Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Freedom to agree or disagree

Brave New World (The Star)
November 12, 2009

"Our own laziness and lack of self-belief are producing high-handed action by some authorities."


THERE are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Broadly speaking, these 1.5 billion are divided into two distinct denominations; the Sunni and the Shi’ite.
The Sunnis are further broken into four major schools of thought (or mazhab) and these are the Shafii, Hambali, Maliki and Hanafi.
The Shi’ites have three major mazhab and these are the Twelvers, Ismailis and Zaidis.
Within each broad denomination and mazhab there are further groupings and ideologies.
Amongst the Sunnis for example there are the literalist Salafis (which Saudi Arabian Wahhabism falls under).
Then there are certain cross-denominational movements like the mystical Sufis.
Any basic textbook will describe these different schools of thought within the Muslim world.
It is nothing particularly new or exciting.
Well, it can be exciting if one who is raised in the Sunni tradition finds oneself in an Ismaili mosque, not knowing it is an Ismaili mosque.
This is what happened to me many years ago.
I had found a mosque within walking distance from my house in Middlesex, England.
It looked very nice and I thought it would be good to go to Friday prayers there.
I should have guessed this was not Shafii territory anymore when I saw that everyone was dressed in the same kind of robe and when the prayers did not seem to have any end in sight.
Standing out like a sore thumb in my black jeans and black leather jacket, I prostrated along with the rest for what seemed to be a heck lot of prostrations until finally, at the end of what was the umpteenth prayer, the gentleman next to me kindly said, “We are finished now, you can go home.”
My point is that within the rich tapestry of world religions, even within a particular religion, there will be many differing views and ways of thinking.
It is an unfortunate but natural tendency amongst followers of a particular faith or even a group within a particular faith to think that they have the real deal and that everyone else is either wrong or misguided in some way.
I remember a Methodist pastor telling me with some amusement how a Catholic once said to him, in all earnestness, “you know, we Catholics view you Protestants as Christian, too.”
As a pluralist, I would like to think that all people have a right to believe what they want in any way they want; the only proviso being the golden rule, which is to not do unto others what you would not want done unto you.
In other words, if you aren’t hurting anyone, go ahead and do what you are happy with.
This is of course not the way things are in Malaysia.
Although our Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all people, it does place restrictions on proselytising to Muslims.
This includes Muslim-to-Muslim proselytising, which is why we have laws requiring permits and the like for anyone to preach to Muslims.
Datuk Dr Muhammad Asri Zainul Abidin, the former Mufti of Perlis, experienced this law first-hand when he was arrested by the Selangor Islamic Department.
The question here is why we should have such laws in the first place.
It has been argued that such laws are necessary to ensure public order.
There have been arguments, for example, that Dr Asri has been preaching a brand of Islam that is different from mainstream Malaysian orthodoxy and this has caused “unease” amongst Muslims who have heard him speak.
This is of course conjecture. Besides, if some sensitive souls may be uncomfortable with what we say, it would be a rather pathetic reason to curb such a fundamental right as the freedom of speech.
Short of incitement to violence, there should be no limitations on speech.
However, let us assume this was the case, that Dr Asri had been causing “unease”.
The question then becomes, why on earth is this so?
I have read some of his works and there are times I agree very strongly with him.
For example, his attacks on “khalwat squads”, poor treatment of Muslim converts by those in authority and the downright narrow-minded practice of not allowing non-Muslims into mosques.
I believe these were necessary stands to take.
Coming from a person with the requisite “qualifications” and goatee, I was hoping such statements would begin to take the practice of Islam in this country away from petty perversions, racist dogma and exclusivity.
I don’t agree with some of the other things he has said, for example his criticism of the Islam Liberal movement in Indonesia.
But surely that’s the point: he has his views and one is at liberty to agree or disagree.
The reason why there is “unease” is because for generations, Muslims in this country have not been encouraged to think for themselves.
On the contrary, we are told to obey those who know better, and that is that.
So, when an authority figure says something different from another authority figure, there is a moral panic of sorts.
To me the root issue here is not Dr Asri’s right to speak.
Instead, it is about a mindset of subservience to religious authority that is so entrenched that the very thought of ideas different from the mainstream is enough to “justify” high-handed action.
The Islamic authorities in this country prefer to keep the Muslim populace in their thrall.
In that way, their word is law, and their power and influence are maintained.
And we, through laziness and lack of self-belief, have let them do so. The arrest of Dr Asri is the logical conclusion of this state of affairs.

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