[Please that that I will be away till July 1, 2008. Postings during this time may be erratic. MBM]
Guest Commentary: Farish A. Noor
There are ideas, and there can be stupid ideas; but to ban an idea simply because of its stupidity seems to be a rather stupid thing to do in itself.
Among the ideas that circulate in the congested bowels of Malaysia’s public domain is the somewhat nebulous idea of ‘Islam Hadhari’; loosely translated at times as ‘civilisational Islam’ or ‘societal Islam’. Others of a less charitable bent have dubbed it ‘theme park Islam’, ‘Crystal mosque Islam,’ and even ‘Badawi’s brand of Islam’. Branding aside, it would appear that this brand of Islam has come under close scrutiny and admonition of late. In May the Pakatan-led state government of Selangor announced that henceforth the state would no longer promote Islam Hadari and this was later followed up by a similar move on the part of the Pakatan-led state government of Penang.
The rationale behind this prohibition leaves us with some unanswered questions that might as well be raised at this point. Who called for the prohibition of Islam Hadari and on what grounds? And if Islam Hadhari is to be banned by the Pakatan-led state governments, what does this entail for the Muslims and non-Muslims of Malaysia? What, in the final analysis, was the objective of this ban?
Now this academic would hardly call himself a fan of Islam Hadhari, as anyone who has read these columns would realise. Time and again we have pointed out the shortcomings, contradictions, double standards, and downright hypocrisy between the ideals of Islam Hadhari and what has been put into practice. Islam Hadhari – as a broad statement of inter-related intentions crafted in the form of a statist religio-political discourse – promised us the opening of the Muslim mind, the creation of a more open civil space, the protection of pluralism and difference, and the promotion of gender equality.
Yet what we have seen thus far falls short (and very short, mind you) of the abovementioned objectives. In Trengganu, I walked into the Islam Hadhari theme park that seemed more like a vulgar imitation of Disneyland than a concrete affirmation of rationalism and the spirit of enquiry. The famous ‘crystal mosque’ that accounted for the whopping price tag of the whole theme park failed to impress and was certainly a pale mimic of what Islamic aesthetics could achieve. And one wonders how such grand and money-devouring projects would serve the ends of opening up the Muslim mind when all we see are posters and banners celebrating the ego and image of the man said to be the mastermind of the grand logic of Islam Hadhari itself, Prime Minister Abdullah.
Criticisms like these, however, serve to keep the powers-that-be in check and to remind them of their public commitments to ideas and values that they fail to practice in office. How, pray tell, can you open up the minds of Malaysians when the very same government that preaches Islam Hadhari remains as a passive witness to the spate of book-banning and the narrowing of discursive space in the country?
This, however, should not be taken as the license to simply ban Islam Hadhari – or any other ideas or interpretations of Islam – outright. For if we were to say that Islam Hadari is wrong in toto simply because the people who thought it up don’t even understand it themselves, then would we not also be rejecting some of the better ideas and values that have been inculcated into the general framework of the project itself? Islam Hadhari, on paper at least, calls for the respect of difference and pluralism as well as the promotion of gender equality. Are these ideas to be rejected too, simply because they have been brought within the ambit of Islam Hadhari? For my part, I am quite happy to see any party or politician, be they of the ruling parties or those in opposition, endorsing pluralism, democracy, and gender equality any time of the day….
Which leads us to the actors and agents behind the prohibition of Islam Hadari in Selangor and Penang. According to reports, the calls for the ban on Islam Hadhari have come from those who claim to be representatives of the Muslim community, and this includes members of political parties, Muslim lobby groups, Muslim NGOs, and former Muftis. The justification for the ban, we are told, is that some of these individuals feel that “the teachings of Islam are perfect as they are” and that “there is no need for supplements”. Their calls for the prohibition of Islam Hadhari, it would seem, is fuelled by the desire to “return to the true teachings of Islam”. But this immediately leads us to the obvious question: Is defending gender equality, promoting openness, and recognizing pluralism and difference (both among Muslims and between Muslims and others) not essentially Islamic anyway? How, pray tell, does promoting gender equality amount to ‘supplementing’ or ‘deviating’ from the teachings of Islam?
Despite assurances that this move to prohibit the promotion of Islam Hadhari is not political, we find it ludicrous to suggest that the move is void of any political motivation. Islam Hadhari itself began as a political project – to politically engineer the opening of Muslim discursive space, though this did not happen – and the reactions to it have been political as well.
Those who claim that any modern revisionist attempt to re-think Islam is deviant or dangerous, and that Islam is perfect as it is, are obviously missing the point: We all know that Islam in its essential, fundamental, literalist form conjoins and promotes equality, freedom, and justice. But a cursory overview of the normative religio-cultural and social praxis of Islam in the daily lives of Muslims the world over today will show that the Muslim world is riddled with the problems of sexism, racism, feudalism, communitarianism, and sectarianism. The appeal to ‘return to the Quran’ or the fundamentals of the Muslim faith ring hollow when we look around us and see how the politicization of Islam has served only the agendas of elites who manipulate the sentiments of the majority, who have organized and led pogroms against racial and religious minorities, who have been the first to accuse other Muslims of being ‘kafirs’, ‘munafikin’ and apostates. Why, all this talk of Islam being singular and perfect makes me glance to our neighbors next door in Indonesia where at this very moment the Ahmadiya minority are being labeled as deviants, apostates, enemies of Islam, etc., while the self-proclaimed ‘true Muslims’ are calling for them to be banned, their mosques burned to the ground, and their members harassed, attacked and murdered.
So let us not kid ourselves with the worn-out cliché that Islam has not changed over the past fourteen centuries, or that Islam does not require a modernist interpretation that meets the needs and reflects the realities of the modern age. For Islam to remain a meaningful and dynamic belief and value system today, it has to undergo a process of serious, thoughtful, objective and critical interpretation that allows it to reflect the complexity of Muslim social life in the present. This means evolving a contemporary theology and orthodoxy that reflects the strides that have been made in promoting gender and racial equality, the advancement in Muslim thought, the openness of Muslim society today. We do not need some conservatives telling us to go back to the Golden Age of Islam 1,400 years ago, because frankly I would rather live in Malaysia in the present, thank you.
And if Islam Hadhari is to be criticized – and it deserves to be criticized constantly, too – it should be for the reason that those who have tried to promote it have failed to meet the standards they have set for themselves. Cakap tak serupa bikin, as they say. I do not need some tawdry crystal mosque to impress me about Islam, Mr. Prime Minister. Lift the ban on the Ahmadis and recognize other Muslim groups like the Shias, and maybe my opinion of Abdullah might be revised somewhat.
The Pakatan-led state governments, on the other hand, would do well to focus on real issues such as governing this country well; as the previous lot obviously had no idea how to do that. The banning of books, ideas, belief and value-systems and alternative cults and sects should be relegated to the past and the dark ages of the Barisan Nasional government. The March 2008 elections was a vote for a new Malaysia, one where pluralism and diversity would be defended. Let us not let this vote be misunderstood as an endorsement for an Islamic state shaped according to the mold of UMNO, PAS or any sectarian Muslim party or organization. Banning should be a thing of the past, like the BN; and if Islam Hadhari is to be dumped into the dustbin of history, it should be relegated there on account of its contradictions and mis-application by incompetent politicians, and not because some Mullah wanted it so.
The writer Farish A Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is also one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.
Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Research Director for the Research Cluster ‘Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia’, Nanyang Tech Uni, Singapore Tel (off) 6790 6128