Speaking with a forked tongue: whither Malaysia’s moderate Islam?

Responding to the fatwa against their group, Sisters in Islam are calling for the promotion of love and compassion in Islam, in the face of rising extremism and intolerance in Malaysia.

Zainah Anwar
6 November 2014

On Oct 31, Sisters in Islam filed an application for a judicial review in the High Court of Malaysia against a fatwa declaring the group deviant for subscribing to "liberalism and pluralism" in religion.

People holding a large banner

Banner reads: "Challenge all fatwas that oppress women"In 2002, Sisters in Islam wrote a letter to the editor of the Star, asking why the right of those who publicly preach hate, injustice, discrimination, intolerance and extremism are protected, while the right of other citizens who speak out for justice, equality, tolerance, respect and moderation in Islam are denied?

Woman speaks at a press conference

Suriani Kempe of Sisters in Islam challenges the legitimacy of the fatwaThe question remains as valid today. Why is Ibrahim Ali’s (Malaysia) call to burn the Bibles (in the Malay language because it refers to God as Allah) regarded as protecting the sanctity of Islam, while Syed Azmi al Habshi’s effort  to help Muslims overcome their fear of dogs regarded as an insult to Islam?

Logo of the Selangor Fatwa Committee

The latest fatwa from the Selangor Fatwa Committee to declare Sisters in Islam (SIS)  and anyone, organisation or institution, that subscribes to “liberalism and pluralism” in Islam as “sesat and menyeleweng” (deviant) is yet further indication of this headlong descent into a puritanical, extremist, intolerant brand of Islam in Malaysia.

And to be sure, this state-level fatwa has also ordered a federal institution, the Malaysian Multimedia and Communications Commission, to block all social media sites that are “against the teachings of Islam and Hukum Syarak” -  howsoever they define it. No reason, justification, or any explanation of  terminologies used in the fatwa is given. That this violates the rules of fatwa-making in Islamic legal theory and practice escapes the scrutiny of those who should know better.

And this is coming from officialdom in a country that claims to lead a global movement of moderates, and that pledged to take its campaign for moderation to the UN Security Council.

The irony is that when Malaysians boast to foreigners about the moderate Islam of Malaysia, it is Sisters in Islam (SIS), the civil society organisation declared as “sesat and menyeleweng” (deviant) that is regarded internationally as a measure of its moderation. When, some years ago, the government brought in a procession of western journalists, academics, political aides and congressional staffers to visit the country to promote better understanding of Malaysia and repair its dented image in the West, everyone of them was sent to visit Sisters in Islam. Our existence was used as evidence that the Malaysian government was open and democratic and practices moderate Islam. And SIS made quite a bit of money selling our publications -  thirsty as the visitors were to learn more about an Islam that is compatible with women’s rights and human rights.

But this Jekyll and Hyde charade the government plays for different audiences in different locations, and at different times, will eventually fall apart. For there is a runaway train that is heading towards a crash.

For too long this government has given almost a carte blanche to the religious authorities and the belligerent Muslim supremacists to take the lead and define what Islam is, and is not, in Malaysia, and who are the good Muslims and the bad Muslims. Malaysia’s moderate Islam is only touted for Western consumption. A discordant tune is played on the home front.

But Malaysians know better. Just look at the chatter on social media and you find increasing numbers of Muslims speaking out, sick and tired of being told, yet again, of more categories of Muslims and practices to be denounced, hated and declared deviant.

How many more Muslims must be hated to satiate the hunger of the self-appointed puritanical representatives of the faith to construct enemies in order to justify their existence and purpose in life? 

I wish those in religious authority would realise that life is so much easier, and work so much more satisfying, if they spend their time promoting the beauty, love, kindness and compassion of Islam to draw Muslims closer to the faith. Instead, they are turning many Muslims against this despotic institutionalization of their faith, and into rejecting the Islam represented by state authority. It is not rocket science to figure out that love and compassion can help to restore the religious legitimacy our ulama seek, much faster than condemnation and punishment. 

I highly recommend that they take a break from seeing threats every which way they turn, and spend 30 minutes reading and digesting the new Sultan of Perak’s message on Maal Hijrah. He cited the examples of the early Muslim community that successfully spread the message of Islam by being open minded, magnanimous, moderate, self confident, and by rejecting extremist voices - accepting diversity and respecting differences. 

He listed the overwhelming change that has taken place in the world over the centuries, not least the new values of transparency and openness, human rights, freedom of expression and political participation. The Muslim mind needs to embark on its own journey of Hijrah to deal with the challenges of today’s world, because the old governing order has lost its legitimacy.

Can I suggest to the religious authorities that instead of issuing more fatwas to silence more Muslims, let’s exercise the mind and be challenged on how best to understand those wonderfully wondrous verses in the Qur’an - how God has created us into “nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other”, about how God would have made humankind into  a “single ummah” if he had so willed, but he wanted us to be diverse. How can this message of the Qur’an which sanctions diversity as a primary purpose of creation be understood and practised in modern day Malaysia? 

Wouldn’t it be a far more spiritually uplifting journey to undertake and put to test those years of studying Islam in madrasahs and Islamic faculties? Malaysia is a ready-made lab in which to work out God’s message of diversity and plurality and translate it into deeds amidst the realities of the 21st century. What an exciting journey of possibilities!

 61.3% Muslim, 19.8 Buddhist, 9.2% Christian, 6.3% Hindu

Religious belief amongst the Malaysian populationIs it any wonder then that in the absence of leadership that reflects Islamic values of kindness and compassion, justice and equality, other Muslims have embarked on their own journeys to discover and live the beauty of Islam as they understand it. To find ways to reconcile their faith and their feminism, their faith and their activism, their faith and their everyday realities. For many of us, it is too hard to live a life filled with hatred, conflict and dissonance, forced to make choices between our multiple interests and identities.

The fact that so many Muslims converged to touch a dog (an animal considered unclean to many Muslims), and the obvious joy on their faces, shows what a liberating experience it was to be able to break free from an unnatural constraint on their love for animals, and to feel the comfort that hugging household pets bring. It was as simple and humane as that. The fact that they then performed their ritual cleansing showed how much they wanted to remain within the boundaries of their faith. They could exercise their interest in dogs with the teachings of Islam.

What Syed Azmi Habshi did was to show a kind and compassionate face of Islam. Just as he did not expect the outpouring of desire among so many Muslims to touch dogs, little did he expect the outpouring of hate subsequently from extremist Muslims, and, what's more, the wrath of institutional Islam that befell him.

As many Malaysians have written, the apoplectic response of those in religious authority is really more a reflection of their fear of further loss of power and control over the flock.

If not for anything else, in the interest of self-preservation, really a little love, kindness and compassion could go a long way to bring back the flock.

This article is an adapted version of a column written by the author and published in the Sunday Star of Malaysia 2 November.

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