The problem with Islam

Dr. Jentayu

The last few weeks has seen Islam in Malaysia under siege. Beginning with the JAWI raid on Muslim patrons of a disco, the subsequent events has blown up a call by a group of NGOs for the repeal of various enactments on Islamic law in this country. Surprisingly enough, the reaction from Islamic organizations has been largely muted. Only ABIM has come out with a stand against the call.

The JAWI raid fiasco was essentially due to the failure of its officers to follow proper procedures during the raid and the detention following it. However, the call for the repeal of the enactments on Islamic law seems to be aimed at eliminating the role of Islam in the social life of Muslims in Malaysia. Islam is the problem and target of these NGOs. The call for the repeal is in fact a major step towards the complete secularization of Malaysian law and marginalization of the role of Islam.

The call by these NGOs is in many ways unprecedented. First, their position that morality should not be legislated is flawed and ruinous. The most common argument put forward by the NGOs involved (such as Sisters in Islam) is that morality should not be legislated or policed. This seems ironic coming from a group of people who are supposed to represent a higher standard of conscience. Various definitions of morality define morality as “a sense of right and wrong”. It would typically be codified into some code of conduct. And discussions on morality are always contextualized within a value system. Thus, the mention of morality is typically accompanied by a description of its value system. We hear of “Islamic morality”, “Christian morality” and even “Nazi morality”.

Morality has also always occupied a central role in the laws and regulations of many societies. Many countries that have a Catholic majority population enact laws against abortion and divorce because these two practices are against the teachings of the Catholic Church. Laws against nudity are also based on some notion of moral standards. Likewise, laws against cruelty to animals are also based on morality. The same can be said about laws against corruption. Thus, those who argue that morality should not be legislated and policed probably don’t understand what they are talking about.

A society that has not standards of morality is a society that has no standard of decency. To argue that morality should not be legislated is to argue that we should allow moral decay and undo standards of decency. No religion teaches its followers this.

The call by these NGOs is also unprecedented because it is probably the first time non-Muslims specifically try to dictate how Muslims should practice their religion. The notion of religious freedom in Malaysia has always been conducted with the understanding that the followers of each religion are allowed to practice their religion as they understand it. Thus, Muslims don’t seek to ban the carrying of the kavadi during the Thaipusam celebration by arguing that it is hazardous to the human body. Neither do they complain about the lion dances that can sometime get noisy. It is therefore not a surprise that many Muslims find it offensive that there are non-Muslim who are interfering with how they practice their religion.

The complexity of this issue is largely due to the different conceptions of religion and religious law itself. For many non-Muslims, religion is personal matter pertaining to one’s relationship with one’s Creator. For Muslims, religion is a system of belief that touches on all facets of life. Thus, the Islamic notion of religion produces a sense of right and wrong, i.e. morality, that pervades all aspects of life. Some of these are codified into laws and regulations. These laws are required to maintain standards of decency. This is analogous to the establishment of traffic laws to maintain road safety. So, a Muslim actually sees Islamic law as a form of protection. On the other hand, non-Muslims, especially those that do not subscribe to any religious belief or who see religion as a purely personal matter, as well as ‘secularized’ Muslims, see laws like the Islamic law as an intrusion. These differing perceptions and perspectives exist because they represent two different value systems.

The difficulty in understanding each other can be seen in the anti-hijab phenomenon in Europe. One of the arguments put forward in the call to ban hijab is that it is oppressive. Muslim women, however, consider the hijab a protection and source of liberation. Thus, the use of the perceptual lens that is shaped by a particular value system on another system would create an anomaly. Would it be fair then to impose the moral standards of a different value system onto another system? Is it appropriate for non-Muslims to impose their moral standards on Muslims? After all, Muslims are not imposing Islamic laws or values on non-Muslims. Isn’t such an imposition a very illiberal act?

Many Muslim are now asking what exactly is the agenda of the NGOs when they call for the repeal of Islamic laws. Do these NGOs have an ulterior motive? While it is true that the misconduct of the JAWI officers during the raid should not be condoned, does this warrant a call to repeal of these laws? Why is it that none of these NGOs are calling for the repeal of the Police Act and question the right of the police to detain people since a number of detainees have died under suspicious circumstances while under detention?

One NGO that seems to have a knee-jerk response to anything involving Islam is Sisters in Islam. On the surface they appear to be concerned about civil liberties and the fate of Muslim women. But where was Sisters in Islam when their fellow citizens were detained without trial under the ISA, or when laws curtailing the freedom of the press and expression continue to be used selectively against critics. Of course we don’t expect and have never seen Sisters in Islam bothering to register any protest on the death of the mainly Indian detainees in police lock-ups. It was also silent when a woman detainee, Nora, arrested during the KESAS Highway protest, was stripped naked and humiliated by the police in the Kelang Police Station lockup. And where was Sisters in Islam when a moronic minister claimed that illegal immigrants have no rights in claiming their unpaid wages from employers?

On the other hand, it is almost comical to see the hastiness of Sisters in Islam in coming out with their own fatwas on what is Islamic and what is unIslamic. Often, its arguments are based on flimsy and selective use of the hadith and the Quran. It is a safe bet that if something is done under the name of Islam, Sisters in Islam will have a fatwa on it. When Thailand introduced segregation of seats for men and women on some of its buses, Sisters in Islam had no opinion on it. But if the same thing had been done by the Kelantan state government you can rest assured that Sisters in Islam would declare it as unIslamic. Closer examination of its positions will show that Sisters in Islam has essentially been playing the role of a de facto mufti of the secularized Malays. One cannot be blamed for thinking that the real agenda of Sisters in Islam is to strip Malaysia and the Malays of its Islamic identity. For Sisters in Islam, the only good Muslim is a secularized Muslim.

If there is any problem with Islam and Muslims, it is that they refuse to bow and submit to the hegemony of Western and secular values. Their insistence on adhering to the Islamic standards of decency, and subsequently Islamic morality and its institutionalization, is putting them on a collision course with those who believe that there should not be standards of decency and morality, what more their institutionalization. It remains to be seen whether the NGOs involved, in calling for the repeal of enactments relating to Islamic laws, are aware of the direction they are heading. Let’s hope they do not become pawns in the hand of the secularized Malay groups like Sisters in Islam.