What I Learned From ABIM

August 12, 2020



Thursday, 06 Aug 2020
By Nathaniel Tan
TODAY, the sixth of August, is the Muslim Youth Movement Malaysia’s (Abim) 49th anniversary.
In the past year or so, I’ve gotten to know the organisation and its leaders quite well. Long story short, it’s been a fascinating and inspiring journey.
I’ll share three things I’ve learned from Abim for now: successful models of grassroots activism, the ways in which religion can play a positive role in activism and governance, and the value of personal bonds in a movement.
Before I continue, it is very much worth noting that a lot of these qualities and lessons can be found in other similar organisations and movements – be it other religious-based movements like Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia, or secular grassroots movements like Liga Rakyat Demokratik.
I assume none of the rest are celebrating their anniversary today as well, so I hope it’s okay if I focus on the one organisation here.
The initial model that inspired the founding of many movements like Abim is of course that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not without controversy, and the many similar organisations founded across the world share different levels of affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood today.
A defining feature of these movements mirrors the manner in which Islam emphasises being an all-encompassing way of life, in that it is common for these movements to be involved in a wide array of activities.
These include, but are not limited to, the founding of institutions of learning (from preschools to universities), hospitals, charities, social service centres, and so on. (It is worth noting that PAS operates in this manner as well, and in this sense is extremely different from any other political party in Malaysia).
What makes these organisations a little different from many which work in a similar space within civil society is the manner in which they are financially self-sustaining. In this regard, they are perhaps more similar to social enterprises than to “NGOs”, as we commonly understand the term.
I think this is an important and very useful quality, in forming a long term, sustainable movement. It is a completely different model than having to rely on grants, charity, or other types of handouts, and imbues the organisation with a certain degree of pride and dignity that inspires a particular type of confidence amongst its members.
I might summarise my second point in the saying: “You Islam, I okay”.
I believe Islamophobia is a very real thing, especially among non-Muslims (like myself) in Malaysia.
I’m not saying that there aren’t people here and around the world who do try to force their religion on you in insidious ways. It happens with Muslims, just as it happens with Christians and various other religions in pockets all over the world.
That said, I think it is always, always helpful to not paint everyone who shares a label with the same brush.
One of my more profound experiences with Abim was accompanying them in the delivery of some food aid during the movement control order (MCO) period.
This was one of a regular set of engagements that Abim has had with the NGO Pertubuhan Pembangunan Kebajikan dan Persekitaran Positif Malaysia (SEED), which describes itself as the “first trans-led community based organisation in Malaysia”.
SEED has an office in an area of Chow Kit (in Kuala Lumpur) some might describe as seedy, and serves communities like transgenders and “women of socially excluded communities”.
These are not the types of people that you would imagine an Islamist organisation going out of its way to help.
I can personally bear witness to the fact that there was no preaching, no handing out of pamphlets, and no attempting to convert or get people to “repent”. (I imagine there is no way SEED would have let them do that anyway).
There was only the giving out of very large boxes (sponsored by other donors in this case, I believe) of food and supplies – boxes that I was nowhere near strong enough to help carry for the entirety of the time.
I think the experience was just one of many I had that really ran counter to the narrative that all Islamic organisations are the same, that they all want to convert you, and so on.
This was one of many times that I saw a focus on Islamic principles and values, rather than the outward manifestations and trappings. I saw firsthand so many times the emphasis on compassion and aid to all who suffer – not just all who look or talk like them, or shared the same beliefs.
I think religious revivalism is a very real phenomenon – but also not necessarily one that needs to be as polarising as it has been in the past. As what may be a growing number of Malaysians are putting religion in the centre of their lives, it is vital that we continue to build bridges and recognise the common humanity between those who have different views on religion and secularism.
Thus far, I have found the people at Abim to be amazing partners in this endeavour, and I think if you take the time to get to know them yourselves, you are likely to have a similar experience.
I have spent a fair amount of time reflecting on and experiencing firsthand how movements and organisations work.
I confess, I’ve sat through countless meetings where I’m quietly watching mini ego wars and power plays unfold, thinking to myself this group is not really going anywhere – and seeing firsthand how trust deficits really scuttle even the best intentions.
Abim’s leaders are nowhere near perfect. I’m not here to over romanticise them, or paint them as some sort of angels.
But what I have observed is the value of being together, working towards the same goals, for a long time. What I’ve really been moved by is the degree to which their leaders trust each other, and truly see each other as part of a family and community.
This is not something one whips into existence overnight. It is borne from having gone through thick and thin together for years, or sometimes even decades. It creates strong personal bonds, and a feeling that you do this work not just for yourself or for the nation, but for your brothers and sisters as well.
I’ve also reflected on what kind of people are drawn to what type of organisation.

Political parties are often a route to fame and riches. There are no riches, and very little fame, in an organisation like Abim. There is pretty much only work – and a somewhat endless supply of it.
The flip side of that of course, is that it tends to attract a certain type of person – the type of person who is more interested in trying to contribute some good to the world around them, rather than making a quick buck.
As alluded to in my first point, this does not mean they are financially naive. It just means that if huge sums of money are the most important thing in your life, you’d be pretty stupid to devote your time to an organisation like Abim.
As may become more and more evident in the weeks and months ahead, I would rather throw in my lot with such a group, than with anyone say, whose biggest desire is to climb the ranks of the political ladders of patronage.
I would rather lose fighting alongside the right people, than win fighting alongside the wrong ones.
There’s a lot more that could be said, and I’m sure that as an organisation, the leaders of Abim are keenly aware of all the areas they wish they could improve.
But for today, on this 49th anniversary, here’s a quick Happy Anniversary, and #TerimaKasihAbim from me personally, for showing us at least one different way that things can be done.
NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He thinks he can smell what the Rock is cooking, and can be reached at nat@engage.my.” href=”mailto:nat@engage.my.” style=”color: rgb(25, 106, 212);”>nat@engage.my.
N0 6, JALAN TC 24/2