Malaysia: Hate ideology a threat to unity

New Straits Times
In this article by Zainah Anwar, she is heartened that public opinion in Malaysia does not accept the hostile and aggressive propagation of a narrow understanding of one's faith and the turning of dogmatic personal piety into a directive for all to obey.
The uproar of protest generated by Fauzi Mustaffa's directive to the staff of Takaful Malaysia forbidding them, in the name of Islam, from extending festive greetings to their Hindu clients provided us some assurance that public opinion in Malaysia will not accept this hostile and aggressive propagation of such understanding of one's faith.
As a Malaysian, the bigger question remains: What made Fauzi Mustaffa, as head of the Syariah division of Takaful Malaysia, issue such a directive? How could an educated person, working in a global industry such as insurance, hold such a view?

I assume he must be a graduate of Islamic law to head such a department and be the secretary of the company's Syariah Supervisory Council. He must have learnt the many verses in the Quran that talk about pluralism and differences: How God made us into nations and tribes, so that we may know one another; that if Allah had so willed, He could surely have made us all one single community.. We Muslims repeat such verses again and again, and with pride, to show the world what a tolerant and peaceful religion Islam is.

Perhaps Fauzi's position and his action are symptomatic of where we have gone with our understanding of Islam, our education system, our socialisation process, our politicisation, and our sense of citizenship within a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, that he today not only shows no love nor respect for fellow citizens of a different race and religion, but also feels he has the right to turn his dogmatic personal piety into an office directive for all to obey.

Would he have issued such a directive a year ago? What has changed that emboldened Fauzi to take his hostile ideological viewpoint towards the other from the narrow confines of only those who share his religious fervour to a public space, and then to demand obedience or repentance from those who transgress his orders?

Could it be the company policy that its staff must all mengamalkan Syariah sebagai budaya korporat Takaful Malaysia (put Islamic law into practice as the corporate culture) that provided the opportunity for him to transform his personal belief into a company policy for all staff to follow in Malaysia?

Could it have been the legitimacy provided by the public pronouncement by the conference of ulama that met in Ipoh in June to pronounce liberalism, pluralism, kongsi raya and open house as dangerous to the faith of Muslims?

Or could it have been that Wahhabi fatwa circulating worldwide for years which declared that celebrating the religious festivities of others is tantamount to approving their religious faith, thus constituting syirik (associating partners to God)?

I remember the former Mingguan Malaysia columnist Astora Jabat, now editor of Al-Islam, drawing our attention to this many years ago. But we never paid much attention to it in Malaysia, dismissing it as ridiculous, and feeling sorry for our Saudi Arabian friends. Given our history and our context, we never thought that any Malaysian would abide by such a fatwa.

But we have been mistaken, of course.

Or is it that Fauzi senses a certain shift in the mood on the ground and the demonising in neighbourhood mosques and surau of Malaysians who do not share the Islamist ideological viewpoint, that gave him the impetus to turn from private to public his prejudices and throw it into the boiling pot of the don'ts, the forbidden, the haram, the kafir, the anti-Islam, the anti-God, the syirik, the murtad?

In today's climate where the ideology of hate and intolerance trump the spirituality and compassion of Islam, is it any wonder that death threats have been issued?

The mood out there is very clear. It is this hate ideology that poses a "clear and present danger" to the Malaysia that we know and love. It comes not from those who believe in upholding the Federal Constitution and the rule of law, but those bent on forcing a rewriting of the Constitution and shifting the consensus for civil and political order in Malaysia.

The tactical sprouting of new Islamist NGOs with names like BADAI (Badan Anti-IFC), ACCIN (Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs), Muslim Professional Association, Mothers Against Apostasy, Pembela Islam (Defenders of Islam), Peguam Pembela Islam (Lawyers Defending Islam), FORKAD (Front Bertindak Anti-Murtad - Action Front Against Apostasy) etc, and their alliance with the more established Islamist group, are intended to mobilise Muslim public opinion to halt any further democratisation and liberalising of this country.

In a prescient analysis of the current political climate in Malaysia, the long-time commentator on Malaysian politics and Islam, Professor Clive Kessler, wrote in Asian Analysis on the long march towards "desecularisation" of Malaysian life and state-driven by the pious new Malay Muslim middle-class activists, that is now culminating in moving Malaysia into a post-liberal or post-progressivist political era.

Given the progressive education, lifestyle and values of the current Malaysian political elite, the political will, courage and confidence needed to face off this assault from the Islamist front that claims to speak in God's name seems frighteningly scarce. The one person with the knowledge and confidence to do this is the Prime Minister himself.

But the clampdown on the public education programme to promote respect for the Federal Constitution by the Article 11 coalition sent the wrong signal.

The Islamist supremacists saw it as evidence that their use of mob intimidation and threat of violence worked in coercing the government to silence those committed to upholding the Malaysian Constitution as the supreme law of the land. Now their attention is focused on the judiciary as it deliberates on a number of freedom of religion cases.

Ironically, those who succeeded in their intimidation are the very people who want to throw out the Barisan Nasional Government and draw up a new Constitution and a new social contract - this time unequivocally with Syariah as the supreme law of the land.

The politics of ethnic identity remains the dominant discourse in Malaysia and the lens through which many of us react to public policy. This is further complicated by the merging of Islam with Malay identity. The current provocation finds Umno and its partners in the Barisan Nasional walking a political tightrope.

The government can choose to retreat in the face of this dogmatic ideological fervour and counter-mobilisation, as many failed reformists have done in other countries. Or place its faith and confidence in the millions of citizens who voted for a new Prime Minister who promised to be the leader of all Malaysians.

In the spirit of DeepaRaya, can we please stop shaking our fists at our fellow citizens?

Let's make a conscious decision to deepen our friendship and understanding and realise that we owe our prosperity and stability to the richness of our diversity.

New Straits Times, 20 October 2006