Towards a peaceful Malaysia: What role can Muslims play?

by Ahmad Fuad Rahmat | Research Fellow, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF)

Some 500 Muslims gathered at the main hall of Kelab Golf Perkhidmatan Awam, Mont Kiara in honor of Maulidur Rasul to discuss the pressing issue of Islam and peace in the Malaysian context. The apex of the conference, if not the moment everyone was waiting for, occurred in the afternoon when a panel between Drs. Dzulkefly Ahmad, Ahmad Farouk Musa, Maszlee Malik and Muhammad Asri on the very subject was held.

Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the landscape of Malaysia’s complex Islamic political discourse can see the range of moderate to progressive Muslim perspectives represented by the charismatic and unique personalities chosen to explore the topic. It was to unfold into the rich exchange that one could expect.

Much continues to be said on the issue of peace and democracy but often with very little consideration of the complexity therein. It was left to the panellists to help us think through that very issue.

Given the philosophical nature of the topic, it was expected that the first round of questions were met with philosophical responses. Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad offered what essentially amounted to a natural law approach: To envision peaceful relations among citizens we must first inquire into our purpose for existing, that is to say, we must reflect on why it is that we were created by God in the first place.

The Quran indicates that as human beings, our existence is predicated on our duty to serve God and to do right on earth as his Caliphs. Grasping this reality, for Dr Dzul, is imperative as the first step towards achieving any peace on this earth. For it places the Qur’an and Sunnah, as sources of God’s wisdom, as the primary guide for society and politics and our service to the wisdom therein as the key criteria for attaining any peace.

Dr. Maszlee Malik did not disagree but continued by adding emphasis to the concept of falah and soleh (success and righteousness). Suspecting too strong a hint of a legalistic approach in Dr. Dzulkefly’s answer, Dr. Mazslee added that we should not forget that whatever scriptural guidelines that may have been set were for the purpose of manifesting a society of progress and virtue, with responsible and enlightened citizens.

In other words, a peaceful society is to result in concrete desirable outcomes. If Dr. Dzulkefly’s answers can be said to point to the starting point of a peaceful society, Dr. Maszlee Malik reminded the audience of what the result should be in Islamic terms.

Echoing the indispensable activist adage of “no justice, no peace”, Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa grounded the discussion further by emphasizing the importance of justice for any attempt to conceptualize an ideal society. Furthermore, if justice is to have any meaning it should be comprehensive, encompassing the legal, social, economic and human spheres. The depth and profundity of upholding justice compelled Dr. Farouk to specify further, the active agency of human beings in establishing it, that even if we must refer to the canons of Islam, the element of human interpretation that is required by that endeavour cannot be neglected.

This implies first, human free will and choice, in arriving to the right interpretation and secondly the importance of contemporary contexts, since all interpretation can only be meaningful to address issues of a particular time, an insight that goes against the dominant literalist current of Islamic thought that wishes to return to an idyllic past in nostalgia for the era of Prophecy and the pious predecessors (as-salaf as-soleh).

In what appeared to be the moment the audience of hundreds was most eagerly waiting for, Dr. Muhammad Asri provided what can best be termed as an existential interpretation of the question. Fundamentally, human beings are hoping creatures. We are always forward projecting, desiring and envisioning a better state of affairs, however much we may already be living in comfort. The dean reiterates, over and over again, the dire importance of not losing hope in life, for God’s greatness is predicated on his power to grant, allow and change.

More importantly, hope is envisioned differently by different people, depending on the community and cultural contexts they are in. A vision of peace must be attentive to this complexity lest we risk speaking only for ourselves at the expense of ignoring others, however construed. This is why, with a hadith to support his claim, Dr. Asri emphasized the importance of love. The ideal scenario is of mutual love between a leader and his people.

After each of the panellists offering their concept of peace, it then became time to discuss politics. Where does politics come in, in the endeavour to establish a peaceful society? What should politics mean within that project?

Dr. Dzulkefly also began the second round of discussions: In congruence with his conceptualization of peace, he believed that politics founded on the Qur’an and Sunnah should encourage us to be good people. Politics then should essentially focus on upholding the laws needed towards amar ma’ruf nahi mungkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil).

Dr. Dzulkefly, however, is quick to allay any fear suspicion of theocratic tendencies. He stated that in the era of post-Islamism Islamization can no longer follow the old script. The Arab Spring has confirmed the return of popular politics that is no longer dependent to the leadership of clerics. Thus, the establishment of an Islamic state cannot be the be-all end-all of politics. The route to a virtuous society must now appeal to reason, discourse and civility. Dr. Dzul of course hastened to add that he is simply reiterating PAS’ current stand.

Dr. Farouk, however, was quick to raise the obvious question: how can PAS claim to have taken the route of civility if it is still beholden to hudud politics? Their Islamic commitment to falah and soleh notwithstanding, the issue of contemporary political Islam is democracy not laws: Given the hapless state of democracy in our country, never mind the injustices that are plain for everyone to see, the issue at stake remains freedom.

The goal is to firstly cultivate enlightened citizens, through improving the education and social support systems, ensuring the just management of nation’s wealth and resources and not the fixation of issues like hudud.

Dr. Maszlee responded by offering a counterweight to both positions. He disagrees with the separation of religion and politics that is implied in Dr. Farouk’s position while adding that Islam by nature is political. Every Muslim is a politician, he added rhetorically. There is an undeniable activist thrust in the very design of Islam that we cannot in good conscience ignore.

He also emphasized that process is important in this case. In particular, he stated that religious leaders have a role to play not as dictators of a movement but as resources and points of references for the people. Thus, unlike the old model where a hierarchy with clerics on top were to walk the movement to the whims in their own desires they in turn offer mere guidance and signposts to explain and clarify whatever issues that the people face.

Dr. Muhammad Asri added a note of caution to this talk of politicizing Islam. He said that religion, over centuries, served as a convenient tool for the exploitation of human beings if not their outright murder. There is plentiful evidence of this in the history of the West, before the onset of modernity, when artists, poets and philosophers were burnt to the stake for differing in opinions.

But recent examples abound of the same problem in the Muslim world, where violence and upheaval are unleashed purely based on the erroneous whims and directions of clerics with political interests. Thus the challenge that Dr. Asri rightly states is how to pursue the activist justice oriented political potential in Islam without falling into the trap of exploitation.

One can notice by now that what is glaringly absent throughout the panel is any serious reflection on Malaysia’s multiracial-multicultural realities. Malaysian Diversity was only discussed once towards the end, when Dr. Maszlee mentioned his lack of knowledge of Hinduism despite having a Hindu student. Other than that, one would be hard-pressed to find any real introspection on how Muslims in the globalized 21st century are to co-exist with people of other faiths who hold not only different but markedly opposing worldviews.

Besides the token and obligatory reference to how Allah had made us to be of diverse peoples so that we can get to know one another, there appears to be no real attempt to even diagnose the multicultural situation as it has manifested within the Malaysian context. What we find instead were references from each of the panellists on how much better life is in the West and while the West can in some sense serve as a good model to aspire to, it barely scratches the surface of the deeply complicated challenge at home.

To be fair, the panellists are in fact among the Muslims in Malaysia you can most count on for excursions into intercultural engagements, but the little that was mentioned about that this afternoon did not do much to shrug the suspicion that Muslims in multicultural Malaysia ultimately put themselves first and foremost.

The discussion on justice too left much to be desired. Dr. Farouk did the most to highlight its importance, stressing it by and by, but this was somehow missed as the panel soon enough veered into defensive statements about hudud.

Dr. Maszlee said, owing to historical changes, that it could very well be the case that the hudud laws would be needed one day (which raises the question – are the hudud laws permanent or changeable?). Dr. Dzul said that the hudud laws should be accepted should a majority decision on it be attained through peaceful democratic channels (to which one can simply ask – is something right simply by virtue of it being agreed by the majority? How are we to understand the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in this case?)

The most ignorant comment of the afternoon came from the audience, a libertarian, who upon concerns that his ability to accumulate property might be curtailed by the existence of a welfare state, claimed that a welfare state by default will accrue deficits. How would PAS’ Negara Berkebajikan then deal with this?

Dr. Maszlee and Dr. Dzulkefly simultaneously hastened to clarify in apologia that Negara Berkebajikan does not translate to a welfare state but a state of care and opportunity. The proper answer, if justice was in any way a genuine concern, is that deficits are not necessarily in themselves bad. They must be weighed against a country’s reserves and overall productivity.

Every nation needs to borrow should it want to develop. The problem is when the borrowing exceeds the country’s ability to service its debt. One wonders why rather than to immediately dismiss welfare, it was just not said that the country with the largest sovereign debt in the history of mankind is not Cuba or Venezuela but the U.S.A. which is the closest thing to a libertarian haven on earth one can find.

Malaysia is a small developing country, in a fast growing region of hundreds of million others with a towering India and China nearby. To compete in the goal of fast growth to meet the arbitrary and unrealistic 2020 deadline it has had to bend over backwards to attract foreign investors, which explains why the power of unions had been significantly curtailed over the past decades.

Thus foreign corporations, who do not vote nor hold any real concern for Malaysia, can employ Malaysians by the cheap to work with no rights. This explains why the bottom 40% of Malaysia’s households earn less than RM 1500 per month (and we do not want to know what “less” in that phrase really amounts to). Needless to say the majority of that 40% are comprised of Malays.

It is in this world – not Egypt, not Iran, not the West – that Islam in Malaysia will be politicized, when desperation in everyday survival, desperation in financially trying times, in a deeply ethnicized economy, will be the circumstance in which Islam is understood, explored and represented.

Dr. Asri was right to say that religion, owing to its delicate and powerfully emotive nature is easily manipulated to suit the aims of the religious elite, but he forgot to point out, as Nietzsche, Marx and more recently Tariq Ramadan did, that the exploitation is most effective when the masses live desperately insecure to survive and find meaning in this world.

No justice, no peace.

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