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MPF Merdeka Call

31 August 2016

A Merdeka Call for Muslim religious scholarship and stewardship to righteously and effectively manage contemporary national challenges

Maszlee Malik PhD

Musa Mohd Nordin FRCPCH

Muslim Professionals Forum

 

  1. Introduction

 

The recent past has seen a plethora of incidents, which threatens to fracture the religious harmony that this nation has thus far enjoyed. The infamous “cow-head protest”, in Shah Alam in August 2009, against a proposed Hindu temple, displayed unveiled disrespect towards our Hindu citizens. More recently, cases involving shari’ah courts, consequent upon conversion of either spouse to Islam, battling for custody of their children has soured the relationship between Muslims and believers of other faiths.

 

Public statements and actions by national Muslim leaders and state religious authorities have further exacerbated the fragile religious situation. Unfortunately, the counter reaction by some quarters against these individuals and by extrapolation the religious institutions which  they represent has bordered on Islamophobia.

The emergence of these issues may be piecemeal and coincidental, but the pattern and trending is threatening the very fabric of our mutli-ethnic and multi-religious make-up. Never before has our nation witnessed such an excess of religious and racial strife since the bloody days of 13 May 1969. Many, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, has raised concerns over the apparent trend of majority Muslim Malaysia imposing their religious beliefs on the minority citizens.  There is also serious concerns that this is a purposive “divide and rule” agenda of the current leaders to create fear amongst the Muslim population (siege mentality) of the threat of the “others” and thus its  lackadaisical attitude and action towards these racial and religious incidents, which in some intances even demonstrates its condoning of the situation. Unless this malicious abuse of political and religious authority is checked with an effective and just political and societal governance we are surely on the slippery slope of anarchy.

Performance of the Muslim religious authorities

Constitutionally, religious affair is the purview of the respective states headed by the nine state rulers and the YDP Agong in the other four states  and the Federal Territories. State governments through their religious authorities (Majlis Agama Islam Negeri) oversee Islamic religious activities, and the shari’ah courts.

 

The religious awakening among Muslims in the 1990s has raised their expectations of the state religious authorities and their  management of Muslim affairs. Of late, there has been much discontent among Muslims  of the performance of the state religious authorities in their dispensation of justice and equity as mandated by the shari’ah.

 

The conservatives have chosen to support the religious authorities despite their flaws, which they do as an act of religiosity. Whilst, the liberals have called for the  total abolishment of the religious authorities, including  at the federal level, and rendering religion to the personal domain.

 

We would postulate that the majority of Muslims in  Malaysia are moderate in their views and would thread the middle ground (wasatiyah) in their acceptance of the presence of the religious authorities but are more open to the divergent religious opinions. The Selangor religious authority’s appointment of female shari’ah court judges was overwhelmingly welcomed by many who generally consider the religious authorities as being gender biased. Criticisms of the management of the khalwat issue, child custodianship and  the ineffectiveness of zakat distribution has rhymed very well with these critical Muslim individuals and NGOs who demand transparency, accountability and competency of the religious authorities at both the federal and state levels.

 

The over-institutionalisation and abuses of “Official Islam”

 

The current discourse on  Islam and Islamic law in the public and private spaces is highly inflammatory. We are witnessing  reactions and counter reactions; rivalries and hostilities between the conservative and liberal factions  whch is creating a lot of conflicts within the Muslim community in Malaysia, let alone the inter-faith exchanges.

 

This chronic intra-faith clash of theology and sociology,  would only confer benefit to the ruling establishment. Faced with the onslaught of the liberal Muslims and islamophobia in general, the state and federal governments would  appease the Malay Muslim majority by actively sponsoring activities and programs aimed at defending the religion and fronting themselves as the protectors and champions of the religion of Islam.

 

This would further heighten the angst of the liberal Muslims who would counter more ferociously with their push  for de-Islamization of the state and federal religious insitutions. Threatened by this anti-religious fervour  of the liberal Muslims, the conservatives conclude that the liberals are songsang (deviant) or a greater evil relative to the ruling government, because their uncompromising demands is synonymous with waging war against Islam and Muslims. Even though there is a prevailing perception that the current leaders are corrupt, the “conservative discourse” potrays the ruling government as the lesser evil and who protect the “ketuanan Melayu” and “kesucian Islam”. Thus, the Malay Muslims  must accept the status quo despite the perceived weaknesses of the ruling government.

 

The fine manipulation of race and religion for pragmatic political ends by the political establishment is the major stumbling block for genuine reforms of the religious mindset of Malay Muslims and the relevant religious institutions in Malaysia. This gerrymandering of the religious mindset and institutions was further engineered after 2008 when the BN government  was denied  its two thirds majority in  parliament, and lost five major states to the opposition coalition. The BN government clearly understood the emotions of Islam in the hearts of the majority Malay Muslims. Many Malays, whether a practising Muslim or otherwise,  would die to defend the ‘sanctity of Islam’ if anybody threatened to ‘belittle’ or ‘undermine’ Islam, This perennial fear-mongering of the threat of deviant liberal Muslim and the “infidels”  to dismantle our Islamic religious instituions has succesfully embedded the  ‘siege-mentality’ in most Malay Muslims. The present government’s support of the preferential tabling of the “Hudud Bill” is one such smart politico-religious move to continually nurture trust from the conservatives and protract intentionally the archaic and counter-productive debate surrounding hudud which is virtually impossible to be implemented within the current constitutional framework.

 

Embracing universal values for our common god

 

Despite the exclusiveness of each and every religion, there are nonetheless many parallel and common values which are universal in character.

 

One such principle is the equality  of all mankind, which was highlighted in Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) final sermon during his farewell pilgrimage (khutbah al-wida’):

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” (Narrated by Ahmad)

 

Another is the spirit of ‘ukhuwwah’, which philosophically connotes and implies a much wider meaning than captured by the term ‘brotherhood’. The concept of ukhuwwah is not exclusive but is both inclusive and universal. It encompasses comprehensive solidarity not only amongst Muslims, but also towards other fellow human beings which Islam considers as brethrens in humanity.

In this context, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was reported as saying that: “You will not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you will not have faith until you love each other. Shall I direct you to something, which if you fulfill it you will love one another? Spread peace among yourselves”. (Narrated by Muslim)

This inclusive Islamic discourse which embraces and mainstreams universal  values and good decorum and ethics should be assimilitated within the Malay Muslim mindset, among followers and leaders alike. The call of Islam is not towards the homogenisation of society into one culture, identity or faith but the observation and practice of good conduct and civility so as to ensure that diversity will nurture peace and the common good. The Qur’ān proclaims that differences among human beings will remain (see al-Quran: 11:118–19). Hence, it is neither possible, nor commanded, to make everyone believe in one faith (see al-Quran: 10:99). Peaceful co-existence with the other and mutual respect has always been the fundamental teaching of Islam. This is manifested through Islam’s commands to respect other faiths, to avoid interfering in matters concerning other religions (see al-Quran: 109:1–6), prohibitions against any form of compulsion and coercion in faith (see al-Quran: 2:256, 272; 10:99) and rebuking or insulting other faiths (see al-Quran: 6:108).

 

Religious hegemony and intolerance in a pluralistic society will invariably result in conflict and will only frustrate the claim that Islam is a religion of compassion, peace and freedom. Peaceful co-existence and harmonious cohesion with other religious communities has been well documented in Islamic history since the Prophet began his call to Islam in Makkah and unfolded one of the greatest political documents in human history. Sahifah al-Madinah or the constitution of Madinah (622 AD) embraced 20 major principles which included a treatise on Unity, Diversity, Conduct, Fighting Injustice, Search or Striving for Peace, Freedom of Religion and the Rule of Law. Another illustrious model was the La Convivencia in Andalusia during Islamic rule in Spain. The spirit of mutual respect and recognition did not only flourish   the Islamic civilisation, but also enhanced the Christian and Jewish intellectual and cultural traditions. Therefore, mutual respect and recognition of other believers and their beliefs are sacred and sine qua non to ensure a harmonious and peaceful co-existence.

 

Proposals for transformation

 

  1. The call for reform must not be derivedfrom a liberal and secular world view, but rather from within Islam itself. The attempt to reform the religious authorities should be seen as an Islamic transformation program which is both  important and urgent. The Muslim public should be informed that the status-quo needs to be transformed into a more Islamic institution which promotes and protects the universal values of human dignity (karamah insaniyah), justice, brotherhood of man, equality, professional competency, accountability, transparency and peaceful pluralistic co-existence
  2. Although many Muslims are unhappy with the performance religious authorities, both at the federal and state level, they do not however call for its total dissolution. That would be perceived as an act of blasphemy, and a declaration of war on Islam. The call to abolish JAKIM was  counter-productive  towards attempts to reform the religious authorities. It only reinforced the  conservatives’ discourse of the anti-Islamic agenda of the liberal Muslim in cahoots with the “infidels”. Thus, reforms of the religious authorities and the manner Islam is being administered at both the state and federal level must avoid any calls for the abolishment of any religious institutions.
  3. It is most unfortunate that one too many public statements of Muslim religious leaders have exposed their naivety of the decorum and demands of a pluralistic co-existence. And when their proclamations are criticised, the conservatives will blindly defend them instead of defending the values of truth, justice and ethics. To prevent or mitigate these incidents, one should consider reformation of the process of credentialialing of Islamic scholarship.  Evidence has shown that a holistic religious and academic apprenticeship (tarbiyah) would nurture a religious leader who is more thoughtful, wiser and scholarly in his public engagements and pronouncements. It has also been demonstrated empirically that  religious leaders who underwent the rigors of formal academic scholarship were more open-minded, receptive of   new ideas, and were more willing to engage in inter-faith dialogues. Furthermore, a better grasp and understanding of the lingua franca, and international exposure, would enhance one’s perspectives of the contemporary and problematic  issues of a pluralistic society.
  4. Moderate Muslim NGOs should step up their game, be more vocal and visual and claim the middle ground which has thus far been hijacked by racist Muslim NGOs who claim to be the legitimate representation of the Muslim voice. They ought to engage actively with other faith and non-faith organizations and hustle for more presence in the media. This would empower them to shape public opinion and debunk the false notions of race and religion, the parochial understanding of equality and ukhuwwah and their blatant impingement on other religions. The viewpoints of the moderate Muslim NGOs is important to bring some sense of mutual respect and decorum to the radical rhetoric and the racist nuances of a few Muslim NGOs.
  5. Individuals, organisations, corporate and business entities who envisage a better and harmonious future for Malaysia should engage with these moderate Muslim organizations. Multi-faith and multi-cultural activities of these organisations should be supported and funded to enhance the harmonious relations between the multi religious and multi ethnic communities in Malaysia. Proliferations of these truly Malaysian activities would nurture an atmosphere of muhibbah, engender trust and mutual respect and foster authentic religious scholarship and inter-faith exchanges.
  6. A neutral, non-governmental, and non-political platform is required to coalesce Muslim scholars, intellectuals and like-minded academics to embrace this inclusive discourse. This healthy conversation is currently being orchestrated by a few progressive Muslim organizations, but there should be a concerted effort to bring them together. And once this platform has been consolidated, it should initiate coalitions with other faith and non-faith organizations as part of a collective effort of the community towards combating radicalism and extremism.
  7. Unfortunately, the religious discourse in the public space has been monopolized by the establishment and its wide network of official and non-official apparatus. The purity of the Islamic discourse has been politicized to serve the political end points of the government in office. There are many moderate, open-minded Islamic scholars, intellectuals and academics who embrace the inclusive discourse of Islam and challenge the current paradigm of exclusivity, intolerance and rigid thoughts (jumud). There is an increasing presence of these asatizah (religious scholars) on alternative religious forums either on social media or conventional platforms who possess and demonstrate expertise in various areas of Islamic scholarship eg maqasid shari’ah (higher objectives of Islamic jurisprudence), usul fiqh (the principles of jurisprudence), ulumul quran (sciences of quran) and ulumul hadith (sciences of hadith). The young, middle class and educated Muslims and the other faith believers are warming up to this authentic Islamic scholarship which is based on sound evidences from the quran and hadiths, understood within the right context and ideas derived appropriately to meet the demands of the changing times.
  8. Nurturing the culture of mutual respect and mutual learning from an early age is crucial in nation building. Ignorance or lack of exposure of our young to the multi-faith and multi-racial make-up of our communities will lead to misconceptions, prejudices and distrust which is a sure recipe for racial and religious conflict.A muhibbah curriculum of “race, religion and culture in Malaysia” as a core subject in schools and campuses would help to nurture young minds who are schooled of the plural nature of our communities and are taught to be sensitive and respectful of the other. It wasn’t too long ago in the 60s and 70s when the multi-ethnic composition of our classrooms facilitated the spirit of togetherness and muhibbah despite our different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. However, this educational legacy has been eroded by the choices of parents to send their children to private Islamic schools and Tahfiz (Quranic memorization seminaries), national ethnic schools, private and international schools. Major educational interventions needs to be considered to reverse this unhealthy schooling trend for the future of our national unity and harmonious co-existence.

 

Conclusions

 

Allah has created all human beings with honour and dignity, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and has elevated their status above His other creations. Almighty Allah says in the Quran (17:70);

“We gave honour and dignity (karamah) to the children of Adam”

 

As much as we would like to be honored and shown dignity, we have to recognize the dignity and honour of others. We need to understand and respect other’s religious beliefs and cultures. There is a pressing need for the citizens of multi-religious Malaysia to know and respect other’s religious beliefs and to work together. Authentic understanding and mutual respect of the other helps to evolve a sustainable religious harmony in our national quest to rebuild a “Better Malaysia” founded on the universal values of justice, equality, brotherhood, mutual benefit (masalih mushtarakah) and the dignity of humanity.

 

And as the vicegerent (khalifah) of Allah on earth and inheriting the vast treasures of peaceful initiatives of our predecessors, we Muslims need to do much better and should be exemplary in our actions and deeds towards the adherents of other faiths. Unfortunately, the Muslim leadership and its institutional apparatus in multi-religious Malaysia has fallen short of its vicegerency role to administer the communal quest for adl wa ihsan (justice with fairness and mercy) and the preservation of public interest (maslahah amah) towards all the racial and religious communities in this country.

 

The various initiatives for transformation suggested are not an exhaustive list of critical success factors. They are however pivotal issues which needs to be urgently and carefully addressed in order to nurture trust and mutual respect of the other, to harness the potential of the various faith (and non-faith) communities, to inspire a common national goal and to achieve a harmonious co-existence which would enhance national growth and prosperity for all communities in this country.