo in late 1941.

Quite often, the available studies gave much prominence to the policies of the Malayan Military Administration (MMA) that were favourable towards Islam or Malay Muslims. These include:

 Giving respect to the month of Ramadhan by allowing Malay-Muslims in government service to end their working day two hours earlier, to allow them holidays to celebrate Aidilfitri and Aidiladha as well as the advance payment of one month's salary to enable them adequate preparations for these celebrations.

 Attendance of Japanese officials in the mosques during religious celebrations.

 Allowing sultans to appoint religious officers such as kadi and the resumption of Quran classes in religious schools.

 The holding of two conferences relating to Islam.

In reality, Japanese officers quite often paid scant regard to the official policy in their dealings with the ``natives'', including sultans. In this respect, Professor Akashi Yoji's appraisal of Japanese policy during this period is much nearer to the real situation.

These officials, many of whom were seasoned China hands, had undertaken various punitive measures towards sultans. This included adjusting their monthly stipends and using outright threats, coercion and re-education to capture their unflinching attention to the Japanese war efforts.

There was even a grand design to make them surrender their titles, lands and subjects to the Japanese emperor. This was to be followed by a request that they exhibit evidence of loyalty as imperial subjects themselves.

There were sultans who were dissatisfied with what they perceived as Japanese interference or the lack of interest in Islamic matters, in particular the sultans of Pahang, Perak and Selangor. The Perak sultan, for instance, was unhappy with the MMA usurpation of his prerogatives to appoint kadis in the state.

Being a member of the MMA's Research Section, Itagaki might have been aware of the reactions of local religious elites towards the various measures undertaken by the MMA although the Japanese documents did not say much on the matter. Local archival documents located in Kuala Lumpur and Johore Bharu provide a picture of official manipulation in the use of Islam, religious elites and mosques as part of Japan's propaganda efforts to win the support of Malay Muslims at a desperate time for the Japanese army.

At times, one gets the impression that Malay-Muslim elites were aware of such manipulation, but were unable or unwilling to resist Japanese overtures which were very persuasive.

The local documentary evidence also indicates glaring flaws in the implementation of the official policies towards Islam and Malay-Muslims. As mentioned earlier, I do not separate ``Islam'' from ``Malay-Muslims'', as anything done to one would have a considerable impact on the other.

I also believe in the necessity of including the actions of Japanese imperial functionaries in implementing or altering the official policies in any discussion on Japanese policies towards Islam or the Malay-Muslims. Quite often the official manipulation of Islam and religious elites was done by Japanese who were known for their sympathy towards this religion and the believers.

To highlight the whole argument I will refer to the 1943 and 1944 conferences on Islam and the Japanese attempts to use the mosques and mosque officials for propaganda purposes.

The 1943 conference, held in Singapore between April 4 to 5, was attended by 91 religious and traditional elites from Sumatra, Malaya and Singapore, besides scores of Japanese officers from the MMA. Available documents provide interesting details on this conference, the first of its kind to be held in colonial Malaya.

These documents show the MMA attempts to use Islam as a political weapon against Britain, the Netherlands and the United States. Through this conference, Japan sought to win the support of the Malay Muslims by claiming herself to be the protector of the faith, Malay-Muslims and guaranteeing the future of Islam. Delegates willingly accepted these claims and praised the MMA for what they had done with regard to Islam.

On behalf of fellow Malay-Muslims, the conservative delegates reaffirmed their support for Japan and subsequently pledged increased co-operation to the existing war efforts then derailed by heightened Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) activities.

Delegates were asked to explain to other Malay-Muslims ``the pure intention of Japan'', which they duly carried out. Both religious and secular elites were involved in this matter.

In Johore for instance, the state's religious bureaucracy organised a meeting of kadis between April 10 to 11, 1943, in which they were briefed on what had transpired in Singapore earlier. This meeting also discussed ways and means to disseminate what had been agreed upon at the Singapore conference to the Malay grass roots.

Soon after we have kadis going on lecture to urs of mosques in their districts such as that undertaken by the Segamat kadi between May 7 and July 31 when he visited 22 mosques in the district just to brief the grass roots on the Singapore conference.

In Pahang, documentary evidence shows that district officers and penghulus played a similar role: that of informing the Malay masses on what had taken place at the Singapore conference.

The 1944 conference was held at Kuala Kangsar between Dec 13 to 15 and attended by representatives from the Straits Settlements and Malay states except Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. Some scholars viewed this conference as part of the Japanese efforts to solve some vexing issues affecting the Malay-Muslims at that time.

Available documentary evidence indicates a systematic effort by the MMA to manipulate Islam for propaganda purposes. The evidence also shows the MMA using the conference as leverage to solicit unflinching commitment from religious and traditional elites, and by extension, the ordinary Malay Muslims to the Japanese war efforts.

In all fairness, the 1944 conference did discuss various issues affecting the Malay Muslims, issues that were deemed acceptable to the MMA. These include allowing Muslims in the army and police to fast during Ramadhan and permission to conduct religious classes.

We do not know how far the resolutions of this conference were accepted by the MMA although the Islamic Councils in the states became much more energetic in enforcing various provisions of the pre-war Islamic enactments.

There was also less mention of Japanese interference in religious matters although as late as July 1945, Japanese officers were still invited to the sittings of the Pahang Religious Council.

Unfortunately, the available records do not provide any details as to what the officers were doing in these meetings.

One significant consequence of the 1944 conference is the formal alignment of religious elites to the Japanese war efforts. They promised to urge fellow Malay-Muslims to be more active to the Japanese cause. In other words, the 1944 conference solemnised the involvement of religion, religious elites and the believers in the Japanese war despite their not having any vested interests in its outcome.

For the first time, religious elites began to accept the war as a holy war (jihad) ``to liberate Muslims and the holy land from the tyrannical Anglo-Saxon yoke''. Japanese officials also tried to force on these elites the view that ``Japan's present effort to save the world'' is similar to the jihad undertaken by Prophet Muhammad during the early spread of Islam in the Arabian peninsula.

From the available evidence, this was accepted by the religious elites without much fuss.

The use or misuse of mosques was nothing new as these had occurred earlier in Bentong, Sungai Petani, Kluang and Penang Island. In early 1942, the crude manner the mosques were being misused drew strong protests from locals who were brave enough to do so.

As late as May 1943, mosque officials in Johore had petitioned the governor's office requesting posters written in Japanese requiring soldiers to respect the sanctity of mosques in the state. At other times, mosque officials were asked to impart official messages, such as the need to increase food production or to conduct special prayers for a speedy end to the war and with the Japanese as victors.

Much more alarming was the use of the khutbahs (Friday sermons) which were prepared by the state's religious bureaucracy with inputs from the MMA. Malay-Muslims were not used to political khutbahs delivered from the pulpits, more so if these harped on the existing war that was of no consequence to them.

Earlier, such political speeches at the mosques were delivered by Japanese governors who invited themselves to such auspicious occasions as Aidilfitri. These speeches would touch on the need for Malays ``to change their old ways and to make sacrifices in rebuilding Malaya within the Co-prosperity Sphere''.

If such political speeches sounded strange to the ear of the average Malay-Muslims, the imams would have to play their part.

In conclusion, local documentary evidence indicates official manipulation of Islam, religious elites and the use of mosques as part of a systematic Japanese effort to win a war which had no relevance to the Malay-Muslims in the first place.

As a result of ingenious deception, religious elites quite willingly acceded to their new role as Japan's invaluable spokesmen regarding the ongoing war. These were not shown in the Japanese documents although the local documents tell us much more on the actions of Japanese imperial functionaries.

Thus, from the perspective of local documentary evidence, the much-quoted assertion that Japan was pro-Islam and pro-Malay-Muslims is no longer tenable.

Notes: STF-In this fourth part of the series marking the Japanese surrender this month in 1945, Dr ABU TALIB AHMAD looks at Japanese policy towards Islam during the Occupation of Malaya.

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