Moderate Muslims Matter Most

The division and polarisation evident today within Malaysian society is perpetuated chiefly through religion (with language coming in a close second place in my opinion). This is done to great effect specifically through the existing push towards a more dogmatic Islam within the Malaysian-Muslim population. As such, the question is no longer as to whether this division exists but how we can most effectively combat it. I contend that ‘moderate Muslims’ are best placed and thus matter most in mitigating this existing shift within Muslims in Malaysia towards dogmatism. There are three parts to this post: firstly, why I think this shift towards a more dogmatic Islam is existent and harmful; secondly, why I feel moderate Muslims are best placed to combat this; and thirdly, how exactly this can be done.

A few preliminary definitions before the meat of my material: firstly, what exactly is this more dogmatic Islam? This question can be answered without the need to argue from a theological standpoint or attempting to prove which interpretation of Islam is ‘correct’. It is a trite observation that multiple strands of Islamic interpretation exist (e.g. the Sunni-Shia divide, the rise of of Wahhabism); the only contention necessary is that some interpretations are more compatible with human rights than others. In Malaysia, this can most clearly be seen in the demise of the Islam Hadhari espoused by former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in the wake of the rise of reactionary Islamist conservatism.¹ This brand of Islamist conservatism, tending towards radicalism and rigid fundamentalism, has continued to gain traction during Najib Razak’s premiership.² That the groups promoting this brand (ISMA, etc) conceptually oppose modern human rights formulations of liberty and equality is apparent from their public stances, especially the wish to implement an ‘Islamic state’ within Malaysia. The tension between the such an Islamic state and the modern perception of the immutability of rights such as freedom of religion can clearly be seen.

Having established that a shift towards a more radical interpretation of Islam which is at odds with human rights is present in Malaysia, the question remains as to whether this is inherently harmful. The mere presence of this form of Islam is clearly not a threat in and of itself; people have the right to freedom of belief and association, no matter how antithetical to the rights of others these views may be. A line is crossed when these views are imposed on others, resulting in the restriction of the rights of others — as fine of a line as this may seem, there is a difference in principle. There is a need to combat this strain of Islam due to its adherents’ consistent push for the enactment of laws that are contrary to modern human rights. There is ample evidence for this, from suggestions to implement the Islamic criminal code of hudud on non-Muslims to overt claims that liberalism and pluralism are part of a global conspiracy to destroy Malay identity.³

This leads to the reasons this post focuses on Islam within Malaysia as opposed to other religious beliefs that may also be veering towards radicalism: (1) Islam, as the majority religion in Malaysia, plays the largest role in partisan politics, and (2) Islam is regulated by the Malaysian government to an extent incomparable with any other religion. Malaysia has consistently ranked at the global top in terms of government regulation and restrictions on religion, placing at number 5 out of 198 countries in the Pew Government Restrictions on Religion Index in 2017 and 11th out of 175 countries in the Government Involvement in Religion Index.⁴ The fact that Malaysia already extensively regulates religion in conjunction with the fact that Islam is an equally extensively used political tool with a sizeable proportion of the populace means that there is likely to be an increased push in favour of heavier restrictions (e.g. RUU355) as well as further legislation that is contrary to commonly understood standards of human rights. However, even if the likelihood of this happening is downplayed despite demonstrable existing precedence, the polarisation within Malaysian society resulting in division is still a harm in and of itself: this is at the most basic level a foreseeable result of branding entire ethnicities within Malaysia pendatang.

In the wake of the danger of the harms that this Islamist fundamentalism poses, two fundamental points must be recognised. Firstly, we must recognise the fact that there is no monopoly on Islamic jurisprudential and personal interpretation, whether by the Malaysian government or the extremely vocal Islamist minority, and that no single group should be regarded as authoritative. Secondly, we must recognise that there is still an appreciable capacity for change (namely the reversal or mitigation of the current trend of Islamic extremism) through democratic means, activism, and dialogue. At this juncture, it would also be relevant for me to reiterate there is nothing Islamophobic about wishing to initiate dialogue in order to sway people to a more moderate personal conceptualisation of Islam.

This brings us to the reasons I consider ‘moderate Muslims’ the most important actors in this struggle over public perception. This is not to suggest that Malaysians (or for that matter, any people) who do not fall into this category have no role to play in the dialogue; all I am arguing is that moderate Muslims are best placed to initiate and advance this dialogue. The most effective way to ‘kill a fascist’ (i.e. convert them out of their ideologues, put in apostrophes for the express purpose of avoiding misinterpretation of my turn of phrase) is through dialogue. Restricting the freedom of speech and opinion of those we disagree with is a slippery slope, conceding any moral high ground. With the latter option clearly being unacceptable, moderate Muslims are the most likely to be able to raise awareness and gain critical mass. Even if this does not succeed in swaying hard-core believers, at the very least this has the added benefit of increasing the chances of raising awareness in general and swinging onlookers who are currently on the fence.

The reasons moderate Muslims are the most likely to be able to successfully achieve this dialogue are threefold, centring around their status as Muslims. This enables them to break the monopoly on interpretation of Islam, or at the the very least advocate for a general acceptance of individual interpretations of Islam. Notwithstanding the lesser weight generally given to non-Muslim opinion on ‘Muslim issues’ (hence rhetoric revolving around “non-Muslims not interfering in Muslim matters”), Muslims are generally perceived to have valid standing to weigh in on these issues — regardless of the actual validity of this claim, these perceptions are crucial in persuasion. This also explains the prevalence of the branding of moderate Muslims as kafir upon any disagreement: this is an attempt to discredit the moderate views as part of the ‘other’. The co-opting and usage of the word ‘liberal’ as a derogatory term serves a similar purpose, critically reinforcing the misconception that since liberalism and Islam are fundamentally incompatible, liberal formulations of Islam are invalid. While there is no denying shallow attacks such as these are often directed at moderate Muslims, their status as Muslims still affords them broader grounds on which to engage in discussions (based, of course, on the perceptions of most Malaysian Muslims).

“…the more you pinpoint traits of liberal Muslims, the more proof you see that they are similar to infidels…”

Attempts by non-Muslims to appeal on grounds of pure logic and reason are often shut down on grounds of the perceived incompatibility of logik akal and ‘Islamic-revealed knowledge’. In addition to this, these exchanges are framed as part of the necessary clash between atheism/secularism and Islam, further reinforcing the perceived divide. The crux of the standing of moderate Muslims is simply the fact that they are at the basest level perceived as less ‘other’ than non-Muslims. The concept of universal brotherhood within Islam as well as the sense of community that organised religion as a whole holds is and always will be to some degree at odds with the idea that moderate Muslims, too, are the enemy. On purely practical terms as well it is often easier for existing Muslims to engage in this dialogue socially, whether it be initiating it at all or not being taken as antagonistic. This is clearly not the case for non-Muslims, or even worse, atheists. Alternative Islamic sources can also be cited without immediate ridicule (why would I listen to what a non-Muslim tells me about Muslim texts?). There will also always be a lingering fear that atheists or adherents of other religions have underlying agendas and/or divulging interests, while generally speaking the goals of one who professes to believe in the same God as you should align with yours. Of all potential actors, moderate Muslims are thus in the relatively strongest position to influence their fellow Muslims.

One final issue is the notion of authority concerning Islamic interpretation. While it is not the goal of this post to wade into the back-and-forth as to which interpretation of Islam is the most accurate, it must be conceded that there is a significant amount of academia (to say the least) to wade through in order to achieve reform. Any significant reform to challenge the orthodoxy of the Islamic creed has to come from within this academic discourse as well, with the struggle being to make it compatible with human rights and refuting the arguments against this — all while remaining within the system. Much of what is used to justify this more dogmatic Islam is fundamentally compatible with this theology (e.g. as it is taught in Al-Azhar and Medina, deriving from the scholars of the Islamic Golden Age and prior); this leads to the issue of moderates having the necessary authority to back up their conceptualisations of Islam. The challenge is to be able to cite academics with established credentials (e.g. Mustafa Akyol) to challenge Islamic academic orthodoxy, which is clearly practically for those who don’t study the Quran and Sunnah. This poses a significant obstacle, but I would contend that as a long-term goal in order to achieve broad reformation within Islamic thought this is less pertinent than simply contributing in a positive way to the Malaysian-Muslim collective consciousness. Given the pressing nature of other directly contributing factors to the rise of dogmatism (a feudalistic belief in religious authority, a marked disregard for critical thought, etc), a basic emphasis on individual reasoning and proper research as well as the supplying of a counter-narrative would go a long way in the short- to medium-term.

Having concluded that there does exist a shift towards interpretations of Islam that cannot co-exist with human rights and that moderates have the biggest (but not the only) role to play in mitigating this shift, the only step remaining is the introduction of this organic discourse at a grassroots level. This unique position is unfortunately seldom used by moderates to the advantage of all of those, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who believe in human rights. A fear of being judged as ‘less Muslim’, a belief that as moderates they have insufficient/less Islamic knowledge, a nascent idea of “each people being entitled to their own beliefs”, and a general desire to avoid conflict lead to a lack of incentive or motivation to engage in this vital dialogue. It is the purpose of this post to challenge this inertia and provide arguments as to why this should not be the case. After all, neutrality in times of moral crisis is helping the oppressor.

[1] Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid & Muhamad Takiyuddin Ismail (2014), Islamist Conservatism and the Demise of Islam Hadhari in Malaysia

[2] Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid and Che Hamdan Che Mohd. Razali (2015) The Changing Face of Political Islam in Malaysia in the Era of Najib Razak, 2009–2013

[3] Rahmah Ghazali. “Isma: Hudud Should be Enforced on Non-Muslims as Well”. The Star, 9 May 2014

[4] Tamir Moustafa (2018) Constituting Religion: Islam, Liberal Rights, and the Malaysian State