Monday, January 25, 2016

Stand By Those Re-Thinking Islam Part I : A Different Narrative and Discourse

Realignment of the Political Landscape

As we enter 2016, the shifting loyalties of politics find two once bitter foes joining forces in a corroborative alliance. Despite contradictory statements by PAS leaders, Malaysians have no illusions the compact is a done deal. For PAS, the cooperation makes it’s Holy Grail of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state and implementation of sharia, potentially, just an election away. For UMNO, it gets to retain power despite the corruption scandals, fiscal mismanagements, failed economic policies, rising costs of living and falling value of the Ringgit.

Convergence of PAS Islamism and UMNO Islamism

With the PAS/UMNO cooperation we now have a convergence of PAS Islamism to establish an Islamic state ruled by shariah with UMNO Islamism on the Islamisation of the bureaucracy, laws and policies of the nation. Both favour a literal interpretation of the primary sources of Islam and harken back to earlier times to return to the fundamentals of the religion which is out of line with modern times (“the Traditionalist”)

The cooperation presents the daunting prospect of the ulema working with Federal and State religious authorities, state agencies and bureaucrats in establishing not just an Islamic theocratic state but a brand of Islamic state fused with intolerant ethno-nationalism where the supremacy of Islam and supremacy of a particular ethnic group are one and the same.[1]  

Re-Thinking Islam

There is, however, an increasing number of Muslim scholars and political leaders who utilize rigorous, historical and texture analysis to re-examine, reconcile and re-think the role of Islam in a secular state and related issues so as to bring modern concepts of democracy, human rights, inclusivity, tolerance, pluralism and religious freedom to be comparable to Islam’s universal concepts. They assert good governance, economic development, inclusiveness, protecting basic rights and freedoms are Islamic objectives adopting a maqasid approach and ijtihad. In this article I call these Muslim scholars and political leaders “the Re-Thinkers”

Muslims First Malay Second

The electoral strategic interests of winning Malay votes have changed to winning Muslim votes due to the increasing number of Malays who identify themselves based on the religion rather than the race. With Malays forming 60% of the population and 114 parliament seats out of 165 in Peninsula Malaysia being Malay majority seats, the importance of Malay/Muslim votes is obvious. According to a 15 August 2015 Merdeka Centre report, 60% of Malays say they are Muslims first. This is up from 54% ten years ago. Those who see themselves as Malays first fell from 11% to 6%. If the Re-Thinkers wish to reform the thinking of the religion, the narrative and discourse must address the Muslim audience.

Non-Muslims’ Understanding of the New Narrative

This article seeks to obtain non-Muslims’ understanding on the need for a different narrative and discourse from the existing Islamic state- secular state debate and not to be alarmed by the Re-Thinkers’ use and reference to Islamic authoritative traditions and religious arguments.

A Different Discourse from the Constitutional Argument

The argument based on the interpretation of Article 3(1) that Islam is the official religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony, the guaranteed freedom of religion under Article 10 and the Supreme Court decision of Che Omar bin Che Soh v Public Prosecutor [1988] 2 MLJ 55 that the laws of Malaysia is secular, although sound is not the narrative and discourse that can be used for the intended Muslim audience. The road to Islamic re-thinking despite the twists and turns cannot reach its destination without passing through the gates of Islamic authoritative traditions.

Those Re-Thinking Islam have to frame the narrative and discourse to engage Muslims in accordance with the practices and authority of Islamic traditions. This is a critical problem that all religious scholars or leaders of whatever faith face. They need to demonstrate a relationship between their re-thinking and the authority of tradition. The Re-Thinkers must show some form of continuity between tradition and change. For Muslims, the interpretations and practices sanctioned by the ijma of the past, the classical Islamic traditions, consensus of religious scholars or ijma represents the source of religious authority. If the Re-Thinkers are unable to establish the necessary link or continuity between the authoritative ijma of the past and modern change their efforts will fail.

Non-Muslims need to understand that the success or failure of the re-thinking and approach to interpret the universal values of Islam to be comparable with modern society depends on the narrative and discourse being put in the language and in accordance with the Islamic belief system. It is only upon this being established can we go into heart of the matter. The core question to be answered is not whether Malaysia should be an Islamic or secular state, it is what Malaysian Muslims want. It is submitted that on reflection it is not different from what non-Muslim Malaysians want.

Effect of the Politicization of Islam in Malaysia

Malaysian Muslims want to practice their religion and live their lives in accordance with Islamic values. However, they do not wish to impose their beliefs on non-Muslims. This is the same as every other citizen practising their own religion. However, the politicization of Islam in the battle by PAS and UMNO for the hearts and minds of the Malay Muslims has been a contest of one trying to out-Islamise the other in accordance with the tenets of fundamental Islamism. As a consequence, Muslims have been pushed by the two political Islamist parties to the right of the Islamic political spectrum much to the despair and alarm of non-Muslims and the silent and silenced majority of moderate Muslims. In my opinion this have caused negative effects in at least three major areas.

Effects of Politicisation of Islam: Radical or Militant Islamism

Just as Malaysians are recovering from the shock of a 16-year old “lone cub” attack inspired by ISIS in the attempted kidnapping of a sales assistant in a shopping complex in Sungai Petani, we are reeling under the horrifying news of the ISIS terrorists attacks in Jakarta so close to home. It is estimated that approximately 200-250 Malaysians have joined ISIS as fighters. With a population of 31 million and only 60% of which are Muslims this is an exceedingly high rate compared to the 400 Indonesians who joined ISIS with a Muslim population of more than 300 million. Social media have gone viral with videos of Malaysians fighting and dying for ISIS. A growing number treat them as martyrs and heroes. Malaysian girls have also gone there to become comfort women to the ISIS fighters. “Jihad al-Nikah” refers to a controversial concept where women allegedly offer themselves to provide sexual comfort to fighters for the establishment of an Islamic state.

According to a recent PEW poll, 11% of Malaysian Muslims have a ‘favourable’ view of ISIS. Malaysian Muslims are more likely than Indonesian Muslims to consider suicide bombing justifiable (18% versus 7%). Transport Minister, Dato Sri Liow Tiong Lai told a conference in Kuala Lumpur on 12 December 2015 that based on police intelligence estimates there are approximately 50,000 ISIS supporters in Malaysia.

Although both PAS and UMNO have gone officially on record to condemn ISIS and other terrorist attacks, to a large extent, impressionable Malaysians being enamoured with the romanticised idea of jihad is due to the politicization of Islam by PAS and UMNO. While JAKIM (Malaysian Islamic Development Department), Biro Tata Negara (National Civics Bureau or “BTN”) and similar bodies do not officially support ISIS or its brutally cruel and murderous ideology, they have promoted a uniquely narrow Malay Islamic worldview which indirectly supports and complements the ISIS brand of intolerance. Many young Malays at the primary and secondary school steeped in the view of Malay Islam finds ISIS’s ideology easy to accept, having grown up with a state-sanctioned view of intolerance towards non-Malay Muslims.[2]

A different narrative and discourse is urgently needed so as to review the politicization of Islam in Malaysia, the Islamization agenda, policies and strategies of all parties to reduce these factors contributing to the rise of right wing ethno-nationalist sentiments and extremist religious activities.

Effect of Politicisation of Islam on non-Muslims

In the quest by PAS and UMNO to win Muslim votes, freedom of non-Muslims to practise their religion have been encroached upon and is diminishing over time.

The ban on the use of “Allah”, the seizure of Bahasa Malaysia language Bibles and CDs intended for Christian use, the Islamization of the bureaucracy, the enactment and implementation of narrow Islamic policies by UMNO-run state and local governments have fundamental and far-reaching consequences in the politicisation of Islam in Malaysia. This includes the control of building non-Muslim religious buildings and curtailment of land plots for non-Muslim burial sites. Demolition and desecration of religious places of worship have become regular and repeated problems.

Amendments to Article 121 of the Federal Constitution and the insertion of Article 121(1A) which provides that the High Court shall have no jurisdiction in respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the Sharia Courts have led the Civil Courts to abdicate their jurisdiction to determine sensitive religious cases such as conversion, child custody and child conversion cases. Cases such as Lina Joy, Shamala v Dr Jeyaganesh, R. Subashini and the recent Court of Appeal decision of Indira Gandhi have caused great grief and distress. The lack of judicial activism and deference to the shariah courts mean more suffering and injustice shall continue unless something is done.

Effect of Politicisation of Islam on Muslims

Muslims are in fact bearing the brunt of the Traditionalist approach to Islam in Malaysia. Over the years, Islamic authorities have gradually become more rigid in their interpretation and application of the Shariah code in Islam.

This Christmas the Sultan of Brunei decreed a maximum five year prison sentence for Muslims who celebrate Christmas or non-Muslims who celebrate too openly. Some quarters in Malaysia support this. Before this, the National Fatwa Council issued an edict banning Muslims from celebrating Halloween which is categorised as a Christian celebration of the dead.

Muslim gymnasts have recently been criticised for their “revealing” uniforms. The organiser of a dog-petting event received death threats. In Kelantan Muslim men are fined up to RM1,000.00 or jail up to a year or both, for failing to attend Friday prayers thrice in a row under s state by-law.[3]

Friday sermons prepared by religious authorities paint non-Muslims as enemies of Islam. Muslims who engaged in liberalism, pluralism and humanism are condemned as being anti-Islam. Malaysian religious authorities also frequently warn against liberalism, with the Federal government’s Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) reminding Muslims that this concept, along with pluralism, are threats to Malay-Muslim unity as they could weaken their faith. JAKIM also said the National Fatwa Council had in its 74th meeting in 2006 declared liberal thinking as heretical.

Islamic authorities prohibit dissent and discussions of the country’s predominant religion. Muslims are told they cannot use logic and rationale to understand and practise Islam. They must only refer to the Quran and hadith and nothing else.

Thinking Muslims are being marginalised and persecuted. Octogenarian, Muslim intellectual, Dr Kassim Ahmad was charged by the Federal Territory Religious Department (JAWI) for insulting Islam and disobeying religious authorities for participating in a seminar entitled “The Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad” organised by the Perdana Foundation where he apparently accused some ulema of imitating the “priesthood class” and questioned the use of hadith to interpret the Quran. The former Malay studies lecturer at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies lamented that people in Malaysia are losing their freedom to think and voice their views, and that the authorities are becoming more narrow-minded. 

There is a climate of fear, suspicion and prejudice. Muslims who do not prescribe to the belief system of the religious authorities do not see themselves as being welcomed or even tolerated in their own country.

A Different Discourse: Islamic State or State of Islam (Higher Objectives of Islam)

It is hoped that through the different narrative and discourse there will be a better awareness of the concept of an Islamic state and its origins. The maqasid al-shariah approach and ijtihad would provide a different solution to the negative effects suffered by non-Muslims and Muslims in Malaysia.

Roots of Radicalism in Political Islam

It helps in the understanding of the issue of Islamic state to know that militant Islamism has the same root as political Islam. Both share the same dream of establishing an Islamic state and implementation of shariah, the difference is one is by the bullet while the other is by the ballot.

Muslims in the Arab Spring countries aghast with the cruelty and brutality of ISIS, Boko Haram and extremist violence is amongst the reasons for political Islam’s decline and on the defensive post-Arab Spring. It is hoped that by having this different discourse Muslims come to a realisation and appreciation that it is not a religious obligation to set up the Islamic state and that the Caliphate is not relevant in today’s world.

The discourse reminds Muslims that Prophet Mohamed and the successive early generations especially the four rightly-guided caliphs did not establish a state. Their focus was on organising the life of the ummah (community of believers) to be a moral community, with its hierarchy, social arrangements, economic system and defence capabilities. The idea of a state is a modern invention. It is therefore a fallacy to believe that setting up the Islamic state is a religious obligation.  

Ali Mamouri, a researcher and writer who specializes in Religion wrote in Al-Monitor “The Roots of Radicalism in Political Islam” that political Islam is the umbrella term of fundamentalism. The goal of fundamentalism is to return to the “sacred text” carefully executing what it says without any interpretation and rejecting the official, and more conservative, historical interpretations of it. For the fundamentalists, a return to the original and primary reading and avoiding any latter interpretation, is the solution to all current problems.[4]

Creating an Islamic state ruled by the principles of sharia is the cornerstone which a growing Islamic ideology depends on. This general aim serves as an ideological façade concealing behind it a heterogeneous mixture of groups and organisations that differ in their strategies, priorities and interpretation of reality. The point worth noting is that these different approaches have very similar ideological structures as well joint historical roots. Understanding this fact can change one’s outlook towards conflicts in the Middle East.

Islamic fundamentalism, in its current form as a social movement and apart from its historical religious background, is a recent phenomenon of approximately only 100 years. The movement was a reaction to the frailty and weakness of Islamic countries compared with their glorious pasts. Therefore, the fundamentalists emerged not out of conservative circles but rather out of reformist movements which aimed for an “Islamic Awakening.”

The concept of an Islamic state is of recent origin arising from the independence movement from British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It was first developed by Maulana Abul A’la Maududi and is a product of modernity. In response to the Muslim League’s call for a Muslim state of Pakistan, Hindu call for a secular India and communist call for a socialist state, Maududi called for the establishment of “hukumat-e-ilahiya (“Allah’s government) or an Islamic state[5]. He arrived in Pakistan from India with the ambition to turn what was to him a nationalistic abomination into becoming a “true Islamic state” based on shariah. Maududi formed his party in 1941 with a vanguard of learned and pious Muslims to bring an “Islamic revolution” and do away with the forces of jahiliya (socialism, communism, liberal democracy, secularism and a faith distorted by innovators).  

Maududi’s concept of Islamic state was so without foundation that he struggled to find ideological roots for an Islamic state grounded in historical evidence, while portraying the concept as theologically Islamic. As such Maududi offered the term “hakimiyya”.

Azzam Al-Kassir, a Syrian scholar at the University of Exeter points out that the term “hakimiyya” which resides in the rhetoric of contemporary political Islamist movements, similar to the term “Islamic state”, is not mentioned in the Quran or the Hadith. Nor does it exist in Arabic lexicography. Maududi links the term “hakimiya” to its linguistic root “hukm” whose derivations are mentioned in the Quran more than 200 times. Yet not one of these verses points towards the assumption or practice of political power. Instead the term suggests the need for insight and distinguishing between right and wrong, or education and jurisprudence.[6]

Maududi’s concept of an Islamic state found support among other influential Islamic thinkers and leaders. Among them were Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Ayatollah Khomeni. Sayyid Qutb adopted and fully exploited the term “hakimiyya” and used it to branch out into “jahiliyya” (ignorance), takfeer (excommunication) and jihad. His exposure to abuse of power undoubtedly contributed to the ideas of his famous prison-written Islamic manifesto “Ma’alim fi-l-tariq (Milestones) where he advocated a political system that is opposite of dictatorship. Qutb wrote Muslims should resist any system where men are in “servitude to other men”- as un-Islamic and a violation of God’s sovereignty (hakimiyya). The way to bring about this freedom is for a revolutionary vanguard to fight jahiliyya with a twofold approach: preaching and abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system by physical power and Jihad. The vanguard movement would grow with preaching and jihad until it formed a truly Islamic community, then spread throughout the Islamic homeland and finally throughout the entire world.

Qutb is considered one of the most influential Muslim thinkers and activists of the modern era, not only for his ideas but also for what many see as his martyr’s death. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the state and subjected to what many considered a show trial. He and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death by hanging for the conspiracy to assassinate the president and other Egyptian officials.

It is argued that Qutb’s approach towards violence does not necessarily stem from the spirit of Islam, so much as the prevalent social injustice coupled with an imbalanced infrastructure, expressed through high rates of unemployment and the lack of channels for political participation. All this paved the way for radical Islamist thought to sneak into the deprived countryside and the poverty belts surrounding the cities.
Maududi’s ideas were eventually adopted by General Ziaul Haq, who pulled off a successful military coup in July 1977 and then invited Maududi to help him make Pakistan into a true Islamic country. The course charted by Zia eventually mutated into becoming a destructive and highly polarising legacy that the state, politics and society of Pakistan has been battling with till this day.

The spread of the Islamic state concept was contributed in part by the translation of Maududi and Qutb’s works into Bahasa Malaysia, Indonesian and English where Muslim students in USA and Britain encountered such writings in their campuses. Maududi and Qutb’s books were required reading in such institutions as the International Islamic University Malaysia and there are clear influence of Maududi’s ideas in PAS’ concept of the Islamic state and God’s sovereignty.

Azzam argues that essential questions must be publicly discussed, for the dissection of religious mythologies is no longer sophistry. The stagnation of Islamist thought and its defensive position is at the crux of this issue. Heaven, hell, predestination, jihad are issues that have directed a generation of youth that is pessimistic, disenfranchised from their surroundings, a generation that has become fuel to the illusion of an “Islamic State.” He concludes, Islamist thought will recover and restore its vitality only when debate blows some depth into it. In this important debate the events post-Arab Spring suggests a maqasid approach is most relevant to providing appropriate guidance to political Islam.  

Relevance of Maqasid to Political Islam Post Arab Spring

Dr Halim Rane, Deputy Director of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit and Senior Lecturer at the School of Humanities at Griffith University wrote that post-Arab Spring, the first generation of Islamic political parties which are generally anti-Western, ideology-oriented, focused on moralistic discourse and defined by their commitment to establishing an Islamic state based on shariah as a law code have lost much of their electoral support.[7]

He said those twentieth-century parties that did not evolve were superseded by a second generation of Islamic-oriented political parties that seek positive relations with Western nations, are policy-oriented and do not advocate the concept of an Islamic state based on the shariah. These parties developed in response to the needs and aspirations of their people for honest and sincere leadership. They seek to reduce corruption and unemployment, promote economic growth and raise living standards and protect basic rights and freedoms.

These parties developed comprehensive political programmes, appeal to broad and diverse constituencies and emphasize Islamic values, principles and objectives, the maqasid al-sharia approach and ijtihad are central to this process.

Dr Rane named among others, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Tariq Ramadan as the intellectuals and Anwar Ibrahim, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Tunisia’s Rachid Ghanouchi as the political leaders who have striven to demonstrate Islam’s compatibility with democracy, human rights, plurality and peaceful co-existence with non-Muslims.[8] He identified Keadilan, Turkey’s AKP, Indonesia’s Properous Justice Party (PKS) as the second generation Islamic-oriented parties.

I include in the list of intellectuals, prominent Muslim scholars, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Abdulaziz Sachedina and Nurcholish Majid. In the list of political leaders, the progressives who left PAS to form the Parti Amanah Malaysia (“Amanah”), in Keadilan the leaders championing the struggle of Anwar Ibrahim.

The Moment of Truth

The issue of Islam and secularism represents one of the most contested debates in contemporary Islamic scholarship and policy circles. The Re-Thinkers bring a different narrative and discourse to the existing one by the Traditionalists. In Part II of this Article, I will touch on the ideas the Re-Thinkers bring to this debate. This debate will bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. The moment of truth will come and reveal what each of us, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, really are. There will be no place to run or hide and no fence to sit on. You either stand on the side of the Traditionalists or stand on the side of those Re-Thinking Islam.

William Leong Jee KeenMember of Parliament SelayangParti Keadilan Rakyat23 January 2016

[1] Malaysia’s Isis Conundrum by Joseph Chinyong Liow
[2] Malaysia: Clear and present danger from the Islamic State by James Chin December 16, 2015
[3] Growing Islamic fundamentalism seen pushing Malays to quit country Malay Mail Online by Boo Su Lyn
[4] “The Roots of Radicalism in Political Islam” by Ali Mamouri Al-Monitor
[5] The Relevance of a Maqasid Approach for Political Islam Post Arab Revolution by Halim Rane Journal of Law and Religion Vol xxviii page 500
[6] Understanding calls for reinstating the Islamic State OpenDemocracy Azzam Al-Kassir 14 October 2014
[7] The Relevance of a Maqasid Approach for Political Islam Post Arab Revolutions by Halim Rane
[8] The Impact of Maqasid Al-Shariah on Islamist Political Thought Implications for Islam-West Relations 2 Islam & Civilisational Renewal 337 (2011) 

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