Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Culmination of The Crisis of Religious Freedom in Malaysia


By Luthfi Assyaukanie, Jakarta Post

The last minute cancellation of an international inter-faith conference in mid-May is the culmination of the crisis of religious freedom in Malaysia, and itself is a manifestation of the paradox of the oft-campaigned "Islam Hadhari".

Over the past two years, the Malaysian government (under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi) has promoted the concept of civilized Islam, or Islam Hadhari, emphasizing that Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country which should become a role model for other Muslim countries in promoting harmony, progress and economic development.

The cancellation of the conference was criticized by several Malaysian Muslim leaders. Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim deemed it "a mockery of the government's claims of being a moderate Muslim administration" (Malaysia Today, 16/5). The conference was aimed at minimizing the tension between Islam and religious minority groups in Malaysia. Its cancellation, therefore, only fuels religious disharmony in the country.

The relationship between Islam and religious minority groups in Malaysia has worsened over the last five years, despite the government's ardent campaign of Islam Hadhari.

Two of the 10 principles of Islam Hadhari are:
  • "Freedom and independence for the people" and,
  • "Protection of the rights of minority groups".
Yet, the problem the Malaysian government currently faces is the issue of freedom and religious rights. In January, Islamic officials arrested a Muslim woman and sent her to a rehabilitation clinic for marrying a non-Muslim. She was forced to divorce her Hindu husband and ordered to keep her baby away from the father, to avoid the child being converted to Hinduism.

In March, R. Subashini, a Hindu woman whose husband converted to Islam, failed to get a divorce from the Civil Court and was forced to proceed to the Sharia Court.

According to Malaysia's constitution, the Sharia Court was created to manage Muslims' affairs, while the Civil or Federal Court deals with non-Muslims' affairs. By being forced to go through the Sharia Court, Subashini ultimately lost custody rights of her children.

In April, Islamic authorities raided the house of a Hindu man and his Muslim wife. The authorities forced them to separate and they were charged with an illegal marriage. The authorities took their 3-year-old daughter to prevent her from being converted to Hinduism.

Other minority groups, particularly Christians, have also suffered from religious restrictions. The most widely-covered example is the case of Lina Joy, a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. She was charged with apostasy and according to Islamic law, an apostate is condemned to death.

These are just some examples of the mounting problem of religious freedom in Malaysia and the contradiction that is Islam Hadhari -- which Badawi is trying to "export" to other Muslim countries.

Within Malaysia itself, it appears the concept has not yet taken root, despite Badawi's claim it has been accepted as the ideal model by which all Muslims in the country should strive to follow. The problem is, a clear definition is lacking as well as the government's commitment to the concept.

For secular and progressive Muslims, Islam Hadhari is an oxymoron, since many Muslims in Malaysia still believe in the superiority of Islam over other religions. It is impossible to create a tolerant environment if one group feels more superior to others.

In any case, Badawi's Islam Hadhari seems to go against the spirit of the classical model of Islamic civilization, where dialogue and mutual respect are distinct characteristics.

Expressing his disappointment over the cancellation of the inter-faith conference, Anwar Ibrahim said: "A dialogue will enable us to quell the tensions that arise from our differences. Islam has always enjoined Muslims to engage in dialogue with people of other religions, from the Abbasids of Baghdad to the Andalucians of Cordoba," (Malaysia Today, 16/5).

For progressive Muslims, the best model of civilized Islam was during the golden era of classical Islam -- especially in Baghdad and Cordoba -- where religious harmony and tolerance existed.

Here comes the irony: For many Muslims in Malaysia, the role model of civilized Islam is not Baghdad or Cordoba, but "the pious first generation" or, what is known as "al-salaf al-salih", from which the ideology of Salafism takes its roots.

The later generation of Muslims, including those who lived in Baghdad and Cordoba during the golden era, are thought to have somewhat deviated from Islam. It is common knowledge that many Muslims are against philosophy and speculative thinking, one of the most significant symbols of the Islamic golden era.

Accordingly, the same spirit is demonstrated by the staunchest political opposition in Malaysia; the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). PAS leaders often launch their criticism to Badawi's concept of Islam Hadhari on the grounds it emphasizes too heavily the worldly aspects of life and neglects spiritual aspects exemplified by the early days of Islam.

Like many Salafis, PAS leaders prefer the Prophet's era as a model of civilized Islam rather than the later one represented by the Abbasids of Baghdad or the Ummayads of Cordoba.

A clear definition of Islam Hadhari is needed here in order to decide which position the Malaysian government takes. It seems the absence of conceptual ground and a lack of commitment to its implementation have created many contradictions in Badawi's Islam Hadhari.

On one hand, Malaysia's leaders wish to make their country modern, progressive and tolerant -- but on the other hand, they have failed to secure civil liberty and religious rights for their citizens.

The writer is a research fellow at the Freedom Institute, Jakarta.

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