Monday, 9 November 2009

Religious Persecution? Man Proposes, Man Disposes?

Religion, I reiterate holds very little meaning to me but this does not prevent me from respecting another person's right of worship. What irks me are some believers who in all their hubris and fervor, attempt to marginalize and label people who do not share their faith.

I encourage my two kids to seek their own path when it comes to spiritual development and to explore various belief systems, including mainstream religion. They are cautioned not to judge although sometimes this is easier said than done. Nevertheless, JJ goes for Christian cell meetings (I think more for social rather than redemption reasons) some Fridays and according to him, is still looking. Krystyn is in her own New Age world.

Both of them attended government schools their entire primary and secondary school years in the 90s till this decade and were exposed to the full force of government sponsored racial polarization; it was a Malay (therefore, Muslim) versus a non-Malay situation.

They both have close friends of various faiths including Malay Muslims and growing up in the Malaysia of these two decades, it suffices to say, my kids do not comment on Islam. Their years in government schools have conditioned them to just "zip it" in the face of over-zealous Muslim teachers and fellow students. I suspect it is not so much because of Islam per se but more about them being non-Muslim which compounds the differentiation imposed under the NEP between bumiputra and non-bumiputra.

It is also not because they know very much about Islam but it suffices to say the impression they have precludes any possibility of them ever choosing to convert. They probably feel they would only be Muslim if born into the faith and I dare say they would even avoid marrying a Muslim to avoid conversion or having their kids being born in a Muslim family.

That is sad because I think my kids do not have totally the right impression and as a parent, I am party to the blame. Having been born in 1959 and though still young then, I know Malaysia in the breezy 60s was a far cry from the religiosity of the succeeding decades. I know of many successful inter-marriages and have many good Malay friends. Yet I have seen my Muslim Malay friends change over the years just as I have seen the Malay Muslim change during that time.

But if Islam has been around for more than 1300 years and the Malays perhaps even longer, then what is it that really changed? Perhaps it is the Malays' impression of Islam that has changed. This is evident in the siege mentality that creates the proclivity to "defend" Islam at the slightest turn. This paranoia-induced defensiveness in turn resulted in the insularity that shuts out all others to the point that many Muslim Malays feel that non-Muslims have no right to even talk about Islam.

This was perfect for the divide-and-rule concept of race-based politics and the BN encouraged it by allowing our children to be drawn apart by race and religion; their unity message lip-service against the reality of blatant racists actions is sickening. Everything done by the government in the name of Islam was deemed positive and this eventually allowed opportunities for certain Islamic fundamentalists and zealots in government Islamic affairs departments (e.g. JAIS, JAKIM, etc.) to "hijack" moderate Islam and impose their brand on the masses.

Now it appears the Islamists are testing the strength of Najib on matters of religion by their recent treatment of the moderate former Mufti of Perlis, Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. But the fact that there are now open differing opinions amongst the Islamic intelligentsia about the ongoing tussle is refreshing and hopeful. Will moderation triumph over extremism?

How the government reacts will decide whether the country needs to merely pose or becomes a true model "moderate" Muslim country. Will moderate politicians continue to cower in silence for fear of being labelled as anti-God, anti-Islam and anti-syariah, or will the masses be blinded by opportunistic ones who shamelessly and dangerously fly the flag of Islam to advance their short-term political agenda? Will it ultimately be Malaysian civil society that has to show courageous civic leadership where political leadership has failed us?

Divide and rule race-based politics has turned on itself and evolved into creeping class-based politics that ultimately divided even the Malays! The excesses of the elitist coterie; the UMNOputras and their multi-racial BN cronies have alienated the urban Malay voters. How else to explain that after GE12 there was an increase in the total number of Malay Parliamentarians but many were in the Opposition. There was no erosion of Malay representation in Parliament! Malay politics now faces a political war for the Malay rural heartland which is the traditional UMNO stronghold.

However, on the Islamic front there is a war raging for the Malay hearts. With PAS trying to curb extremism and stand by its PR partners, it is not too late for Najib to win bouquets by coming out with a bold declaration what moderate Islam he envisages his 1Malaysia to advocate.

I hope my Malay (Muslim) brethren will decide well for ALL Malaysians in this epic moment of this nation's history. It is no longer just about political wars but a war for the nation's soul.

This article by Zainah Anwar in yesterday's The Star is a must read.

Whither moderation?

The arrest of a progressive ulama has plunged many Malay sians into further despair that this country is hurtling towards an implosion but it may prove a blessing in disguise.

What else needs to happen before our political leaders on both sides of the divide find the will and courage to walk the talk of seeing a plural, diverse Malaysia as a source of strength and not a threat?

That a former mufti who holds progressive views and challenges the conservative religious authorities could be arrested and treated as if he was Noordin Mat Top just shows how far those pushing for an Islamic state and syariah supremacy are willing to go to ensure that their rigid and intolerant understanding of Islam prevails.

That this arrest and attacks on Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin led by the Malaysian Asso ciation of Syariah Lawyers (PGSM) and its Islamist allies, including Muslim Youth Move ment of Malaysia (Abim) and Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), should take place now is clearly a concerted effort to test the strength of the new Prime Minister on matters of religion.

Similarly, these Islamists have also relaunched another round of attacks against Sisters in Islam by reportedly lodging over 50 police reports against the group and holding public forums, this time led by the extremist Hizbur Tahrir, a global Islamist group intent on reviving the Islamic Caliphate.

Speaking his mind: Dr Asri, a former mufti, was accused of illegally delivering a religious talk in Selangor.

Little known in Malaysia, but banned or investigated in other countries, the Malaysian branch of Hizbur Tahrir has become more public in its activities, with banners in various neighbourhoods and announcements of events in mosques after Friday prayers.

For years now, the Islamic state ideologues have been pushing the boundaries of the forbidden in Malaysia. They have been relentless in their attacks on those working on women’s rights and fundamental liberties as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution and in pushing for the expansion of syariah jurisdiction in Malaysia.

They include areas such as freedom of religion, the right of the non-converting wife and children when a husband converts to Islam, moral policing, book banning, seizure of Bibles written in Bahasa Malaysia, fatwa on kongsi raya, yoga, pluralism, liberalism, to the sprouting of Islamist NGOs under all manner of names signing all kinds of petitions against fundamental liberties.
From matters such as making police reports against progressive groups and individuals, to holding rallies and seminars with inflammatory titles such as “Islam Di Hina”, “Umat Islam diCabar”, “Bahaya Murtad”, “Bahaya Islam Liberal”, the Govern ment and the opposition have largely failed to support the moderate social forces of Malay sian society.

While moderate politicians cower in silence in fear of being labelled as anti-God, anti-Islam and anti-syariah, or opportunistic ones shamelessly and dangerously fly the flag of Islam to advance their short-term political agenda, it is Malaysian civil society that has shown courageous civic leadership where political leadership has failed us.

Now that a religious leader from within the establishment has become the target of these intolerant Islamist forces inside and outside government, will the political leadership finally show the courage needed to act?

What kind of Islam does the Prime Minister envi sage in his 1Malaysia? Certainly not the Islam of the Selangor State Religious Depart ment (JAIS) and the PGSM who accused Dr Asri of all manner of dastardly insults to Islam as they perceive it.

While the arrest of Dr Asri plunged many Malaysians into further despair that this country is hurtling towards an implosion, I think it is actually a blessing in disguise.

It is obvious that both the JAIS and the PGSM and their Islamist allies have made a tactical error, underestimating the popular support that Dr Asri and his ideas enjoy in this country.
It is time for the silent majority of moderate Muslims in Malaysia to speak out. Certain ly Dr Asri’s supporters at the Mahkamah Syariah Gombak on Monday stood up to be counted.

While Dr Asri talked of “hidden hands” behind his arrest, neither the federal government nor the Selangor state government claims responsibility for this display of state power against a former mufti.
What could be the motive when a state religious authority combined with federal law and order forces display heavy-handed powers to arrest an Islamic scholar for his progressive ideas that challenge the authoritaria­nism of Islam in Malaysia? Who called the shots? Who really is in control?
For me, this debacle is once again evidence of the unenforceability of the invasive powers of the Syariah Criminal Offence laws of this country. In this instance, the provision that makes it an offence for anyone to teach Islam without certification (tauliah) from the state religious authorities.

When is someone teaching Islam and when is he not? Who has the authority to decide on that? What are the criteria that constitute teaching of Islam? On what basis are some certified to teach Islam, some are not, some are prosecuted while many more others can freely preach hatred, racial ill-will, and miso gyny in the name of Islam?

Just listen to the ceramahs amplified over loudspeakers for all in the neighbourhood to hear, even when you don’t want to.

Then there is the larger issue of whether this specific provision restricting freedom of speech is against Islamic principles that uphold diversity and differences in Islam and against constitutional guarantees of fundamental liberties.

Yet again, the enforcement of this ill-advised, badly drafted syariah law with its wide range of “sins” turned into crimes against the state and restrictions over the exercise of fundamental freedoms has led to public outrage.
There is an obvious disconnect between public opinion and societal values on what constitutes fair and just in Islam, and the intolerant, punitive, misogynistic Islam of those who conveniently use God’s authority to justify despotism in the name of Islam.
As more foreign scholars and journalists come to Malaysia to study this supposedly model “moderate” Muslim country, they go away surprised at the range of laws, mechanisms and structures in the name of Islam that control and restrict Muslim rights and freedoms.
They are shocked that a modern country like Malaysia could have unprecedented laws that make it a crime if one disobeys a fatwa, that turn moral obligations before God into legal obligations before the state, that turn sins into crimes, that confuse what is haram (forbidden), wajib (obligatory), sunat (recommended), harus (permissible) and makruh(discouraged) in its laws.

That Dr Asri could be accused of being a Wahhabi, at the same time a liberal, a progressive, a radical, is just one measure of that confusion and ignorance in Malaysia.

It is not possible to be liberal or progressive and Wahhabi at the same time. If at all, those who signed the memorandum written by the PGSM are the Wahhabi followers.
The puritanical Wahhabi movement which spread throughout the Muslim world over the past few decades, fuelled by Saudi petro-dollars, negates the diversity and complexity of the Muslim juristic heritage.

Dr Asri’s position on issues such as freedom of religion, differences of opinion in Islam, the imperative for reform, his criticisms of the delays and bias against women in the syariah courts, of khalwat laws and invasion of privacy, book banning and fatwa against yoga and kongsi raya have put him on the wrong side of the conservatives who dominate the religious bureaucracy and the Islamic state ideologues and their supremacist thinking.

Dr Asri is no Wahhabi. And it is obvious who the Wahhabis in the Malaysian political scene are.
The Egyptian legal scholar, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, wrote that while submission to God is at the core of the Islamic creed, this does not mean blind submission to those who claim to represent God’s law.

For too long in this country, those who claim to speak in God’s name have cowed too many into silent submission and perpetual ignorance. For too long, our political leaders have not shown the courage or the will to fully deal with the threat posed by these religious zealots within government and their own parties.

What is desperately needed now is leadership, courage, and vision to stand up for what is right for Malaysia – that there is no place in a country like ours for an Islam that is punitive, cruel, misogynistic, and intolerant.

More than any other country in the world, Malaysia with its historical embrace of all races and religions, its celebration of diversity and pluralism, its gentler and kinder Islam, plus its economic success story and its political stability should be better placed to lead the Muslim world into a modern and prosperous age in the midst of extremism, calamities and despair that beset the ummah.

It is a tragedy that this government has poured hundreds of millions into numerous religious institutions supposedly to enable Malaysia to take the lead as a model moderate Muslim country – only to find its Islamic agenda hijacked by the very ideology that has contributed to the decay of other Muslim countries, where Muslims killing other Muslims for their belief and political affiliation have become the norm.

God forbid that is the future of Malaysia.

As all the political leaders seem to agree that the country is at a turning point, that their party members must change and face difficult realities of a changing and diverse electorate, of a globalised competitive world that waits for no man, of the rise of China and India, can they also please embrace the reality that an Islam of kindness and compassion, of diversity and differences, of equality and justice constitute what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century?


Ex-mufti: Conspiracy not political, but religious

Former Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin has claimed that a 'conspiracy' authored by religious authorities might have led to his arrest on Sunday night.

In an interview with Malaysiakini today, the 38-year-old Islamic scholar dismissed the possibility that there were political elements involved.

Asri said that his vocal and critical views against some religious authorities could have ruffled feathers, resulting in him being targeted.

He was also mystified by the large number of police personnel and officials from the Selangor Islamic Department (Jais) who were deployed to arrest him.

"It does not make any sense that there were more than 10 police personnel and 30 Jais officers during my arrest. It looks as if they were arresting a terrorist!" he lamented.

"And at the court the next morning, there was still nothing, no charges, or investigation," he added.

Asri was arrested after delivering a religious discourse at a bungalow in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, on the grounds that he had no authorisation to do so.

Among others who had attended the talk were Ampang PKR MP Zuraida Kamaruddin and Hulu Kelang state assemblyperson Saari Sungib.

His arrest drew flak from various quarters, including Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

It was speculated that his detention could have been related to his proposed appointment as the new president of the Islamic Da'wah Foundation of Malaysia.

His appointment was opposed by the Syarie Lawyers Association of Malaysia (PGSM) on the grounds that he had insulted certain Islamic scholars.

The association had also sent a memorandum, backed by the 13 Muslim non-governmental organisations, to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on this matter.

Blogger Rapera has this to add:

Can Islamic issues be discussed without the permission of the religious authorities?

Dr Mohd Asri’s recent debacle with Jais has raised very pertinent questions for the Nation as a whole. Initially reports seem to suggest that his dramatic arrest (there were almost 30 police personnel and Jais officers) concerns him delivering a lecture on Islam without a “tauliah”. For all practical purposes, a “tauliah” will denote permission from the relevant religious authorities to lecture on “matters Islamic”. This need for permission from religious authorities before someone can speak on Islamic matters raises serious issues.

1. Firstly, the impact on an ordinary Muslim’s right and duty to share and exchange views on Islam. It is every Muslim’s duty to call people towards the performance of good deeds and the avoidance of evil deeds. This duty will necessarily involve a Muslim speaking from his Muslim perspective and from his understanding of the Quran and Sunnah. It will appear from the arrest of a former Mufti for purportedly giving his views on Islamic issues that prior permission must be obtained from the religious authority before any Muslim wants to express his views on Islam. There is now this confusion and concern among the Muslims in the country.

The ordinary Muslim is not aware that there is a need to obtain prior permission from the religious authorities before they can share their views on Islam or engage in a discussion on Islamic issues. If indeed this permission is required under the State syariah laws, several other questions may arise. What are the criteria of approval or is it merely arbitrary? Who decides the criteria on behalf of the millions of Muslims in this country? Will this impinge on the Muslim’s duty to practice his Muslim obligations without fear or favour? If at all the Muslims in this country feel that there must be control over the Muslim’s right of expression, then surely there must clear and publicized set of guidelines/rules?

2. Secondly, it also raises concerns whether academics, bloggers, columnists and such will now be subjected to the requirement that they must first obtain prior approval from the religious authorities before they can express their views and thoughts. Again, one needs to consider whether such a requirement will in the long run stifle academic and intellectual development in Islamic thought since the ones who are going to determine whether permission should be granted or not are paid civil servants. There is also the issue of mazhab preference and issue-centric preference. What will happen if the “approval person” of the day is not inclined to the thoughts of a particular mazhab? This will result in the general public not benefiting from the knowledge.

3. As a result of point (2) above, we have to seriously consider the impact on the growth and development of Islamic thought in the country. It is a real possibility that control over the expression and discussion of diverse views on Islam will lead to the existence of only one mode of thinking and state of mind which need not necessarily be consonant with the principles of the Quran and the Sunnah. If laws and state apparatus are used to control the ordinary Muslim’s mind, then who is to question whether what is stated is indeed consistent with the Quran and the Sunnah? Under such a regime, any sincere effort to invite alternative thinking and to consider alternative interpretations will become a state offence.

4. Thirdly, one has to ask what is the role of the Federal Constitution in all these. Article 10 (1) of the Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression to all the citizens subject only to such restrictions as Parliament may pass pursuant to Article 10(2). It is arguable that requiring a Muslim to seek permission from the State before he can speak or write on his own religion is an infringement of his constitutional rights so long as they do not offend the provisions under Article 10 (2).

5. Fourthly, Article 11 (1) guarantees that, subject to clause (4), every citizen has the right to practice and profess his religion. Surely this right must also extend to the Muslim citizen to profess and practice his religion. Surely the Muslim also has equal protection (Article 8) and rights under the law as the non-Muslims? However, while the non-Muslim does not have to seek prior approval to organize talks or seminars with regards to his religion, the Muslim citizen appears to have this added hurdle to cross in order to exercise his rights under Article 10 and Article 11 (1). Is this constitutional? Is this legal? I will not ask the question if this hurdle is consistent with the Quran since it is not (my humble view – stand to be corrected).

6. Fifthly, this Dr Asri episode also requires us to visit and understand article 11 (4) of the Federal Constitution. Art 11 (4) provides that state and federal laws may control or restrict the propagation of any religious beliefs or doctrines among persons professing the religion of Islam. All this while, many lawyers I have spoken to have usually interpreted this to refer to the propagation of other religions to Muslims. However, the word used in the constitution is “any” religion and in the “Islamic world” there are diverse views even though the basic belief is the same. Hence, on these two facts coupled with Dr Asri’s episode, will it not be correct to say that Article 11 (4) may be interpreted to mean that even a Muslim may be restricted to propagate Islamic doctrines and beliefs to another Muslim or group of Muslims? Possibly the “correct” interpretation is that only authorized persons can propagate “Islamic beliefs and doctrines” to Muslims citizens. In other words, “state determined Islam” which will therefore be largely dependant on “who (person/individuals) is the real ‘state’ at the particular time”. Mind boggling? Yes, this is what happens when you legislate faith!

I welcome comments on the above article as I think it has immense far reaching implications not only on the issues of law but also on the position of the Muslim as being a servant of Allah.


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