The rise of radical Islam in Malaysia

“This unwillingness to confront Islamism risks the 21st Century being characterised by conflict between people of different cultures” – Tony Blair (Guardian, April, 23, 2014).

Tony Blair’s call to confront radical Islam echoes that of many liberal tolerant politicians who have seen how radical Islam has eaten into the fabric of their society. Countries like Holland, France, Germany, Britain who have for years bent backwards to accommodate Muslim immigrants have had enough.

People are voting for extreme right parties in droves as a reaction to radical Islam. The problem is mostly caused by the inability/refusal of radical Muslims to adapt to the host culture. Not just that, they demand that institutions cater to and/or conform to their Islamic principles. Most of the time the governments of those countries bend backwards to accommodate them.

At this point it is pertinent to ask if any Islamic country (Saudi, Kuwait, Bahrain) has tried in any way to accommodate the religious needs or lifestyle of the non-Muslims in their society? In the Gulf States there are no churches. Christians worship in private houses discreetly, ever so afraid of being found out.

None of the Islamic Countries practise religious or cultural tolerance. Yet Muslims who come from such countries which do not tolerate other religions, demand and expect the full extent of their ‘rights’ in the countries they emigrate to like Britain. But if only it were as simple as that, asking that their religious needs be met, but it’s not. Communities have seen radical Islam intrude into their lives. Demands have been made which impinge on their rights.
Dubbed ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, British authorities are investigating an alleged plot by Muslim fundamentalists to Islamise public schools in England and Wales by infiltrating school boards and appointing Muslim head teachers or pushing out those who did not bend to their views.
There have been complaints by ex-head teachers that they have been forced out by the majority Muslim Board of Governors for challenging their orders to scrap sex education, or stop citizenship classes because they were deemed “un-Islamic” and introduce Islamic Studies into the curriculum or to only allow halal food in the school, or segregate boys and girls.

The head teacher of Ladypool Primary School in Birmingham, Huda Aslam, who was appointed by a majority Muslim School Board, banned Santa Claus, or the singing of carols (except for non-religious songs like Jingle Bells), the giving of presents or the mention of Jesus as the Son of God. Yet these are traditions that have been celebrated for centuries.

Muslim groups say that such allegations are unfounded and motivated by Islamophobia. But Khalid Mahmood (Labour MP – Birmingham) a practising Muslim, attested that many school board members are Salafists and Wahabbis who are intent on imposing their views in the classrooms and the day to day
running of schools.

He believes British Education officials have previously resisted getting involved in disputes with Muslim Boards for fear of being called racist or anti-Islam. We shall have to wait for the findings of the investigation to know the truth of the matter.

The point is, complaints about radical Islam are not confined to one country. It is widespread across Europe. And it is not an overnight phenomenon either; critics in Britain say it has been going on for well over 20 years but because authorities have not taken any action for fear of being branded anti-Islam it has been allowed to fester.

The problem has in fact become global. Even the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, is worried about the rise of radical Islam. The Mayor of Bogor has ignored the supreme court order to allow a church to be opened for worship. This issue has been going on for years and the congregation has taken to worshipping on the street outside their church. The police will not act and the President is impotent. Everyone is afraid of the extremists. With a change of mayor this year the members of the church hope the new mayor will fulfill his election promise to lift the ban.

There was a case where a person was convicted of killing an Ahmadhist and he was given a six month sentence. Was the judge bias or afraid? The homes of Shiites have been burned and the people driven out by Sunnis in one district in Java. The government dared not take action against the perpetrators. Today organisations like the National Anti-Shia Alliance are openly calling for the persecution of Shiites. Extremist groups are inciting hatred against anyone who hold different views. But the minority sects are fighting back despite the lack of support from the authorities.

Ahmadists have ignored the call by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) to stop their activities citing Pancasila, the State Philosophy and the Constitution of 1945 which guarantees freedom of religion. In Aceh the government has enforced hudud and applied it to non-Muslims. (Under the peace agreement with the central government Aceh was given autonomy on religion).

Except for pockets of religious fanatics Indonesians are in general tolerant and liberal (especially post Suharto’s “new order” regime). North Sumatera had a Christian governor despite being a Muslim majority province. Jakarta’s Deputy Governor is a Chinese Christian. He will be Governor should Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo wins the presidency in July which pundits expect him to. In the recent parliamentary election (April 2014) none of the Islamic parties made much headway. They could not gather enough votes to have bargaining power with the secular parties. This is a rejection of politics in religion if you like and a rejection of religious extremism.

When local Muslim extremists tried to pressure the director (a Christian lady) of a regency in Jakarta to resign Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo the governor would not give in; saying that religion or gender had nothing to do with his appointments, that only merit and ability mattered. The extremists ended their protests because the majority in the community took heart from Jokowi’s firm stand and did not support them.
So it can be done. If these religious bullies are stood up to they will back down – that’s how bullies are – they are basically cowards. Such firm leadership is encouraging; yet unless the President takes strong measures against religious extremism Indonesians are afraid Islamic radicalism will infect their society.

What about the rise of radical Islam in Malaysia?
We are not immune to radical Islam judging by recent events. But although it has gained prominence recently it is not an overnight phenomenon. It can be said that radical Islam has its roots in the early 70s when a new type of Malay students entered university. Unlike the students of the 50s and 60s these students were “more rural in origin . . . more deeply attached to religious rituals . . . seem to be less analytical and less critical in their thinking. Less confident and less secure both emotionally and intellectually, these students do not want to encounter new ideas and new theories . . . and become dogmatic advocates of a narrow backward Islam. It is at this point that the religion becomes a tool, an instrument to serve their own interests. They have a vested interest in seeing that their type of Islam triumphs.” (Chandra Muzaffar, Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia pp30 & 31).
Many from that generation are now in positions of power in the civil service, police, armed forces, academia and religious bodies. Many have made a career in politics, some becoming ministers. Perhaps this explains the rise of radical Islam; why the government does not prosecute those who incite religious (and racial) hatred. Why despite the fact that every international scholar of Islam (including many local ones) declaring that there is nothing in the Quran that forbids non-Muslims from using the Arabic word “Allah” the government still panders to the extremists who demand their narrow views be enforced.
This explains why the bureaucrats in local governments have for years done everything within their power to impede the building of places of worship of non-Muslims. The Shah Alam Catholic Church took nearly 30 years to build due to government harassment. This is why we have so many shop-house
churches today because permission to build was almost impossible to obtain.

And now the legality of such churches is questioned under the “building use” by-law. There are no provisions for burial land for non-Muslims in many town plans and applications for burial land are met with bureaucratic foot-dragging.

Radical Islam has frightened the non-Muslims so much that many have tried to second-guess what is required of them to the extent that they comply even before they are ordered. Many mission schools have removed symbols of their religion so as not to offend the ‘sensitivities’ Muslims. Yet over the years thousands of Muslim students have passed through these schools (including the prime minister) without being offended…or converted.

But sensitivity applies to both sides; today “doa” is said at school assemblies without regard for the sensitivities of the non-Muslims. And students must take Islamic Civilisation as a foundation subject in universities. While school canteens must be halal, serving beef is acceptable despite the Hindu students.
Putting up a stand is not about being against Islam per se, it’s about standing up to religious bullies; it’s about fair play, tolerance and a ‘live and let live’ philosophy as practised by the Tunku and his government. That was a time when a tolerant and benign Islam was practised. Non-Muslims did not feel discriminated against and moderate Muslims did not feel pressured to conform or threatened. There was more inter-racial mixing and the nation was more cohesive.

It’s also about not letting fundamentalist Muslims dictate the agenda for our country. If liberal, tolerant Muslims think it won’t affect them, they should think again because hudud impinges on every aspect of their lives too. Look at the ridiculous situation in Aceh where the authorities have decreed that women cannot ride a motor bike straddled (they can ride side-saddle). This has affected thousands of Muslim women who depend on the ‘moto’ to ‘cari makan’.

But it is more serious than just riding a bike. These radicals will not tolerate any views other than theirs. The Shiites and Ahmadyists in Indonesia have suffered under those supposedly of their own faith just because they interpret the Quran differently. We have our own example in 1985 where 14 Muslims were shot and killed in Memali.
We are told that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance so what went wrong? Far be it for me to comment on how Islam should be practised but it is worth noting the comments of Nurrohman Syarif a lecturer at the State Islamic University (UIN), Bandung:

“… the best way to minimise the influence of the theology of “hatred” is by promoting the theology of peace and tolerance.” He goes on to say “First, differences should be accepted as God’s plan (Surah- verse- al-Maidah/5:48). This verse shows the purpose of God in allowing differences is clearly to test a believer, in competing with one another in virtuous deeds. Unfortunately many Muslims . . .are more concerned with orthodoxy or interpretation of correct beliefs, which is actually the domain of God, instead of orthopraxis or correct living.”

Second, there should be no coercion in religion or belief (al-Baqarah/2:2.56). Religious freedom is vital to demand responsibility for the follower regarding his belief. How can someone be asked for responsibility if he or she has no choice at all? So even the Prophet Mohammed is forbidden to coerce or intimidate others in matters of belief.

Third, there should be no insults toward people with different beliefs or faiths (al-An’am/6:108). Fourth, because God is said to have the highest authority in determining deviation or heresy, the final decision on different sects should be left to God (al-An’am/6:159 and al-Nahl/16:125).

Fifth, as a community is supposed to be moderate (wasatan), Muslims are not allowed to claim their monopoly on heaven or paradise (al-Baqarah/2:62 and al-Maidah/5:69). Sixth, all human beings irrespective of their skin colour, religion, gender, race, ethnicity, or political affiliation should be treated as honourable persons as fellow descendants of Adam (al-Isra/17:70 and al-Hujurat/49;9-13).
To counter the theology of hate, Muslims should endorse a theology of peace and harmony by accepting diversity as a blessing (rahmat). While religion cannot totally be separated from politics, politicisation of religion should be avoided. Politicisation here refers to abuse of religion as a political tool to gain or preserve power by categorising those with different beliefs or political orientation as an enemy.

Since the theology of hate is often accompanied by an intimidating, egocentric way of thinking, critical thinking should be given space to minimise it. For Muslims, such thinking is part of ijtihad (individual reasoning), which was highly endorsed by the Prophet Mohammed.” – Nurrohman Syarif – Jakarta Post, April 25, 2014.

If only the government observes the six points listed above by Nurrohman Syarif there will be no institutional racial discrimination, or discrimination and persecution of other religions. If Muslims apply ijtihad they will not be misled by religious extremists and demagogues. Has radical Islam taken hold in Malaysia? In my optimistic moments I’d like to think not yet (not fully) but the threat of a radical Islam that combines religion with politics and which opposes a pluralistic society is real.

“Unless moderate, tolerant Malaysians (including Muslims) take a stand it will take hold. “The threat of this radical Islam is not abating . . . This struggle between what we may call the open-minded and the close-minded is at the heart of whether the 21st Century turns in the direction of peaceful co-existence or conflict between people of different cultures.” – Tony Blair.

In our country’s context it is a struggle between tolerant, liberal and peaceful Malaysians of all races and religion and the narrow minded few who want to impose their own brand of Islam on everyone. Should the extremists who spread the “theology of hatred” win against those who preach “the theology of tolerance and peace” it will turn a peaceful and tolerant country where different races and religions have lived side by side for a very long time into a Taliban state. We adopt hudud at our peril. It’s too depressing to ponder such an outcome.

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