Economics of Religious Authorities

By Farouk A. Peru

Sometimes I wonder about these seemingly sudden attacks of conscience displayed by religious authorities. Maybe they have a holy time in the year to get ‘religious’ on people or something or maybe they received a whisper in the ear by certain people to cause problems in opposition controlled states, who knows? 

To the MPSJ folks, I say ‘Hey, be religious all you want but how you affect other people’s livelihoods matter’. I’m teetotal myself although I would never impute anyone’s character for drinking. There is a big difference between having a tipple at social gatherings and being a boorish drunk.  

However, with religious authorities, who are basically people drawing salaries no matter what economic conditions are (barring total collapse of the economy, of course, where we will know what institutions actually matter), it is extremely easy to call something ‘haram’. This is not to devalue the complexity of the task of producing a fatwa. It is a complex task, to be sure. The question is, however, is it a relevant one? The texts which are used to making fatwas are set in a particular socio-religious milieu. Barring the Quran itself, none of them are unanimously agreed upon as revelation and therefore, the task of interpretation and implementation are subjective.  

Further to this, one needs to ask if any kind of consultation went to this. Have these authorities consulted with the economists or statisticians about the Muslim participation in the alcohol-linked economy? I sincerely doubt it. Have they explored other means of employment for these folks? Again I sincerely doubt it. Most importantly, have they actually asked the people affected if they themselves are OK with their jobs? I would be utterly surprised if they did. You see, quite simply, it is not in the interest of these religious enforcers to consult. They themselves are immune to the consequences so why bother?  

I concur that that working in the alcohol related industry isn’t the healthiest. I reside in the UK and have observed the social diseases which come with alcohol consumption. I have seen how social drinkers become binging alcoholics over time and I do feel that had they not started drinking in the first place, it wouldn’t have happened to them. Having said all that, I have no right to stop anyone from drinking, let alone taking the job of their choice. People have choices and we have to respect that. We cannot have the abhorrence of alcohol manifest as a legal measure or we will have the same problem as with the Prohibition. 

Malaysia needs to move past these religious authority folks who are very dissociated from life’s realities. These folks were probably trained in institutions where even the word ‘economics’ isn’t all that relevant. I would like to ask these people, what are your solutions to the global economic crisis? Can you please suggest methods through which Malaysia may weather this crisis? What is the situation with Malaysia’s natural resources? Is everything accounted for by the government? If not, why not tell the government it is utterly unislamic to conduct themselves in the shadows.

The day when these religious folk pronounce a fatwa saying it’s a fardh al-ain (a universal obligation) for all Muslims to eradicate corruption and then demand the government open up their books is the day they will truly be serving the Islamic cause. Why doesn’t this ever happen?

Because religious authorities are like you and I, imperfect people making subjective judgements. We and especially they need to realise this and put them in their rightful place: as advisors offering a perspective. Anything more and we will be doing ourselves a disservice.