Academics fear for the future of Islam

FRI, 28 MAY 2010 23:51
By Stephanie Sta Maria

PETALING JAYA: Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's Wesak Day message for Malaysians centred around religious tolerance, and the Buddhist teaching of following the middle path and avoiding extremism.

His message came hot on the heels of a recent panel discussion on Islam, which had both Muslims and non-Muslims shifting uneasily over the misrepresentation of Islam in Malaysia.

Oganised by Sisters In Islam (SIS), the discussion followed a screening of the documentary “Mencari Kartika” (In Search of Kartika) by new filmmaker Norhayati Kaprawi.

The documentary was inspired by a Merdeka Centre survey which revealed that many Malaysian Muslims supported the caning of Kartika Dewi Shukarnor.

Kartika was sentenced to caning after being found guilty of consuming alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam. Her sentence was later commuted to three weeks of community service, but her case had attracted criticism from local and international quarters.

According to Professor Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi of the Mara University of Technology, the “Talibanisation” of the Malay society is currently taking place. He warned that this is cause for great concern.

“Talibanisation means too much emphasis on symbols – wearing the hijab, growing a beard and discrimination against women – than substance,” he said. “In certain instances, Malaysia has crossed over into extremism, which is very disturbing. But our leaders don't seem to recognise this.”

“The Muslims who supported the caning of Kartika somehow find an appeal in violence, vengeance and watching other people suffering. They think this is part of Islam but it isn't. These are the fringe aspects of Islam that have become mainstream. And Kartika has become a symbol that has led to a call for the revival of the hudud law.”

Wayward perception

Professor Norani Othman, a sociologist at Universiti Kenagsaaan Malaysia and a founding member of SIS, places the blame for this wayward perception of Islam squarely on Malaysia's education system.

She didn't mince her words when she said the intellectual culture of Malaysian Muslims has suffered a great dumbing down and they have failed to bring themselves into the 21st century.

“When (prime minister) Najib (Tun Razak) was Education Minister, I appealed to him to review the education format of religious schools,” she recalled. “The students were learning by memorising and critical thinking was not encouraged. I told him that he needed to appoint a committee of experts and scholars to provide feedback on how to improve our education system but he didn't grasp the importance of this.”

“Indonesia set up such a committee because education wasn't part of the state. The Suharto regime may have been an authoritarian one but it still laid off Islam and, to some extent, Islamic education. So the intellectuals invited the late Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman for a conference.”

“Only then did they begin to implement modernisation and a reformation of their religious education. This is why Indonesia has far more thriving and intelligent debates on the implementation of Islamic law.”

Both professors also noted with dismay the reluctance of the “right-thinking people” to speak up against the “extremists”. Calling it a tragedy of the country and the Malaysian Muslims' social, religious and moral life, Shad warned that continuing to keep silent would give more power to the “lunatic fringes”.

He pointed out that the agenda of Islam is currently being dictated by this group who force others into silence for fear of being confronted with tough questions. In his opinion, the Malay society has adopted the feudalistic mindset of blindly following the leader. Norani fully agreed.

“Under the federal constitution, we are all citizens of Malaysia,” said Norani. “If we allow the state too much freedom to politicise Islam, then we are encouraging the 'Talibanisation' of Islamic laws to cow people into silence.”

“It's time we all stood up and stop saying that it has nothing to do with us. We shouldn't be afaid to speak up against Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor (JAIS), Majlis Agam Islam Selangor (MAIS) and Perkasa because they are terrorising us into silence.”

Marina Mahathir, who was also present at the discussion, voiced anxiety over the future of Islam in Malaysia.

“I believe in an Islam that upholds justice and equality and everything that is good,” she said. “But today both conservative Muslims and non-Muslims view it as a religion that punishes people and oppresses women. I fear that the true Islam will one day be completely wiped out from Malaysia.”

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