Category Archives: Articles

Darfur Issue #5 – Dr. Fauzi

Darfur Issue #5
by Dr. Fauzi

news that filter thru with regards darfur are sketchy to say the least, i have heard many excerpts both from the christian missionaries (oxfam, aid watch so forth) and the main stream british and world news (bbc, cnn afp so on) and also from official sudanese gov positions, the uk sudanese ambassador, the latter would disagree all western assertions few facts, the war has been going on for at least 10 years yet they require settlement and remedial actions in weeks and days, reports of genocides, totures and rapes (same has been labelled to mugabe, the actual situation in zimbabwe is actually not that bad) are based on a few human accounts of refugees these are not to be taken as truths, at best suspicions or just mere accusations, they must be tested before they can become facts, ministers, aid workers so forth go to one camp and make massive infalted claims on sudanese governments as collaborators to janjaweed, these people have been beligerent for years!! comments that i have heard in the news make your blood boils as they are half truths and accusations, there is no chance that these assertions can be substantiated. lets not make qualms that people do commit excesses, but there is a huge difference in saying sudanese government coconspire to genocides, totures and rapes!! there is a question of faith here, when a muslim comes to you with a piece of news, you must believe the muslim (especially when they profess to withold syariah) and mistrust should be given to news form the west, this is not a question of being a spoilsport!

Darfur Issue #6 – Dr. Mazeni Alwi

Darfur Issue #6
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

Thank you Musa and fauzi for your responses.I think none of us need to be reminded that many people don’t like islam and muslims. Wether or not this translates into conspiracy theories,opinions differ.

If you read my posting carefully,I do still have husnul-zann towards the Sudanese muslims.However I would not allow that to cloud my objectivity – as the prophetic tradition that says ‘help your brother wether he is the oppressed or oppressor’.In a situation as grave as this,I think objectivity is paramount.

The responses to my posting so far have failed to answer my queries and assuage my anxieties,much like the official statements from the govt.All I want is a credible alternative account to challenge those of the bbc & cnn to help me make an independent judgement.Also,Fauzi, we cannot simply brush aside accounts of survivors as unreliable without offering a credible rebuttal.Maybe they lied to embarrass the govt, but maybe they spoke the truth.

Well, back to husnul-zann and objectivity.I can recall 2 specific situations in the past.Many muslim students hailed the Islamic revolution in iran,and thought that this is the model for the Islamic world to follow.Not long after, it was odd that the Islamic republic was very supportive of hafez assad,who was at that time killing the muslim brotherhood supporters in Aleppo and hamas.I asked the more knowledgable brothers – the answer given was something along the line of husnul-zann.

Then the revolution started turning on its own children – bani sadr, mehdi bazargan,ibrahim yazdi… again the same answer.Maybe the shia have their way of doing things.

Then Afghanistan.We were all happy that mujahideen drove the soviets out.At last the sunni world can do it too.The most well known among Malaysians was hizbi islami led by gulbuddin hekmatyar because of its close association with jamaat islami. But not long after, they started to turn on each other,very brutal ,so much so that more afghan civilians died under them than under the russians,and later the Taliban stepped in to restore order(and the rest is history).Again I asked the knowledgable brothers,and the answer given was similar.Too many people have died because we dared not be objective and make criticisms where they are due.

Back to sudan,I never had the same privilege as musa of personally knowing important Sudanese Islamic activists.Even if Hassan turabi has gone wayward, there was no need for physically assaulting him at a Canadian airport.Again the charges of govt complicity have not been satisfactorily answered.

Shariah at all costs as state laws- too many politicians/govt have used it to maintain polpularity and remain in power among muslims – one day they were stauch secularists, the next day strictly applying the shariah.jaafar numeiri of sudan was one example,then the state govts in northern Nigeria, Pakistan. In its present state, shariah only applies to the poor and uneducated.The corrupt and power abusing elite of Saudi Arabia,Pakistan,Nigeria etc escape them.I don’t know enough about sudan but I hope it is not like that.What is really the priority for muslims?


Darfur Issue #7 – Ainullotfi

Darfur Issue #7
by Ainullotfi

I forwarded the mail from akh Dr Azhar for us to have an alternative perspective of what happened in Sudan.

Personally I do not know what really happened there. But I am cautioning against taking what the West told us about it wholesomely. This does not mean denial. This only means that we are cautious, so that we do not be unjust to ourselves.

The experiences in the last few years showed us that what they say aren’t always the truth. Dr Azhar has pointed out manifestly about the Ambon/Maluku case… every single media in the world told us that the perpetrators of the crimes there were the Muslims and the victims were the Christians. Only after we (our own brothers and sisters) went there and looked at the facts of the ground that we knew what really happened, and how the events there were started off by the massacre of Muslims during the Eid (yes, the Eid day!). Did any of the “neutral”, “unbiased” press record or report these? Until now the West’s perspective of things in Maluku are unchallenged officially, and on official record of everyone, the Muslims are the wrong, not the wronged.

The case of Iraq is another glaring example. Before the war everyone accepted it as fact that the Iraqis had WMD. Those opposed did not say for sure the Iraqis didn’t have, only they say they require more evidence. Some prefer to solve it not by war, but by other means. Furthermore, some have their own agenda vis-a-vis the Americans. But no one actually believed that the Iraqis didn’t have the weapons. Now, after all the destruction and killings, we know.

Remember the bombings of the “WMD factory” in Khartoum by Bill Clinton? How many innocent civilians (yes, civilians, and innocent too — Arabs have civialians, and they can be innocent too, not just the West!) were killed? Did anyone give a hoot? Okay… many would say later that the Americans were wrong, but after all, the Sudanese were not exactly good anyway, right? So what if a few blacks and Arabs, Muslims even, were killed? The “WMD factory” turned out to be just what the Sudanese government said it was… a pharmaceutical factory which amongst others produces baby milk! Mmm… the Sudanese government could speak the truth after all?

The internal strife in Algeria was another case that comes to my mind. Remember the violence there after the Islamists were denied their victory in the “democratic” elections some years ago? We were told that the fanatic fundamentalist Islamist gangs went on a rampage of violence in the whole country, killing just about anyone who crossed their path, and worse, worse! Raping the women just freely! Did anyone stop an ponder? On one hand they are accused of being religious fanatics, forcing every woman to don up the “discriminatory hijabs”, allowing them to only let their eyes seen by the world. Then in the same breath, they are accused of a heinous sexual crime… Does it add up? It’s either one or the other… no two thoughts about it, if one were to think straight! Only later we were to know that actually lots of these crimes were done by the Algerian “security apparatus” themselves, to tarnish the image of the Islamists and to isolate them from the support afforded to them by the Algerian people! But no, we could never figure it out ourselves… we swallowed what was reported by the “unbiased” Western press… and was unjust to ourselves… if not our own brethren.

No, I’m not saying that be go into a state of denial. Far from it. Rather I am just advising caution. Could we not get more information from the people we trust more on the matter? In the event, could we also get the bigger perspective of the whole Sudanese issue, beyond just Darfur? Could we even trust what was said by some of the Sudanese officials (in spite of the demonisation by the West)… some of whom we knew personally as examplary Muslim students at British universities years ago? Why would their word be of less value than those who are clearly trying to break Islam up?

Yes, if after further investigation, they were proved to be wrong and unjust… go ahead, we’ll fight them. But until we get a total picture of what happened, couldn’t we just advise restraint? At the same time, yes, do our best to help the victims of the problems there. Send help and relief. Support Mercy and Islamic Relief. Garner support from all over. Even volunteer to go there if one could, so that one could actually report back what really happened (as was the case in Maluku). But reserve judgments. Please.


Ainullotfi Abdul Latif

Islam Online Live Dialogue: Humanitarian Crisis in Darfur – An Eyewitness Account

Islam Online Live Dialogue: Humanitarian Crisis in Darfur – An Eyewitness Account

Assalamu ‘alaykum wr wb!

This is the transcript for the Live Dialogue held yesterday night [from 11:30 pm] at Islam Online pertaining to the Darfur issue.

The guest answering questions was Dr. Mansour Muhammed Hassan who recently returned from a 20 day trip to Darfur in Sudan where he was the head of the medical aid mission sent by Egypt’s Medical Doctors’ Syndicate between July 2 – 23, 2004.

Dr. Hassan also visited the south of Sudan with a similar mission in April.

He is a 1979 graduate of Alexandria University’s Faculty of Medicine and is currently a consultant in pediatrics in Alexandria, Egypt. He is also the secretary general of Alexandria’s Medical Doctors’ Syndicate.

Dr. Hassan welcomes your questions about the humanitarian situation in Darfur and in the south of Sudan.

Hope it is useful. Wassalam.


NST COVER STORY: More Arab than the Arabs?

NST COVER STORY: More Arab than the Arabs?
by Sarah Sabaratnam and Loretta Ann Soosayraj

Apr 28:

Why are Malays turning to Arabic customs, speech and outlook to define themselves? SARAH SABARATNAM and LORETTA ANN SOOSAYRAJ explore the issue.
THE Malay community is the result of a diverse and distinctive mix of cultures and religions. However, of late, there has been the concern that many traditions and rituals previously associated with the Malay psyche are being rejected as un-Islamic.

Recently, a local daily carried an interview with Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. Among issues discussed was the “Arabisation” of Malay culture. Rais talked about the rejection of many ancient Malay traditions and rituals considered un-Islamic, which resulted in the neglect of Malay culture.

His concerns could not have come at a better time.

Art forms such as wayang kulit, dikir barat and menora were deemed un-Islamic and banned in Kelantan after Pas gained control of the state. Some Malays reject the adat bersanding because of its Hindu origins.

Now, there is a worry that many Malays are replacing their culture with an Arab-slanted one.

The new “dress code” being adopted, says Dr Hatta Azad Khan, director-general of Istana Budaya, is definitely an example of this “Arabisation” of Malay culture.

Eddin Khoo, director of Pusaka, a non-profit organisation dedicated to cultural preservation, notes the change of head dress he sees following Friday prayers. “The traditional songkok appears to be less popular with congregationists, especially among the younger ones,” he says.

He has noticed that the songkok has instead been replaced by the ketayap (skull cap), the kefayih (head scarf) and Tajik (Afghan) caps.

If this is indeed true, why is it happening?

The new resurgence of Islam is one of the reasons, says Johan Jaafar, New Straits Times columnist and former Utusan Malaysia editor.

“It has had diverse effects on the mentality of the Malays,” he says.

“As they become more ‘Muslim’, they become less Malay. They discard old values associated with the Malays, and which are considered un-Islamic. They believe that cultural expressions like theatre and art forms like wayang kulit are un-Islamic because of their pre-Islamic origins.”

Ramli Ibrahim, classical dancer and director of Sutra Dance Theatre, agrees. “Performing art genres such as the makyong and wayang kulit have been banned from public performances due to the process of ‘cleaning’ Malay culture of ‘un-Islamic elements’.”

Khoo adds that a related factor is the “rise of religious, ideological politics over the past two decades accompanied by theological dogmatism and puritanism…”

Furthermore, some politicians use their power or perceived authority to make statements which “appeal to the most primitive and medieval impulses in belief.”

For instance, he says, “they claimed that people who partake in these traditions (such as wayang kulit, makyong, main puteri and menora) engaged in spirit and devil worship and ‘main hantu’ (playing with ghosts).”

He says “we must acknowledge that much of this thinking has been supported by political power”.

“The proscription of traditional theatre in Kelantan by Pas and the actions of one Minister of Education who ‘discouraged’ the teaching of music in schools on the grounds that such instruction was un-Islamic are significant…”

Johan contends that Malays should not fear that these traditions and cultural expressions will make them less Islamic, as they have been part of the Malay psyche for a long time and they are no less Muslim for it.

“Yes, the wayang kulit tales are based on stories from Indian texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata but they have been given local colouring and the characters have been given local names. They have become a Malay thing.

“Our parents were less concerned with superficial things such as how they were dressed,” he says, “but that did not make them less Muslim.”

Khalid Salleh, an actor and director, reiterates this point. “If I buy a topeng tari from Bali and put it on my wall as decoration, does this mean that I am being influenced by Hinduism?”

Alternately, he asks, does putting on the kopiah, serban and the jubbah make one more Muslim?

“As Muslims grow older, they put on the … jubbah. This, to them, is the image of Islam. But who is to know what is in their soul? Anyone can wear clothes.”

He asks another question: “If someone wears that gear, and studies the Mahabharata, does that mean he has gone astray? Maybe he just wants to discover the parallels between the religions.”

Ramli certainly feels that Islam in Malaysia is seen as more conservative and “right wing” than in most other Muslim countries. “I have met Arabs who say that Islam in Malaysia is stricter than in some Arab countries themselves. There is a joke also that some Malays are more ‘Arab’ than the Arabs themselves.”

Johan says the Malays should consider carefully what they are rejecting.

“Malays in Malaysia are unique in that a Malay is defined as a Muslim unlike in Indonesia where an Indonesian can be non-Muslim. The Malays and Islam are considered one. There must be a reason why this is so. There must have been some compatibility between Islam and the Malays for them to have embraced Islam so easily and for them to identify themselves only with this religion. The values that the Malays had and the values of Islam must be very close. Why, then, discard them?”

He also says the Malays have adopted their own local brand of Islam that fits the situation in Malaysia and that is something that they need to treasure. “You don’t have to look like an Arab to be a Muslim,” he says.

Khoo says it would be of great consequence if we denied our past and neglected our culture.

“What this means is that entire communities are denied an anchoring in their past, and hence a sense of themselves. More importantly, they are denied the freedom to explore their history, culture and evolution; that is, denied the freedom to explore their sense of Self.”

As a result of this, he says, there will be a void in the individual and community sensibility that is then filled with politics and inflammatory ideology. “This is a phenomenon occurring especially among the young.”

On the other hand, he adds, the rituals and customs of the past are intimately bound and are inspired by a contemplation and understanding of self.

“A Self rooted in this understanding is able to adapt and accommodate change and transformation, which makes cultural dislocation all the more difficult.”

Producer and theatre director Faridah Merican feels that we are too quick to make decisions on what people like, reject and believe.

“I don’t think that is right. If the person can find enough reason within himself to reject his culture and if he is happy to be in that situation he should not be blamed or accused of being less Malay. It would be just like saying that a Chinese who can’t speak the dialects is not Chinese. We spend too much time looking for the negative things in each of us. We should instead focus on enriching our lives and our children … cultivate a race of people who read, who are cultured, who go to the theatre, who listen to music, and go to the museum and the art gallery.”

Meanwhile, others feel that the issue of the Arabisation of Malays and the cleansing of Malay cultural elements deemed un-Islamic remains a real threat.

Johan contends that no regulation can turn around this “Arabisation” process. Instead, he says, the moderate Muslim needs to speak up.

“Culture is about acceptability by a society. It is not about regulation. What we need is for moderate Muslim voices to be heard.”

Ramli says the ministry can play a part in protecting Malay cultural heritage by reviving cultural art forms that are being sidelined such as wayang kulit and makyong.

“I am pleased that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage has the courage to face these difficult questions and take a positive stand to protect Malay culture,” he says.

In order to do this, he says, the minister needs to get people who are passionately interested in culture to help him.

“Most people in the ministry are there because they happen to be working in it … he should (also) consult those who are in the field and hear their views. Sometimes he has to beware of scholars too!”

Hatta suggests we be clear about what aspects of art forms are against the tenets of Islam. “Indonesia has been using wayang kulit and other traditional theatre forms to spread the teachings of Islam. Why can’t we learn from them?”

More arabs than the arabs or more american than the americans?

More arabs than the arabs or more american than the americans?
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

Taking the cue from PAS’ astounding defeat at the recent polls, there seems to be a kind of a backlash against everything that is perceived to be manifestations of the party’s vision and influence in making the malays more religious in a puritan, fundamentalist sense.  The most prominent and vexing of these is “arabizing” the malays at the expense of malay culture and heritage.  The new minister for Culture, Arts and Heritage expressed uneasiness over this erosion of malay cultural heritage in a recent interview in a local daily.  NST journalists Sarah Sabaratnam and Loretta Ann Soosayraj took this further in its Life and Times feature on April 28 titled “More arabs than the arabs”, gathering the opinions from the malay cultural elite and eminent personalities from the arts fraternity.  The proscription of Makyong, Main Puteri and Menora by the Kelantan PAS government comes to fore whenever this subject is brought up, as the extreme example of the desire to cleanse malay culture of its pre-Islamic influences took the form of institutionalization.  But it is also the every day things that malays do like preferring the kopiah over the songkok, the wearing of jubbah and serban, doing away with “bersanding” at weddings that raise the ire of those in the vanguard of the preservation of malay cultural heritage. This trend of “arabization”, like the new “dress code” as pointed out by the director-general of Istana Budaya, is said to be threatening the survival of malay cultural heritage.

Eddin Khoo, director of Pusaka, a non profit organization was quite right when he pointed out that this arabization of the malays is very much related to the “rise of religious, ideological politics over the past 2 decades, accompanied by theological dogmatism and puritanism…” and “we must acknowledge that much of this thinking has been supported by political power”.  But does Islamist politics explain everything?   One may be forgiven to view the re-assertion of Islamic religious life among the malays as a monolithic phenomenon, one deriving from the politics of fundamentalist Islamist politics, if one were to view this from afar through the sweeping monochrome of the western media.  For local commentators, to be oblivious of the diversity of Islamic currents in Malaysia is not quite excusable.

The article is deeply flawed and unbalanced as they only took the views of personalities who view Islam in Malaysia purely as an appendage to the malays’ cultural heritage, negating the varied, knowledge-based expressions of Islam which has become increasingly important in shaping the modern malay identity through higher education abroad, social mobility and increased interactions with people of other cultures through their professions and sojourns in foreign lands.  PAS’ conservative fundamentalism is just one strand of this re-appraisal of Islam among the malays.  The leitmotif here is that Islam is merely a cultural identifier for the malays consisting of rites and customs derived from some religious beliefs to be transmitted to successive generations, in the same way that we pass down the rituals of a Makyong performance.  But this is unfortunately a minority view among modern educated malays and the professionals who have somehow not been consulted for their views.

In the transformation of Islam from a set of rituals integral to the malay identity to that of a deep  personal conviction in a set of metaphysical truths that subordinates one’s beliefs, personal conduct and relations in society, this no doubt entails some modifications or even abandonment of long held cultural traditions, in the same way that the arabs had to give up some of their pre-Islamic traditions that cannot be reconciled with Islam’s metaphysical philosophy and ethics.  The views of the well-meaning Eddin Khoo who said, “they claimed that people who partake in these traditions (such as wayang kulit, makyong, main puteri and menora) engaged in spirit and devil worship and “main hantu” (playing with ghosts)”, do not sit well with today’s muslims in general because he does not see any distinction between those art forms proscribed by the Kelantan government and zapin or dondang sayang.  But for the modern malays who have arrived at an understanding of Islam through knowledge and study, art forms like menora and makyong, unlike zapin or dondang sayang are problematic because the rituals and beliefs involved may compromise the principle of Tauhid, the belief in Oneness of the Divine Transcendent, a fundamental and paramount pillar of the Islamic faith.  It is for the same concern over the violation of the principle of Tauhid that rituals like seeking intercession at the graves of pious men, Mandi Safar and Puja Pantai are no longer practiced by modern malays as the practice of Islam becomes increasingly knowledge-based. In this regard, the measures taken by the PAS government in Kelantan are superfluous, creating unnecessary confusion and stirring fatuous, impassioned debates until today.   By the time the PAS government came to power in 1990, Menora and Makyong were already dying art forms. The protests against the proscription came not from the Kelantanese but the arts fraternity in Kuala Lumpur who have failed to grasp the transformation of Islam among the malays.   If there was any lesson form the proscription of these art form by the PAS government, it is that culture and religion should be free from the whims of men in government and of politicians.  It rightly belongs to the people and should be allowed to evolve organically.    Policy makers must not appropriate it from the people and should resist from legislating for an against specific forms of the arts.  This should be left to education and finally individual choice.  In this respect, the old ministry of culture and tourism has been no less guilty of institutionalizing culture, manufacturing “malay culture” for the sake of drawing the tourist dollar and adapting it to colour television.  Since when have those bright multicolour costumes and strangely energetic dances been part of malay cultural heritage?

Malaysia’s cultural elite and the arts community should also learn to display tolerance and openness towards ordinary people’s preferences in everyday life, even if this may go against their perceived notions of what constitutes “malay culture”.  As the malays become more educated and to move away from Islam as cultural identity to Islam as a system of metaphysical beliefs and ethics, it is inevitable that some “arabization” of malay life takes place, given that geographical origins of the faith and its holy places of pilgrimage, and secondly, Islam being a religion that emphasizes knowledge and learning, it happens that its major texts are in the Arabic language and traditionally scholars gain their knowledge from middle-eastern institutions.   Modern educated muslims by and large have no problem with actor and director Khalid Salleh “If I buy a topeng tari from Bali and put it on my wall as decoration, does this mean that I am being influenced by Hinduism?”, but at the same time he must reciprocate the same respect and liberty to muslims who wish to dress differently, “as Muslims grow older, they put on the jubbah.  This, to them, is the image of Islam.  But who is to know what is in their soul?”.  The great actor’s prejudice and disdain towards this religion-inspired cultural transformation among a significant section of modern malays is caricatural – dressing like arabs equals intolerance, fanaticism and holier-than-thou attitude.   Indeed, the tone throughout the article was discomfortingly of such prejudicial slant, that adopting some aspects of middle-eastern culture is equated as being under the sway of PAS’ radical fundamentalism and sympathizing with the muslim terrorists, even if muslims and arabs have been wearing the serban and jubbah for centuries before Osama Ben Laden.   Of utmost importance to the discussion, “arabization” should not be confused with following Islamic injunctions on certain matters like the dress code for female and male believers.  As Islam itself means “submission”, it requires believers who have accepted Islam’s metaphysical truths on their own free will to submit to the religion’s external formalities like the daily prayers, paying the poor dues and Hajj, and to follow a minimum standard of ethics and behaviour.

Nevertheless, it is unfortunately true that Islamic resurgence tends to be associated with hard-line conservatism that blights elements of local culture in favour of “arabization”.  This however has to be seen against a backdrop of politicization culture and religion when they should rightly belong to the people.  Hard-line puritanism in part arises from and encouraged by the authorities’ monopolization of what constitutes acceptable Islam, which today goes by the name of “Islam Hadhari”, in the contest between the two political parties vying to be the champions of the malays. As a result, discourse on Islam is constrained to these 2 opposing roles and discussion and debate on the role of Islam in society on matters like justice, fairness, poverty eradication and the dynamics between Islam and local culture could not take place freely.  But between official Islam and conservative puritanism is a spectrum of views on the role of Islam in society that has hardly been explored and engaged with by commentators on culture and society in Malaysia.

Nevertheless if the concern over the rapid decline of malay cultural heritage by the new minister, echoed and amplified by practitioners and defenders of malay traditional arts, is indeed timely and laudable.  But can this be blamed on the increased awareness and knowledge-based practice of Islam among the malays in the last 2 decades or so?  It is interesting that on the same day the feature article on arabization of the malays appeared in the NST, Utusan Malaysia carried the headline “Bahasa Melayu kian luntur – masyarakat bersikap tidak peka gunakan bahasa rojak”, where in Dato’ Seri Dr. Rais Yatim lamented that many people today cannot speak the national language properly, corrupting it with excessive and inappropriate borrowing of words and phrases from English and turning it into “bahasa rojak”.  What afflicts the malay language is precisely what afflicts malay culture.  It is not Islam or the elements of middle-eastern culture that is largely responsible for the malays to abandon their cultural heritage.  Neither are borrowed Arabic words corrupting the malay language. Today we are inundated with hedonistic, consumerist materialism through a lack of a sensible, coherent and consistent cultural and educational policy.  It is true that being a willing player in the corporate globalization game, we are vulnerable to invasion by such consumerist culture which aggressively try to make us gullible to crave the same food and drinks, wear the same shoes and clothes, watch the same movies and TV shows, and listen to the same mindless music as the american consumers.  This is the much greater reason why malay youths are reluctant to wear the songkok and baju melayu, and find keroncong and ghazal foreign to their ears.  If the authorities have a clear and consistent vision on local culture, it could have instituted measures to damper the smothering of malay culture and language by this pernicious side of globalization.

The decline of malay traditional arts, is perhaps less alarming than the corruption of bahasa melayu and the decline of malay literature.  The widespread everyday use of bahasa rojak suggests that the erosion of malay culture and identity has reached such a critical stage, that the last defences so to speak have been breached, reflecting the abject failure and inconsistencies of our cultural and educational policies.  That malay politicians and cabinet colleagues of Dato’ Rais Yatim are the foremost practitioners of bahasa rojak and ostentatious display of materialism indicates the extent to which malay cultural identity has been undermined.

In the broader Malaysian society, it is not only the malays’ culture and language that is facing the threat of corruption and obliteration.  In a multicultural Malaysia, whose richness of its peoples’ diverse traditions has been taken for granted all this while, the chinese and indians should be equally anxious over the survival of their cultural heritage.  But this threat to their culture is not from arabized malays but the very same consumerist materialism that does not respect local cultures and traditions everywhere.  So finally we are speaking the same rojak language, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food and listening to the same music, as imitators of American consumerist culture, the pinnacle of our success in the “bangsa malaysia” project.

Instead of blaming Islam as causing the erosion of malay culture, a rational and knowledge based reassertion of the religion but without the insularity and obsessive puritanism long associated with conservative political Islam will serve as a bulwark for the malays from being engulfed and obliterated by hedonistic, consumerist materialism.   The diverse muslim civilizations that stretched from Spain to the malay world during the different periods of Islamic history have shown that wherever Islam planted itself, it was capable of absorbing fertile ideas and elements of beauty and goodness from the cultures it came in contact with as long as they were not in conflict with the religion’s fundamental beliefs and ethics.  Without this intellectual and spiritual bulwark of knowledge-based Islam, the malays seem to absorb only the crass and the ugly from western culture, and not its refined elements in art, music and literature and its edifying ideas in philosophy and the sciences.  Conversely, Islam also serves to moderate our tendency towards excessive, irrational sense of nationalist pride that makes us stubbornly cling to shreds of our inherited tradition in the name of cultural preservation.

The use of unlawful or juridically unclean substances in Food and Medicine

The use of unlawful or juridically unclean substances in Food and Medicine

General principles

  1. Every Muslim is under obligation to abide by the rulings of Islamic Shariah, especially in the areas of food and medicine, which is conducive to a healthy life style in diet and therapy. Allah Almighty, out of His infinite Mercy and Providence to facilitate the pursuit and observance of His law, granted us concessions in cases of dire and ordinary needs which are recognised by the Shariah. These include: “Necessities overrule prohibitions”.

    The elevation of ordinary need to the status of dire need when indicated”.

    “The basic rule is that all things are lawful unless specifically prohibited. Similarly all things are juridically clean except those specified not to be. ‘Prohibition of a food or drink need not mean that it is; juridically unclean”.

  2. Alcohol therefore is not juridially unclean, on the basis that things are inherently clean. This applies whether it is Ipure or diluted by water, giving preference to the view that the uncleanness of wine and other intoxicants or  alcoholic beverages is ideational rather than physical. Thus, There is no objection, from the point of view of  Shariah, in using alcohol as antiseptic or disinfectant of i wounds or surgical instruments.

    Therefore there is no problem in using perfumes or scenti (Eau de Cologne) in which alcohol is used as a solvent forI volatile fragrant or aromatic substances or in using creams which contain alcohol.  But his ruling does not apply to wine and other alcohohc drinks, for their use is initially prohibited.

  3. Since taking of alcohol is forbidden because it is intoxicant, and until alcohol-free medicines can be prepared, particularly for children and pregnant women, there is no prohibition to using medicines currently in production containing a very small measure of alcohol for the purpose of preservation or dissolving but not sedating, until an alternative is available.
  4. Foods containing even a little amount of wine are prohibited, including chocolates and drinks or foods tinged with alcohol. “What intoxicates if given abundantly is prohibited at the smallest dose”, as the Sharia rules. The rule of exceptional permissibility is not applicable here due to the lack of the factor of necessity.
  5. It is permissible to take foods where a tiny amount of alcohol is used for the purpose of dissolving materials; which are insoluble in water such as colour makers,! preservatives and so on. The principle on which this permission is based is ‘General Inescapable Necessity’.    (‘ Umum al-Balwa). This apart, it is also a factor that most of the alcohol added actually gets evaporated in the process ofproduction.
  6. Foodstuff containing pig fat which does not undergo denaturation, such as some varieties of cheese, vegetable oil, skin oil/lubricant, butter, cream, biscuit chocolate and ice-cream, are prohibited, on account of the consensus of scholars on the uncleanness of the pig and impermissibility of its eating. Obviously, a situation warranting an exception due to “necessity” does not usually pertain.
  7. Treatment of diabetes patients with insulin obtained from  a pig source is permissible because of “necessity” given that the relevant rules and principles of the Shariah, are observed.
  8. “Transformation”, i.e. the process that causes an object to change into another, totally different in properties and characters, turns the unclean, or what is deemed to be unclean, into a clean object, and therefore turns prohibited things into things permissible by the Shariah. On this account the following is concluded:
    1. Gelatine made of unclean animal’s bones, skin and tendons is clean and permissible for consumption.
    2. Soap produced by treating and transforming pig fat or fat obtained from a dead animal turns into a clean  compound by the process of transformation and  therefore using this soap is permissible.
    3. Cheese processed with rennet, obtained from animals which are dead but are permissible to eat, is clean and  eating it is permissible.
    4. Ointments, creams and cosmetics which contain pig fat are all unclean. Their use is impermssible in Shariah except when transfonnation (of the material into one of totally different properties) is ensured.
  9. All narcotic drugs/substances are prohibited and under no circumstanccs are they permissible except for specific medical treatment as determined by physicians. These substances are inherently clean themselves. There is no objection, however, to the use of nutmeg as an aromatic for food, in small amounts which do not lead to sedation or narcosis.

Vaccinations for Hajj & Umrah

Vaccinations for Hajj  & Umrah
**Summary of a presentation by Prof. Datin Dr. Ilina Isahak, HUKM, at a seminar organized by PPIM

Apart from meningococcal vaccination which is mandatory there are 2 further protection which is advocated to those going for hajj or umrah …


Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) is the commonest cause of community acquired pneumonia. It is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. It causes 1.2 million deaths per annum world wide. Of these 50% are potentially preventable with immunization.

It causes pneumonia, acute otitis media, sinusitis and bacteraemia. It is the leading cause of meningitis in adults with a mortality rate of 30%.

The Hujjaj quite clearly represent an at risk population with the following combination of factors :

  1. elderly
  2. chronic disease
  3. overcrowding

The increase in the numbers of resistant strains of pneumococcus further complicates the treatment protocol. The most cost effective strategy would be  immunization with the pneumococcal vaccine. The 23 valent vaccine contains 23 serotypes that cause 85-90% of invasive pneumococcal infection.

The Advisory Committee on Immunisation Practices (ACIP USA) recommends pneumococal vaccination for the following high risk groups :

  1. elderly > 65 years
  2. asplenic
  3. patients with chronic diseases
  4. diabetes mellitus
  5. immunocompromised host
  6. specific environmental settings

Preliminary report on role of pneumococcal vaccination (PV) among M’sian hajj pilgrims. Significant difference (p<0.001) noted between PV group and control group in the following clinical features :

  1. fever
  2. cough
  3. change in sputum characteristic
  4. dyspnoea
  5. pulmonary consolidation

Follow up of pilgrims upon return to Malaysia showed a significant difference (p<0.001) in their health status :

  1. control group 54.1% fell ill
  2. PV group 19.9% fell ill

Only one dose is required. Elderly > 65 years, who received 1st does more than 5 years ago require a 2nd dose.

(the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine; prevnar,  is available in the USA and recommended by the ACIP for vaccination of children ages 2,4,6 months and a booster dose; protecton is life long; made a lot of money for Wyeth; where demand outsrips supply)

**Summary of a presentation by AP Dr. Nordiah Hj. Awang Jalil, Consultant Microbiologist, HUKM , at a seminar organized by PPIM


The influenza viruses affect all age groups, Rates of infection are highest in children but rates of serious illness and death are highest in the elderly. The spread is rapid. There are frequent but unpredictable epidemics. Pandemics are periodic.

The typical influenza illness inclues 5-6 days of restricted activity, 3-4 days of disability in bed, 3 days of absenteeism from school or work. And 50% of influenza illness require medical attention.

The pilgrims often have multiple risk factors :

  1. overcrowding
  2. old age
  3. underlying chronic diseases
  4. “stressful” rituals – physically and emotionally

The WHO Influenza Vaccination Recommendations include among others “large groups of pilgrims gathering in the same area for several weeks”.

A case control study of influenza vaccine efficacy among M’sian pilgrims attending the hajj showed a protective efficacy of 77% (p<0.0001). Of the 820 persons with ILI (influenza like illness), 99% received over the counter medications and 84% received antibiotic.

Shirin Ebadi, the OIC and human rights

Shirin Ebadi, the OIC and human rights
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

Having chosen to host the OIC meeting this year, we pulled all stops and embarked on a publicity blitz long before the event to impress upon the cynical muslims of the world that this time it was going to be different. But it all ended up as usual, like the NAM meeting previously, with accolades of Malaysia being a very hospitable host, generously treating delegates with pomp and extravaganza, as if to make up for the deficiency in substance and intellectual content. Like it or not, The world is already too familiar with the notion that the OIC is at best a weak, ineffectual and poorly regarded club of muslim leaders whose yearly jamboree is nothing more than diplomatic tourism and mutual congralutory back-slapping, or worse, a gathering of leaders, often unelected or whose representation of the popular will less than legitimate, of nations distinguished by various shades of bad-governance and corruption, economic mismanagement, political repression, poverty and backwardness, such that it would be easy for others to heap all that on a single factor: the religion of the muslims.

There is some basis that the OIC meeting in Malaysia promised to be different. It is after all the model of Islamic moderation, the most successful muslim nation that has leapfrogged into the twenty-first century while remaining faithful to its Islamic and Asian values and tradition. In these turbulent and challenging times, we are supposed to lead the muslim world to become respected players on the global stage, to stand up to the imperialistic designs of the world’s hyperpower, and to speak up for our oppressed brethren in Palestine.

We may have worked out everything to the finest details months ahead but events beyond our control and our own silliness have their own way of conspiring against our best laid plans. It was as if fate was planning its sweetest revenge on us. One could sense that the Kuala Lumpur OIC meeting was not going to be a ground breaking one that would take to organization to new heights, as we hoped it would, but instead stumbled from one disaster to another. For a start, it did not help that Kofi Annan failed to show up without giving a good reason. That must have struck a cruel blow to our collective self-esteem. Was that supposed to be a measure how much contempt the world harbours toward leaders of muslim nations? There was not much we could do about Kofi Annan not showing up, but can’t our judges wait to convict Irene Fernandez? The trial has been going on for years anyway, what harm does it do to come out with a verdict after the OIC bash? The whole world now knows that the most moderate and enlightened muslim nation convicted a rights activist who blowed the whistle on the brutal (with fatalities) and humiliating abuse of muslim illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in detention camps. How dare they lecture us on all this nonsense about human rights for illegal immigrants. And if that was not bad enough, our highly efficient police force gave us unwanted publicity at the worst possible time. For a number of years now the public and civil society NGOs have raised their concern over the inordinate number of deaths of suspected criminals in shootouts with the police our in lock-ups. But this time, it was a form six student whose disbelieving family was told that he was armed and dangerous, with 20 criminal records.

Whenever muslim leaders meet, they would not miss on the opportunity for grand-standing to the world’s muslims by championing the cause of Palestine which means also condemning Israel, zionism and jews, only that we are often confused about the distinctions between them. We thought the only way to appease the already too cynical muslims is to condemn the jews ever more strongly. But little do we realize that Jewish Conspiracy card has been played too many times, that they would immediately recognize its frayed edges and worn out appearance. The denunciations came fast and furious from all over, even from our friend Chirac. Damn. It was meant to be our finest hour and everything had to go wrong!

Depending on how one looks at it, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a muslim woman, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, may be seen as recognition of efforts towards genuine reforms for democratization in the muslim world. Strangely, despite the flood of congratulatory messages from international human rights organizations and world leaders, the muslim world especially their governments have been rather mute. To the conservative fundamentalists who see a conspiracy lurking in every shadow, this is the west’s machination to destroy muslim societies and dominate them. Like the hard-line clerical factions in control of major institutions of government in Iran, they viewed the award to Shirin Ebadi as western intervention in Iranian politics, using human rights issues in Iran as a political tool in the pursuit of its own agenda. That the conservative fundamentalists remained in muted embarrassment is hardly surprising given their deep suspicion of every outside influence, especially the west, but that the champions of moderate and enlightened Islam were also silent seemed awkward, especially when we were in the midst of showcasing our enlightened Islam to world. Perhaps we were too conscious that Shirin Ebadi gave the lie to our claims to moderation and enlightenment. Yes, if she were Malaysian, she would have ended up with a fate not unlike Irene Fernandez’s. Beneath that veneer of Islamic moderateion, we have a catalogue of executive abuses, corporate corruption, inhumane laws, judicial improprieties etc.

Simplistic this might be, the Islamic world seems to be perpetually torn between the religious fundamentalism that wants to bring the muslim people under a theocratic authoritarianism hostile to everything that the west represents, and on the other hand “secular” nationalist forces with a warped understanding of secularism, anxious to import and copy the west’s material glitter but unwilling to submit to the more positive values that had helped shape western civilization, such that the muslim world today has become characterized by “first world infrastructure with third world mentality”, repressive, corrupt and intolerant of criticism.

Could the recognition accorded to Ebadi by the Nobel Committee symbolize a new force in muslim society, one that is genuinely concerned with democratic reforms free of the ideological baggage of secular nationalism or conservative fundamentalism whose popularity owed much to the failed experiments with modernization of the former? The abuse of human rights in muslim countries is a very valid issue. As long as we don’t seriously address them, western governments will continue to close their eyes to these abuses one day and use them against us for their own leverage the next, whenever it suits them.

It is time that human rights issues are seen as what they really are. We as muslim nations have the dubious distinction of having among the worst human rights records, integral to the package of bad-governance, corruption and intolerance of dissent. The time has come for us to stop accusing the west of trying to impose their ideas of human rights and democracy on us on the grounds that those “western” values are alien to our culture and religion. The notion that our Islamic or asian values are more suited if not superior for our own people may have sounded sweetly persuasive and self-reassuring at first, but many of us now are beginning to wise up to the deceit that they are mere pretext for the elite to maintain a ruthless control over the people and exclude them from participating in the political and nation-building process.

The announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2003 is a muslim human rights activist who is also a woman must have caused many embarrassed faces among leaders of muslim nations. Not only did it remind the world of the sorry state of human rights in muslim nations, but it also undermined all pretensions that we have about ensuring human rights in the way that suits us best, the muslim way, or the OIC way. To show that the west are not the only ones concerned about human rights, the OIC approved the Islamic Human Rights Declaration at its foreign ministers meeting in Cairo in 1981, something that is perhaps little known to the muslim bureaucrats themselves who were busily checking on the last details of the Kuala Lumpur meeting before the arrival of “the big guns”. Ironically the Islamic Human Rights Declaration was Iran’s initiative, which was quite understandable as it was then receiving criticisms from the international community for its summary justice against opponents of the Islamic Revolution. 20 years on, nobody talks anymore of the re-invented Human Rights wheel as muslim governments are the among the worst abusers of the basic rights of their own people.

Today, free of the ideological constraints of the Cold War, the world is more rational in discussing human rights issues and into accepting one common standard. After all, the 1948 Universal Declaration, even if the majority of muslim and 3rd world nations were not yet inexistence when this was framed, when viewed objectively, the basic principles of the Declaration are truly universal, acceptable to the moral teachings of all the great religions and secular humanism. Furthermore human rights discourse has evolved very significantly especially after the Cold War and to say that it is the preserve of western governments is inaccurate. That western governments are hypocritical and selective in their judgement of human rights practices in third world and muslim nations is no basis for re-inventing the wheel, for there’s no reason why they too should not be judged by the same standard.

Finally, at the level of individuals, many among the educated middle class are still not comfortable, may even harbour a strong distrust towards the idea of a universal standard for human rights, swayed no doubt by the argument that it is an alien western concept with too much emphasis of individual rights. Most are probably unaware of the existence of the Islamic Declaration, which on the core issues do not differ with the Universal Declaration in spirit. Conferring the Nobel Peace Prize to a muslim woman is viewed as a devious and deliberate attempt at secularizing an insular traditional muslim society. Here too, we should set aside our religious – ideological baggage and view things objectively-human rights as human rights. The Norwegian Award Committee said it chose her because of her focus on promoting human rights and democracy in her country. Shirin Ebadi is not the typical muslim feminist whose idea of liberation for muslim women is transplanting western social norms into muslim societies. In an interview with the German daily, Tageszeitung, she pointed out that muslim women who wear religious headscarves do not see it as a sign of submission and often feel stronger than men, dismissing the muslim feminists’ popular contention that the muslim woman’s hijab is a symbol of religious oppression. Although media reports tended to place emphasis on her struggle for the rights of women in Iran, to stress the feminist aspect of the award does not do justice to the breadth of her work as a lawyer. Other than her focus on promoting the rights of women, she helped found the Society for Protecting the Child’s Rights in Iran and she was also actively involved in the struggle for refugee rights. But her best known engagement which led to her subsequent brief imprisonment was working as the lawyer representing the families of writers and intellectuals who were victims of the 1998 – 1999 “serial murders”, where officials of the government of conservative clerics were implicated. However, being an opponent of the repressive policies of the hard-line religious government does not mean that she would welcome western, especially US intervention for regime change in Iran.

It is refreshing to hear a voice like Ebadi’s that strives for justice and democracy, but still working within the tradition of Islam. The Norwegian Nobel committee citation states that “with Islam as her starting point, Ebadi campaigns for peaceful solution to social problems, and promotes new thinking on Islamic terms. She has displayed great personal courage as a lawyer defending individuals and groups who have fallen victim to a powerful political and legal system that is legitimized through an inhumane interpretation of Islam. Ebadi has shown her willingness and ability to cooperate with representatives of secular as well as religious view”.

She is certainly not the first Iranian to advocate such reforms. Intellectuals like Abdul Karim Shoroush and reformist President Khatami have long echoed similar views, at times at some personal cost. In the 70’s Ali Shariati’s impassioned speeches awakened the consciousness of Iranian youths for an Islam that places great emphasis on social justice and democratic principles, throwing their weight behind the revolution, only to be hijacked later by the conservative clerics. The experience of post-revolution Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban are lessons enough that the sway of conservative fundamentalism will unlikely hold on for very long in muslim societies.

Dr. Mazeni Alwi

The Muslim Headscarf : A Tale of 2 Secularisms

The Muslim Headscarf : A Tale of 2 Secularisms
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

In Charles Dickens’ novel, “A tale of two cities”, set around the time of the French revolution, the principal English character, the tragic hero Sidney Carton is portrayed as a sensitive, warm and caring to his fellow men in trouble, even to the point of self-sacrifice, whereas the principal French character, Madame Defarge, a working class woman whose family suffered much at the hands of pre-revolutionary aristocrats, is an uncompromising character whose vengefulness in the end undermined her quest for justice.  In some strange way the portrayals of the novel’s characters somehow personified the political temperament of the English and the French in the encounter between religion and liberalism from the Enlightenment to the modern democratic age.  With the late 20th century phenomenon of waves economic migrants from their former colonies settling in the west, we again witness the contrast in this political temperament when muslims begin to take Islamic teachings more seriously, the most visible aspect of which is muslim women’s dress code.  While France saw this as an affront to its state doctrine of laïcité (French for secularism) and a threat to its conception of the Republic, Britain accommodated to this multicultural reality by trying to integrate her muslim citizens, such that in areas where muslim presence is significant, religious instructions are given in state schools and the head-scarf for girls hardly became such a vexed issue.  After years of struggle, Islamic private schools are given the status of voluntary-aided school and receive state funding in the manner of established Christian and jewish schools.  In some respects, modern Britain serves as a fair example of multiculturalism, religious tolerance and successful integration of second generation immigrants from her former colonies.  In the 2 ½ years that I worked and trained in paediatric cardiology (the branch of medicine that concerns itself with the treatment of children with heart disease), during which time the head-scarf issue exploded in France than a decade ago, we had 2 British muslim doctors of Pakistani origin rotating through our department as part of their post graduate training in paediatrics.  In the universities and the professions, the presence of second generation muslim immigrants today is very much visible.  This is not to say that racism no longer exists in Britain, or prejudice and ignorance towards Islam and muslims are things of the past.  Unemployment and marginalization from mainstream society still affect muslims more than other immigrant communities, but this cannot entirely be blamed on the host society.  It has to be said that positive institutional measures for multiculturalism have in some way led to better integration and social mobility of muslims compared to the situation other western countries.

The liberal atmosphere has also allowed a vibrant discourse on Islam to thrive.  On the one hand writers like Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ali and Hanif Qureishi may have little respect for Islam and its traditions, but others like Ziauddin Sardar, Shabbir Akhtar, Parvez Manzoor and converts like Yusuf Islam and Abdal Hakim Murad actively articulate a refreshing exposition of Islam for the modern readers over a wide range of topics from politics to theology and spirituality.  At the same time, it has to be admitted that freedom of expression has been abused by radical Islamic fringes to freely propagate their ideas and recruit members.  The aftermath of September 11 has sobered up the mainstream muslims to recognize this problem within their midst.

In contrast, muslims in France are in a more difficult predicament.  For a start, an intellectual leadership of the community is lacking.  One does not see a vigorous intellectual defense of Islam or writings on the Islamic tradition for the modern French readers, with Tariq Ramadan who is based in Geneva among the exception.   The kind of social mobility among second generation muslim immigrants that one sees in Britain is almost unheard of, and almost always at the cost of having to dissociate from their parents’ culture and religious traditions.  Multiculturalism is not something that is consciously promoted or celebrated, such that one does not get to see programs like “mind your language” or “thin blue line” on French TV.  Marginalization and exclusion is the sad plight of many young French muslims who live on the fringe of mainstream French society in the grands banlieus (suburbs) of greater Paris, hidden from the multitude of visitors who throng the museums, monuments, cafés and gardens of metropolitan Paris.  This is set to become worse if the government-appointed Commission on Secularism’s recommendation that all conspicuous religious symbols (which means really the muslim headscarf) be banned from state schools becomes law.

Secularism, commonly defined as “separation of church and state” can be discussed and defined at a number of levels – theological, etymological, as political philosophy etc.   In standard Islamist political discourse, secularism is seen as anti-religion because it removes Islam from any role in the public and political sphere.  The forced westernization of Turkey and deliberate suppression of her Islamic heritage through the various state institutions served as the only vivid and lasting example of secularism in the muslim imagination.  Turkey’s secularism is modeled on France’s concept/doctrine of laïcité.   But in our present day context of living in a modern society, secularism is basically about reconciliation or compromise on the role and influence of religious tradition and values in the public/civic sphere – in legal matters, education, governance, social institutions etc.  Secularism seen in this context blunts religious fanaticism or will-to-dominate while allowing freedom of conscience and promotes tolerance of cultural and religious pluralism, all within the frame work of democracy, respect for individual liberties and the primacy reason as the driving force of human civilization and scientific progress.   It is the equilibrium or entente in the tension between religious tradition and values on the one hand and the humanist liberal tradition whose intellectual well-spring was the 18th century Enlightenment (Even so, religious thinkers would argue that liberalism’s ideas of human dignity, brotherhood of man, respect for individual rights properly belong to religion, which in the western context is Christianity).  Good or bad, secularism in the west also means people becoming less religious as society progresses and the equilibrium seems to be always shifting towards that of less and less religion.  As society modernizes it tends to loosen itself from religious strictures and traditions, and religion becomes increasingly relegated to the private sphere.  But even in highly secular western europe, there are still many people, especially among those in Catholic organizations who argue that religion should have an important influence in the public sphere and civic institutions.  This is evident in the debate on wether the christian heritage of europe  should be mentioned in the draft of European Union’s constitution.   Pope John Paul II in his speech to the European Parliament in 1988 urged the deputies not to banish christianity from public debate, “The vocation of christianity is to be present in all domains of existence… .  If one day we were to question the christian foundation  of their continent, if we suppress all reference to ethics, then we might as well reject our European Heritage” (Sous la pression des Églises by Christian Terras, le Monde Diplomatique, January 2004).

If what gives the west its present shape today is this equilibrium that took form as a result of conflict, realignment and compromise between religion and liberal humanism, this process was by no means uniform among european societies.  The particular historical experience of each society shaped the nature of secularism, and no where is this contrast more pronounced as that between France and Britain.  The conflict between the church and the liberals in France that led to the separation of church and state had no parallel in England.  A columnist in the Guardian wrote, “From John Locke onwards, Britain wanted its religion reasonable.  The approach of British Liberalism has been to liberalize religion over the past 200 years, and what we have today is that very English type of faith: tolerant, accommodating Anglicanism” (“Secularism gone mad” by Madeleine Bunting, the Guardian December 18, 2003).    English secularism has always been leavened by this accommodation as the English monarch as Head of State is also the Head of the Church of England.  In modern multicultural Britain where the muslim presence has become visible, this is taken one step further.  The heir to the English throne the HRH Prince Charles, known for his very accommodating view on Islam, sometimes raises the ire of those who see the hallowed traditions of englishness being threatened by multiculturalism.

France, on the other hand has had a long history of bruising confrontation between the Church and proponents of liberalism, the outcome of which wrote its way into its conception and ideals of the Republic, where “laïcité” (secularism) became enshrined as state doctrine.  France’s secularism has its roots in the struggle against the power and influence of the Catholic church which had traditionally been aligned to the monarchy.  The 18th century Enlightenment philosophers led ideological attacks on two sorts of absolutism, Royal and Theological.  The movement’s clamour for “freedom of thought” and “reference to reason” sought to achieve political and spiritual liberation and this formed the basis of western liberal tradition and scientific progress.  While in the liberal atmosphere of Georgian Britain religious toleration and freedom of publication generally flourished, the harsher realities of repression and persecution gave the writings of the French Enlightenment a tone that is more bitter and less compromising.  The French Revolution brought about a head-on clash between the Church and the new state, the French Republic.  Church assets were confiscated and priests made to swear allegiance to the Republic.  The fortunes of the Church waxed and waned during the successive phases of the French state, reaching its peak again during the imperial reign of Napoleon III.   As the 19th century drew to a close, France was rocked by a major scandal that bitterly divided French society, the “Dreyfus affair”, where a Jewish officer in the French army was accused of treason for spying for the Germans.   The republicans and the majority of French intellectuals, notable among whom was the writer Emile Zola defended Dreyfus, claiming a racially motivated conspiracy.  On the other side were the nationalists, the Military and the Church.  When Dreyfus was finally cleared, the French nation was deeply divided and traumatized, and amid renewed anti clerical militancy, the third Republic decreed the law on separation of Church and State in 1905.  This has been the basis of the French state since, where there is  supposed to be strict official neutrality in religious affairs.  Whereas in Britain secularism means accommodation of religion and freedom conscience in an atmosphere of liberalism, in France, secularism became a sacralized state doctrine through the principle of laïcité.

With weakening of religious traditions and traditional ways of living, laïque humanism derived from the French liberal tradition, purportedly free of religious moorings, can lay claim as forming the basis of ethics, moral code and law.  Anything that has its basis in religion is viewed with suspicion and disdain, and religion connotes repressive dogmas that corrupt the mind.   “Laïcité aims to develop in human nature, within the framework of a permanent intellectual, moral and civic formation, a critical mind along with a feeling of solidarity and brotherhood… .  It tends to institute, beyond ideological, community or national differences, a human society favourable to everyone’s enlightenment, a society from which all exploitation or conditioning of man by man, all fanatical spirit, hate and violence will be excluded” (from the “White Book of Laïcité” – source: the internet, author unknown).  In the document, laïcité also makes the assumption that identification with cultural, religious and linguistic differences must necessarily lead to violent conflicts.

In the particular historical context of conflict between the catholic church and anti-clerical proponents of the French Republic, laïcité as state doctrine, in theory held great promise as a vehicle of achieving social cohesiveness and a sense of shared destiny for the French nation.  But in the face of late 20th century phenomenon of immigration from her former colonies, laïcité has not quite lived up to its promise of a secular utopia.  Those familiar with modern French society understands the phenomenon of exclusion, marginalization, and high rate of unemployment and criminality among the second generation immigrant Arabs and blacks, and conversely, the elitism of the French upper class.

Having said that, modern civilization owes a great deal to France’s liberal, humanist tradition, whose challenge against the excesses of the powerful church was in many ways justified, and the anti-religious strain of French secularism that emerged triumphantly from this conflict and the concept of the làique Republic is seen as perculiarly her own.   With weakening of religious tradition, laïcité has not been a problem either as the French nation had remained essentially european in character, even as France had to absorb many refugees and immigrants from her neighbours who shared the same christian heritage in the interwar years.

But cracks began to appear when France, over a short period at the close of the 20th century has a sizeable non european minority with a religion that has had a long history of conflict with christianity, i.e. immigrant Arabs from her former colonies in North Africa.  The encounter between laïcité and a less than welcome, sometimes troublesome minority with their peculiar religious expressions and practices was bound to be problematic.  Muslims in France are constantly reminded to adapt themselves to the concept of laïcité, without which their loyalty as citizens of the Republic remains suspect.  However the first obstacle for muslims to adapt themselves to this doctrine is the impreciseness of this concept and the absence of unanimity in definition.    Alain Boyer, official in charge of religious affairs in the Interior Ministry during the socialist government 1980 – 1990 admitted that laïcité has a wide range of interpretations.  He gave three explicit understandings of the term, “firstly, laïcité as the will to limit the role of religion and to outline the role of the individual according to an institutional framework consisting of on one side, the law (proposed by Jules Ferry) of 1881, 1884, and on the other, the separation of Church and state.   Secondly, laïcité has also become synonymous with anti-clericalism, even irreligiousity.  It has become a new faith, with its own militants and its own temple.  Thirdly, laïcité is also a philosophy, a value that is transmitted, particularly in moral education and civic instruction in state schools that has replaced religious instruction” (Quoted in Marianne et le prophète – l’Islam dans la France laïque by Soheib Bencheikh, 1998, Grasset, Paris.  “Marianne” is symbol of the French Republic.  The author is mufti of Marseilles).

Although laïcité in theory means positive neutrality of the state in matters of religion, with people generally becoming less religious, this has come to be associated with disdain for anything that smells of religion, and the term laïque becomes interchangeable with not having any religious belief.  With instructions in the christian religion excluded from state schools, the anti-clerical and anti-religious elements have appropriated laïcité and turned it into the new religion of the sophisticated, modern man.  According to a researcher on muslims in France, “laïcité has been corrupted into militant, dogmatic philosophy dominated by positivism” (Jocelyne Cesari, from Marianne et le prophète).   It is thus when some muslim girls insist on wearing the head scarf to school, this is seen as a threat to French secularity by Islamic religious militants, to be countered with the vehemence of ages past, never mind that these girls come from a powerless, marginalized and economically weak minority.  Little consideration is given to the fact many muslims view the wearing the head scarf as a religious injunction, a right to which they are entitled to within the frame work of democracy in most societies, rather than an ostentatious religious symbol.

If ignorance and the monopoly of laïcité by anti-clerical republicans is one obstacle that muslims in France face in trying to adapt to the French concept of laïcité, an even bigger hurdle is prejudice towards Islam and muslims.  On the vexed question of the Islamic head scarf in state schools, it makes many wonder if the doctrine of laïcité has been used by Islamophobes and racist elements of French society as a cover for their prejudice towards Islam.  This prejudice has historically deeper roots in the european psyche than secularism and the liberal philosophy, stretching back to medieval times when Islam’s rapid expansion threatened european Christendom.  Spain was conquered and ruled by muslims for 800 years and muslim forces advanced north as far as Tours in France.  The Age of Reason ushered in by the Enlightenment has not been able to deal adequately with this deeply embedded prejudice, such that even a towering figure like Voltaire vacillated between treating Muhammad as a profound political thinker and founder of a rational religion, and an impostor who enslaved souls by resorting to religious fables.  Is it against such a backdrop of prejudice that the muslim head-scarf has become such a thorny issue?  President Jacques Chirac commented that there was something “aggressive” about the wearing of a head-scarf.  The proponents the ban say that it threatens the social peace and national cohesion of the French Republic.  And so the standard arguments followed, that it is a symbol of oppression of women by a patriarchal religion, that it is an instrument of propaganda for an intolerant version of Islam, and women who wear them are necessarily radical extremists who support terrorism.

Such prejudicial attitudes belie the hypocrisy of dogmatic, “fundamentalist” secularists when it comes to Islam and muslims.  Laïcité may have its roots in secular humanism and the primacy reason, but it refuses to be reasonable nor rational in its dealing with muslims, paralysed by the millennium-old conflict between medieval Christendom and Islam.  It ignores the voices of muslim women who wear the head scarf out of choice and claim to feel liberated by it.  Liberalism assumes that in this post-modern, post-feminist age, everyone shares its concept of liberty.  The Taliban government enforced the Burqa on Afghan women, but the issue of the head scarf must be viewed as separate from the serious and dangerous issue of religious fanaticism and terrorism among muslims.  Many in europe, muslims and non muslims, have expressed the concern that the head scarf ban risks further exclusion of muslims, and out of desperation, some muslim youths may be lured to find meaning in religious extremism and terrorism (the story of French moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui, “the twentieth hijacker”, in the simple book “Zacarias, my brother – the making of a terrorist” by Abd Samad Moussaoui and Florence Bouquillat, 2003, Seven Stories Press, New York, provides a useful insight into this disturbing phenomenon).  At a time when muslims in the west are finding themselves on the ropes in the aftermath of September 11, muslim leaders and intellectuals should actively participate to re-centre the debate on secularism/laïcité away from the monopoly of those who view religion with disdain and contempt.  Ethnic and religious pluralism is the modern reality.  The idea of racial and cultural purity of nation-states hardly apply to many societies today and secularism/laïcité sacralized as state doctrine formulated in a different historical context needs to be adapted to this modern reality.

It is interesting that a federation of Christian associations, “Reseau du Parvis” recently created l’Observatoire Chretien de la Laïcité (a think tank devoted to promoting a more modern form of laïcité relevant to the pluralism of europe today), and published its manifesto in the January issue of Le Monde Diplomatique.  In its initiative to bring a fresh debate into secularism, it takes as its starting point Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights : Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observation.   Muslims, forming as much a part of today’s plural world as christians, have as much a stake in this debate.  Instead of making a blanket condemnation of secularism as an anti-religious ideology, we should make it work as a principle of accommodation and peaceful co-existence within the framework of Democracy and respect for Human Rights, as a compromise between the opposing poles of religious exclusivism/domination and a self-absorbed liberalism born of hubris against the gods.

Dr. Mazeni Alwi