Freedom of faith for Malaysian Malays

By: Norani Abu Bakar

Published in: New Mandala – National University of Australia; re-posted Malaysia Today; Center for Policy Initiatives, etc.

Date: 17th November 2011

Although Joshua Woo Sze Zeng’s “Apostasy in Malaysia: The Hidden View,” has showcased the scholarship of some renowned Muslim scholars and leaders, their perspective continues to be “hidden” to the majority Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims.

Joshua Woo raised an important question, “Why do Muslim politicians tell us only one perspective?” Why indeed does the Malaysian government not strive to educate 1Malaysia, especially Malaysian Muslims, with progressive Islamic teachings that could promote not only faith and action, but also reason? Can’t Malays voluntarily give all – heart, hands, and head – to God? They can, and should be empowered to do so.

Obviously, when Tun Ahmad Badawi launched his vision of “Civilizational Islam,” the Malaysian government was partially convinced that progressive Islam could help the nation flourish. Now it would be to Malaysia’s advantage to further synchronize the classical and modernist Islamic teachings as ethically relevant in daily social life. Such a movement need not be de-Islamising but instead may foster a renaissance for Islam.

Ignorance about what does and does not constitute Islam is hindering Malaysia’s goal of becoming a fully developed nation by 2020. What are the criteria that a majority Muslim country must have in order to be a developed world player? Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University, one of the most prominent Muslim scholars in this century, wrote in Globalisation Muslim Resistance:

“To be the voice of the voiceless is a moral imperative today. To stand for the rights of those who have been forgotten … and of all the oppressed of the earth is the most explicit expression of our consistencies of our principles and our ethics.”

These are values that Malaysia can offer on the world stage, but the effort must first begin within our own homeland. The current conflict about apostasy and proselytising, among other faith and cultural issues, must be urgently and purposefully addressed in a way that is consistent with the ethos of 1Malaysia, which insists that all citizens must be treated equally and with justice. In other words, we must move away from Malaysia’s previously ethnocentric model towards a more religio and ethno-relative nation.

As society matures through discourse and debate on difficult issues, it will become more aware and more concerned about the impartiality and injustice of the laws relating to matters of faith, particularly in the harsh treatment of those deemed apostates. Meanwhile, the voices and writings of critical thinkers, grass roots activists and leaders are evidence of an increasing demand for nuance in conversation. 1Malaysia’s spirit of solidarity is modeled in the support of key change agents who, regardless of their ethnics and faiths background, stay united in the midst of resolving contentious issues; clearly, a hermeneutic change is on its way, and no government can avoid the momentum of this change.

In general, the response to converts is articulated on three levels: the grass roots movements; the federal and state governments; and the scholars and strategic thinkers. Although this description is simple and does not represent voices of all citizens, it covers the voices of the majority of the population and key players and provides a reasonable starting point. Thus far, confusion and distress have arisen from a lack of experience and humility in handling this issue, the failure of current framework to allow “hidden” information to trickle down, and poor leadership in thriving towards reasoned and harmonious responses on apostasy. It also causes the Malaysian non-Muslims (40 percent), especially the converts from Islam – who love the country and contribute tremendously to its growth – feel that they live in an “unsafe” environment. This “fear for own safety” is surely one of the contributing factors towards Malaysia’s brain drain problem.

In tackling this issue systematically – all three groups need to move towards the same direction while sufficient space and time are graciously allocated for each to rub against each other until tension is eased. The foremost step is to “intentionally” draw insights on what is right according to Malaysia context in order to synchronize progress. Then, to study the current situation of each group, what went right and wrong, prior to developing proper and standard procedures and remedying what went wrong.

At the grass roots level, “Christianophobia” for example, can be mitigated through agreed-upon standard of dialogue discussing pressing issues, e.g. the etymologies and definitions of proselytizing, da’wa, and evangelism; differences, and boundaries. Dr. Rick Love in his paper “Ethics of Da’wa and Evangelism – Respecting the Other and Freedom in Religion” presented two principles derived from his discussion with nine Egyptian Sheikhs and two Syrian muftis: first – da’wa and evangelism should focus on a positive presentation of what one believes, not on negative attacks on the other’s faith; second – converts should not be held as public “trophies” to humiliate the other faith community.

Instead of harsh condemnation such as what was spoken against the Evangelical Christians during HIMPUN, these are some constructive points that Muslims’ NGOs could have proposed to help Christians understand Muslims’ expectation on evangelism, and vice versa. Similarly, mutually respecting dialogue can be developed with the adherents of other faith traditions. Dialoguing with love with “others” is indeed a fundamental and common value among mankind, as advocated by the World Interfaith Harmony’s motto: “loving God, loving neighbors” or “loving good, loving neighbors”

In addition to the questions on boundaries in witnessing one’s faith to the other, some of the questions that the classical and modernist Islamic scholars and strategic thinkers need to address are: Shouldn’t Malays or/and “born Muslims” be treated equally in choosing their own religion? Does constitutional protection hinder the true essence of their spirituality? What would be the best pedagogical and religious content for 1Malaysia so that Malaysians can differentiate between faith and true spirituality from false piety and self-righteousness? And finally, is there a convergence on freedom of religion between Islamic values and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? After all, the declaration asserts:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Joshua Woo’s writing offers the answer to this last question. Change requires some restructuring at the governmental and grass roots levels, and although it is complex, it is possible. What matters is that the truth, that “there is no compulsion in religion,” (Surah 2:256) prevails. Treatment of converts from Islam must be consistent to Surah 8:61 “If they seek peace, then seek you peace. And trust in God for He is the One that heareth and knoweth all things.”

Samuel Huntington in his book, Who are we? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, relates to Surah 2:256 when he characterizes voluntary decision as the “freedom for religion” and not “freedom from religion.” This is indeed the concept that benchmarks the shift towards an extraordinary expansion of religious institutions and religious life in the United States. The New York Times (22 Oct 2001) reported that “One expert estimates that 25,000 people a year become Muslims in the USA; some clerics say they have seen conversion rates quadruple since Sept. 11.”

The Pluralism Project at Harvard University in 2003, for example, reported a surprising finding that tens of thousands of Latino Americans and African American have “chosen” Islam as faith. The number of  converts from Islam in Malaysia is nothing compared to these numbers. Are there any lessons that can be learned from this Christian majority country where constitutional framework “born Muslim” is non-existing? Clearly, choice of religion is not antithetical to the Muslim faith and can in fact lead to a deep embrace of its teachings.

The next 1Malaysia generation will look back to the day when this country first embraced the core essence of both civilized nationhood and true Islamic values, i.e. the day when all citizens have the “freedom for religion and faith.” This is the day when a Malay Muslim, like other Malaysians of any ethnic background, can proudly proclaim that he or she has chosen to be a believer of Islam instead of being born Muslim.

It is now up to the current government to decide if it wants to benchmark what will be the most momentous moment in Malaysia’s history. This decision will be the determining factor in the Malaysian government’s ability to propagate the progressive and beautiful values that Islam possesses, which have been known among the enlightened but so long “hidden” from the masses.

Norani Abu Bakar is a Post Graduate Fellow at Yale Centre for Faith and Culture (YCFR) and the Asia Project Director of  Pathways for Mutual Respect (PFMR). She can be contacted at norani.abubakar@yale.edu and blogs at  Loving God and Neighbors.

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