Monday, August 15, 2011

Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Beyond the Jais raid

MORAL policing of Muslims is unfortunately hardly new in Malaysia. But on 3 Aug 2011, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) went a step further by entering the Petaling Jaya-based Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC), purportedly to investigate a complaint. Christian leaders and secular bodies such as the Bar Council and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have criticised the intrusion of church premises without a warrant. At the same time, Muslim pressure groups have claimed there was evidence of proselytisation to Muslims.

The Nut Graph speaks to political scientist Wong Chin Huat about the implications of the incident, and what we can surmise from the various political parties’ responses.

TNG: What do you think has changed that a state religious authority would contemplate “raiding” a church in the manner that Jais did? Is this an indication of the further Islamisation of Malaysia and something that non-Muslims will just have to come to accept in the future?

I would not read this as a consequence of Islamisation, but rather a symptom of some Muslims’ “under siege” mentality. If and when introduced in full confidence by Muslims, Islamisation can actually enhance and not threaten a society’s diversity and openness. The best example is Islamic banking, where non-Muslims make up half the market in some cases.

It is Islamisation that is coupled with the “under siege” mentality that needs to be feared. This mentality presupposes and fears that Islam and Muslims can be destroyed by the “cultural other”. The root of Afghanistan’s Taliban, for example, can be traced back to the country’s occupation by the atheist Soviet Union.

We may argue over the legality and manner of how the church was raided, but perhaps the more important question is to understand its cause and the underlying issue. The incident at DUMC was triggered by Muslim fear of apostasy. This is the same fear that triggered the banning of the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims, and incidences of body-snatching of the dead from non-Muslim families.

Some Muslims insist that stopping apostasy at all cost is a religious duty. However, the same is not practised in many other Islamic countries, including the largest and culturally most similar to us, Indonesia. Also, the fear of losing co-religious is not exclusive to Islam. In India, Hindu militants attacked Christian missionaries.

The constitution allows states to restrict the propagation of non-Islamic faiths to Muslims. However, the only way to ensure that not a single Muslim leaves the faith, including in favour of atheism, is to prohibit Muslims from being exposed to all non-Islamic influence. Now, even if this were possible, would this be desirable for Islam and Muslims?

Does Islam – one of the fastest growing faiths in all continents – need protection from religious freedom to flourish? Muslim converts in the UK reportedly passed the 100,000 mark with 5,200 converts last year alone. In Malaysia, Muslims have grown from 60.4% in 2000 to 61.3% in 2010 out of the total population thanks to higher birth rates, immigration and conversion. There is no danger of Muslim decline either here or in the “decadent” West.

I hope Malaysians – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – do not accept raids such as that of DUMC as a fact of life, because what these raids reflect is a deeply rooted sense of insecurity in a significant part of the population. And it would be troubling if we accepted this sense of insecurity as a given in Malaysia.

The issue of Muslims embracing religious freedom in the fullest sense is a debate that must start among Muslims scholars and Muslims themselves for such reflection to be productive.

Does this incident indicate any worrying trends? And what have been some of the encouraging responses you have seen arising from this incident?

The insecurity – commonly framed as “Muslim sensitivities” – is always there thanks to the strong presence of a culturally different minority. But the intensified intra-Muslim political competition had led some parties to actively exploit this fear.

Mohd Asri

The silver lining is that many Muslims from the mainstream faction of PAS to many Muslim intellectuals have responded rationally, rather than playing to the gallery. Former Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin put it aptly that Islam was built on reason and sound argument and need not rely on enforcement agencies to prove its truth. Asri also asked a most relevant question: Muslims in countries like Thailand, the UK, US and many European countries are proselytising to non-Muslims. What if the authorities there started raiding mosques?

Similarly, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) president Dr Farouk Musa responded to the call for a Faith Crime Act with these quotes from the Quran:

“There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” (Quran, 2:256)

“And [thus it is] had thy Sustainer so willed, all those who live on earth would surely have attained to faith, all of them: dost thou, then, think that thou couldst compel people to believe.” (Quran, 10:99)

Speaking with faith and courage, Dr Asri and Dr Farouk are this country’s hope.

Several Muslim pressure groups and Umno politicians have pointed fingers at the Selangor government, accusing them of failing to defend Islam’s sanctity and failing to explain the situation. Can the Selangor Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government be criticised for the raid and their subsequent response? What part, if any, does the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government play in this?

Before passing any judgment, one needs to understand if the Selangor government really controls Jais. Some would say Jais is answerable only to the Sultan, the head of Islam in Selangor. Certain quarters like the Malaysian Muslim Lawyers Association (MMLA) have basically placed Jais beyond political accountability, stating that “Jais should be allowed to carry out its duties without revealing the facts of its case as it could jeopardise its investigation”. Without proper access to print and broadcast media, which have the widest reach to the Muslim masses, the Selangor government cannot take a principled stand like Dr Asri or Dr Farouk without committing political suicide.

As for the BN federal government, at the very least, it should behave responsibly. It should not capitalise on the issue by officially keeping quiet but at the same time allowing its politicians to hit the Selangor government below the belt.

This issue yet again tests the DAP-PAS relationship within the PR, especially with the initial statements by Selangor state executive committee member Datuk Hasan Ali. Could this be a lose-lose situation where either party will risk angering their traditional non-Muslim and Muslim voter bases by their response or lack thereof?

Jais logo (Wiki commons)

I think the eventual loser may be BN as long as the mainstream faction of PAS holds on to its reasonable position. PAS has been in electoral politics for more than 56 years and most of its members recognise political traps. The media frenzy of the raid is clearly to divert attention from electoral fraud committed or permitted by the Election Commission (EC).

In my view, Hasan Ali has a pro-Umno reputation and it is unlikely that the majority of PAS members will tolerate him, or any Hasan Ali wannabes for that matter, if he makes further statements that undermine the Selangor government. As long as people like Khalid Samad and Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad – who are remembered by many Christians as the first Muslim politicians they saw step into a church – are still seen as the real face of Selangor PAS, the DAP won’t make a fuss.

It will be Umno, and the subservient MCA and Gerakan, who have many Christian leaders and members in the Klang Valley, that will bear the brunt of the Christians’ and non-Muslims’ wrath. As long as more rational voices like Dr Asri’s and Dr Farouk’s can place the issue in context, the real middle ground in Muslim politics may not shift much.

While the Jais raid may not be the BN’s work, allowing its politicians and media to capitalise on the issue may backfire, losing more non-Muslim support while winning little from among Muslims.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin have been relatively silent on the incident, despite widespread public interest. Why do you think this is the case? Should they be commenting on the matter?

Najib has called internationally for a “Global Movement of Moderates” that would “span all faiths to ultimately marginalise today’s extremists”. Najib also claims that he has repeatedly said this overseas: “We the moderates must be able to take the centre stage of the world again – let our voices of moderation be heard. Such a movement would reclaim the agenda for peace and pragmatism in today’s world.”

If only Prime Minister Najib and Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin would heed what Najib declares internationally. Instead, what deafening silence from both leaders!

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. The views expressed here are his personal opinion. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail editor@thenutgraph.com for our consideration.

Disclosure: Ding Jo-Ann is a member of Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC). However, The Nut Graph editorial team – which includes people of different beliefs – collectively agreed to this Uncommon Sense column.


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