Malaysia: What’s the matter with SIS?

The Nut Graph
The latest spotlighting on SIS — just one of many through the 20 years of the NGO's existence — began on 7 June 2009 when the PAS muktamar passed without debate a resolution calling for the National Fatwa Council to investigate SIS.
The resolution, moved by Shah Alam PAS, said that if SIS was found to be anti-Islam, it should be banned and its members rehabilitated. Since then, both Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)'s Zulkifli Noordin and Umno's Datuk Seri Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo have said that SIS should drop the word "Islam" from its name. Zulkifli even suggested that SIS should be investigated under the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactments and the Penal Code as if the organisation was a criminal suspect.
So, just what is it about SIS that is deemed to be so threatening to Islam, to Muslims and to the nation? How does an organisation, founded by Muslim women to understand and uphold their religion's teachings on justice and compassion, become such a threat that it needs to be investigated, banned and reformed?

Who speaks for Islam?

If nothing else, this attack on SIS by the members of political parties from across the divide demonstrates that in some instances, there is really very little difference between the parties.

Consider how similar Zulkifli's statement is to Khir Toyo's. Neither believes banning SIS would be a good idea albeit for slightly different reasons. But both want SIS to drop "Islam" from its name. And both also take the organisation to task for "hiding behind" certain personalities who are seen as politically-connected. And with former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad coming to SIS's defence, I guess, he, and not just his daughter Marina, can be counted as one of these powerful personalities!

Underpinning the dissatisfaction of Shah Alam PAS, PKR's Zulkifli and Umno's Khir Toyo is that SIS is somehow perpetuating an Islam that runs counter to the faith, and is possibly even deviant.

But this begs the question. Who speaks for Islam? Should we trust the state or state-sanctioned bodies to speak for Islam?

Should we trust the National Fatwa Council, for example, who have made, among others, yoga and tomboyism haram? Or should we trust the state religious authorities who have no qualms snatching dead bodies from non-Muslim families and allowing unilateral conversion of minors to Islam?

Or perhaps we should trust the syariah courts to uphold Islam. But can we? Just consider the high number of Muslim women who are unable to seek swift justice through the syariah courts when their husbands don't fufill their responsibilities as husband and father.

According to Khir Toyo, by allowing Sisters in Islam to use "Islam" in its name, it suggests that the organisation is an authority on Islam. By the same token then, Islam Hadhari, launched by former premier Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, would have made the Barisan Nasional government an authority on Islam as well. But was that the case?

Excuse me while I plug my book Shape of a Pocket, but the chapters under the theme "Islam in Malaysia" demonstrate a host of problems related to the administration and the use or abuse of Islam that occurred under Abdullah's administration.

And yet, we didn't see Khir Toyo or any other Umno politician then call on Abdullah to drop the word "Islam" from his administration's policy.

From prejudice to respect

I grew up prejudiced against Islam. It wasn't difficult, really. From having Muslims tell me I had to cover up even though I wasn't a Muslim to listening to stories of women and children suffering as a result of a Muslim man's polygamous relationship, it was the easiest thing to distrust and fear Islam in Malaysia.

Isn't it incredible then that there have since been moments when I thought I would become a Muslim? Through my years as a journalist, it was SIS that consistently provided me with a way to understand and appreciate the true spirit of Islam as a religion that is fair, just and compassionate. And it has been the people behind SIS who have repeatedly demonstrated a genuine commitment towards inclusiveness and diversity that have made me, a non-Muslim, feel a deep respect for Islam.

I will, however, not become a Muslim in Malaysia. Not just my non-Muslim friends warn me against it. Even my Muslim friends do. And I know it's not from some diabolical intention to see a kafir burn in hell. It's from knowing that being a Muslim in Malaysia, especially a Muslim woman, leaves one exposed to all kinds of injustices done in the name of Islam. And my Muslim friends, bless their souls, would not wish that on me or my family.

Indeed it was these injustices that first motivated a small group of women to start studying the Quran and their faith so that they could discover an Islam that was just and compassionate. That group took on the name Sisters in Islam. And that group is what is being vilified by some Muslims in Malaysia today as being "deviant", "criminal" and "dangerous".

SIS is no stranger to controversy. Indeed, it is never easy going against a powerful state and a status quo of injustice, especially if the injustice is couched in religious terms that make it a sin or a crime to question.

And while the organisation will continue to court critics, and other attempts to ban or silence it, one thing is clear for me — the problem is neither SIS nor the Islam they live and uphold in their work and in their lives.

12 Jun 2009

By Jacqueline Ann Surin

Source: The Nut Graph