Thursday, March 25, 2010

Malaysia, the model Muslim country

By Shanon Shah


BACK when he was deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak pledged that Malaysia would become "a role model to the Islamic world". He said this in the middle of the 2009 Kuala Terengganu by-election, which Najib's Barisan Nasional (BN) eventually lost to Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

Najib's pledge was poetic, since a "role model" is supposed to be an outstanding example of its kind, or an example of excellence that others might want to emulate. Could Najib have foreseen events such as the infamous cow-head protest, the "Allah" controversy, the ensuing arson attacks on churches and other houses of worship, and the syariah caning of three Muslim women when he promised this? It would be unfair to expect Najib to be clairvoyant. Still, he is now the prime minister.

And as premier, surely Najib has to reconcile these events which happened under his watch with the lofty promise he made more than a year ago. After all, a model Muslim country cannot be one where citizens' rights and liberties, including the right to be safe from violence, are trampled on by the state or non-state actors in the name of Islam.

Violence and silence

Malaysia, land of violence in the name of Islam, a role model to the Islamic world?

Malaysians had a taste of violent threats in the name of Islam in August 2009 when the cow-head protesters threatened bloodshed over the planned relocation of a Hindu temple to a Muslim-majority area. And then in January 2010, several churches, and also other houses of worship, became targets of arson and vandalism in the midst of the "Allah" controversy.

It could be argued that these violent incidents were the work of fringe community actors, which exist even in the most democratic of countries. The troubling thing is that Malaysia's state authorities, too, appear complicit, or at the very least immobile in handling violence in the name of Islam.

Take the legitimate public outcry over the syariah caning of the three Muslim women for "illicit sex" including in the media. The Star's piece by one of its editors, P Gunasegaram, was one such example of the media voicing out concern over how religion was being used by the state to perpetuate violence and compulsion. For speaking up, several police reports were lodged against Gunasegaram for "insulting Islam", and not just by fringe community actors.

Indeed, even state bodies descended into the ring. The Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) was one body that lodged the report. The Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) upheld Mais's actions via Friday sermons in mosques all across Selangor.

If one were to be cynical, perhaps Malaysia truly has become a model for other "Islamic countries". In an electoral democracy and plural society such as ours, it is an achievement indeed for Islamic religious authorities to increasingly influence the justice system, government and public opinion.

But on the other hand, this influence has not spread as a result of reasoned and open public debate. It has rather been the result of Islamist groups — both within state and community spheres — telling all those with doubts or differing opinions, "Shut up, or else."

Happy Kelantan

We could put this down to the BN government's authoritarian strategy. But are the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-led states better Islamic role models for Malaysians? Take the Selangor government. In 2009, state religious exco Datuk Dr Hassan Ali wanted mosque officials to nab alcohol-consuming Muslims. He also tried to squeeze the minority Ahmadiyah community out of its Selayang headquarters.

Nevertheless, the PR maintains that it can be a better role model than the BN when it comes to Islamic governance. Take the PAS-led Kelantan government. During the 2009 Bagan Pinang by-election, PAS held an expo, Kenali Kelantan, to sing the praises of happy, Islamic Kelantan. According to the expo, Kelantan is peaceful, corruption-free and devoid of immoral activities.

Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat

And yet, strange things in the name of Islam have been happening in Kelantan, too. Although Menteri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat questioned their motives, two under-aged Muslim girls were married to adult men in Kelantan recently. In 2005, Kelantan was also in the headlines when it emerged that a 20-year-old
Muslim woman was taken away by a bomoh after she was allegedly forced to marry someone else. In 2000, a 17 year-old girl, raped by her 36 year-old father, was prosecuted by the Kelantan Syariah Court for zina — the court considered her a willing partner rather than a rape and incest survivor.

Surely there is a disconnect here somewhere. After all, the Kelantan government has not let up in strictly policing personal morals, especially of women. Yet these disturbing instances of violence against women and girls — Muslims at that — continue. Incidentally, Kelantan also has the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in Malaysia, although the link between this and the state's Islamic policies remains unproven.

Real Islamic role models

Advocates of greater Islamisation in Malaysia will likely see this analysis as an attack on Islam. It is not. All across the Muslim world, we can witness inspiring, or at the least encouraging, developments where Muslim governments and societies have elevated the rights of their citizens with Islam as their inspiration.

Take the sweeping, egalitarian reforms to Morocco's Islamic family law in 2004, or the pronouncement by Saudi Arabia's grand mufti in 2005 that forced marriages are un-Islamic. And even as syariah advocates in Malaysia defend child marriages in Islam, the Yemeni government is trying to eradicate the practice despite staunch opposition from Yemeni Islamists.

Certainly, if Malaysia were at the forefront of these bold, Islamic reforms to make society more just, we could pat Najib on the back for a promise well kept. Sadly, we are not.

The reality is that Malaysia's version of Islamisation is leaving too many of its citizens out in the cold. What's worse, Malaysia's nascent Islamic state is actually propagating violence and discrimination against Muslim girls and women. And yet, non-Muslims are expected to trust and have confidence in an Islamic state.

And to top it all, when these instances of violence, coercion and injustice in the name of Islam are highlighted by concerned sectors of civil society, they are told, "Shut up, or else." Even when their criticisms are about the human application of Islamic laws and policies, and not about insulting or slandering the religion itself.

(pic by circo de invierno @ Flickr)

Perhaps that is just the Malaysian way, for now. Church arsons, child marriages, canings, and threats against public debate notwithstanding, we are a role model Islamic country. Agree, or else...

Clearly, calling Malaysia a model Muslim country is off the mark, no less because the intensifying Islamisation of Malaysia has been accompanied by divisive controversies and even threats of violence towards dissenters.

And those who continue to insist that we are a model Muslim country are not just disingenuous. They are also complicit in perpetuating the perception that Islam is a religion that exhorts violence, discrimination and hatred.

courtesy of Nut Graph

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