Malaysia: Progressive ulama arrested


The arrest of a progressive ulama has plunged many Malaysians into further despair that this country is hurtling towards an implosion but it may prove a blessing in disguise.

What else needs to happen before our political leaders on both sides of the divide find the will and courage to walk the talk of seeing a plural, diverse Malaysia as a source of strength and not a threat?

That a former mufti who holds progressive views and challenges the conservative religious authorities could be arrested and treated as if he was Noordin Mat Top just shows how far those pushing for an Islamic state and syariah supremacy are willing to go to ensure that their rigid and intolerant understanding of Islam prevails.

That this arrest and attacks on Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin led by the Malaysian Association of Syariah Lawyers (PGSM) and its Islamist allies, including Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) and Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), should take place now is clearly a concerted effort to test the strength of the new Prime Minister on matters of religion.

Similarly, these Islamists have also relaunched another round of attacks against Sisters in Islam by reportedly lodging over 50 police reports against the group and holding public forums, this time led by the extremist Hizbur Tahrir, a global Islamist group intent on reviving the Islamic Caliphate.

Little known in Malaysia, but banned or investigated in other countries, the Malaysian branch of Hizbur Tahrir has become more public in its activities, with banners in various neighbourhoods and announcements of events in mosques after Friday prayers.

For years now, the Islamic state ideologues have been pushing the boundaries of the forbidden in Malaysia. They have been relentless in their attacks on those working on women’s rights and fundamental liberties as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution and in pushing for the expansion of syariah jurisdiction in Malaysia.

They include areas such as freedom of religion, the right of the non-converting wife and children when a husband converts to Islam, moral policing, book banning, seizure of Bibles written in Bahasa Malaysia, fatwa on kongsi raya, yoga, pluralism, liberalism, to the sprouting of Islamist NGOs under all manner of names signing all kinds of petitions against fundamental liberties.

From matters such as making police reports against progressive groups and individuals, to holding rallies and seminars with inflammatory titles such as "Islam Di Hina", "Umat Islam diCabar", "Bahaya Murtad", "Bahaya Islam Liberal", the Government and the opposition have largely failed to support the moderate social forces of Malaysian society.

While moderate politicians cower in silence in fear of being labelled as anti-God, anti-Islam and anti-syariah, or opportunistic ones shamelessly and dangerously fly the flag of Islam to advance their short-term political agenda, it is Malaysian civil society that has shown courageous civic leadership where political leadership has failed us.

Now that a religious leader from within the establishment has become the target of these intolerant Islamist forces inside and outside government, will the political leadership finally show the courage needed to act?

What kind of Islam does the Prime Minister envisage in his 1Malaysia? Certainly not the Islam of the Selangor State Religious Department (JAIS) and the PGSM who accused Dr Asri of all manner of dastardly insults to Islam as they perceive it.

While the arrest of Dr Asri plunged many Malaysians into further despair that this country is hurtling towards an implosion, I think it is actually a blessing in disguise.

It is obvious that both the JAIS and the PGSM and their Islamist allies have made a tactical error, underestimating the popular support that Dr Asri and his ideas enjoy in this country.

It is time for the silent majority of moderate Muslims in Malaysia to speak out. Certainly Dr Asri’s supporters at the Mahkamah Syariah Gombak on Monday stood up to be counted.

While Dr Asri talked of "hidden hands" behind his arrest, neither the federal government nor the Selangor state government claims responsibility for this display of state power against a former mufti.

What could be the motive when a state religious authority combined with federal law and order forces display heavy-handed powers to arrest an Islamic scholar for his progressive ideas that challenge the authoritarianism of Islam in Malaysia? Who called the shots? Who really is in control?

For me, this debacle is once again evidence of the unenforceability of the invasive powers of the Syariah Criminal Offence laws of this country. In this instance, the provision that makes it an offence for anyone to teach Islam without certification (tauliah) from the state religious authorities.

When is someone teaching Islam and when is he not? Who has the authority to decide on that? What are the criteria that constitute teaching of Islam? On what basis are some certified to teach Islam, some are not, some are prosecuted while many more others can freely preach hatred, racial ill-will, and misogyny in the name of Islam?

Just listen to the ceramahs amplified over loudspeakers for all in the neighbourhood to hear, even when you don’t want to.

Then there is the larger issue of whether this specific provision restricting freedom of speech is against Islamic principles that uphold diversity and differences in Islam and against constitutional guarantees of fundamental liberties.

Yet again, the enforcement of this ill-advised, badly drafted syariah law with its wide range of "sins" turned into crimes against the state and restrictions over the exercise of fundamental freedoms has led to public outrage.

There is an obvious disconnect between public opinion and societal values on what constitutes fair and just in Islam, and the intolerant, punitive, misogynistic Islam of those who conveniently use God’s authority to justify despotism in the name of Islam.

As more foreign scholars and journalists come to Malaysia to study this supposedly model "moderate" Muslim country, they go away surprised at the range of laws, mechanisms and structures in the name of Islam that control and restrict Muslim rights and freedoms.

They are shocked that a modern country like Malaysia could have unprecedented laws that make it a crime if one disobeys a fatwa, that turn moral obligations before God into legal obligations before the state, that turn sins into crimes, that confuse what is haram (forbidden), wajib (obligatory), sunat (recommended), harus (permissible) and makruh (discouraged) in its laws.

That Dr Asri could be accused of being a Wahhabi, at the same time a liberal, a progressive, a radical, is just one measure of that confusion and ignorance in Malaysia.

It is not possible to be liberal or progressive and Wahhabi at the same time. If at all, those who signed the memorandum written by the PGSM are the Wahhabi followers.

The puritanical Wahhabi movement which spread throughout the Muslim world over the past few decades, fuelled by Saudi petro-dollars, negates the diversity and complexity of the Muslim juristic heritage.

Dr Asri’s position on issues such as freedom of religion, differences of opinion in Islam, the imperative for reform, his criticisms of the delays and bias against women in the syariah courts, of khalwat laws and invasion of privacy, book banning and fatwa against yoga and kongsi raya have put him on the wrong side of the conservatives who dominate the religious bureaucracy and the Islamic state ideologues and their supremacist thinking.

Dr Asri is no Wahhabi. And it is obvious who the Wahhabis in the Malaysian political scene are.

The Egyptian legal scholar, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, wrote that while submission to God is at the core of the Islamic creed, this does not mean blind submission to those who claim to represent God’s law.

For too long in this country, those who claim to speak in God’s name have cowed too many into silent submission and perpetual ignorance. For too long, our political leaders have not shown the courage or the will to fully deal with the threat posed by these religious zealots within government and their own parties.

What is desperately needed now is leadership, courage, and vision to stand up for what is right for Malaysia – that there is no place in a country like ours for an Islam that is punitive, cruel, misogynistic, and intolerant.

More than any other country in the world, Malaysia with its historical embrace of all races and religions, its celebration of diversity and pluralism, its gentler and kinder Islam, plus its economic success story and its political stability should be better placed to lead the Muslim world into a modern and prosperous age in the midst of extremism, calamities and despair that beset the ummah.

It is a tragedy that this government has poured hundreds of millions into numerous religious institutions supposedly to enable Malaysia to take the lead as a model moderate Muslim country – only to find its Islamic agenda hijacked by the very ideology that has contributed to the decay of other Muslim countries, where Muslims killing other Muslims for their belief and political affiliation have become the norm.

God forbid that is the future of Malaysia.

As all the political leaders seem to agree that the country is at a turning point, that their party members must change and face difficult realities of a changing and diverse electorate, of a globalised competitive world that waits for no man, of the rise of China and India, can they also please embrace the reality that an Islam of kindness and compassion, of diversity and differences, of equality and justice constitute what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century?

The arrest of a progressive ulama has plunged many Malaysians into further despair that this country is hurtling towards an implosion but it may prove a blessing in disguise.