Malaysia: Comment: "Sharing the Nation"

The Star
Zainah Anwar of "Sisters in Islam" comments on the series of recent fatwas issued in Malaysia, including those against practising yoga.
"The way to deal with the grievances and injustices over the years which have resulted in open and ugly contestations is not to silence the debate but to sit together and find solutions.
Why is there an obstinate obsession to regulate Muslims in every aspect of our lives: What we do, what we say, how we dress, where we go, who we hang out with, how we celebrate our festivals and the festivals of others, and now how we maintain our health and well-being?

Yet another fatwa to regulate our lives is about to be issued, this time on the practice of yoga.

I take yoga classes. It makes me feel calm and flexible and teaches me to breathe efficiently. Most importantly, it keeps away my lower back pain. I feel good after every yoga class.

Now this source of my well-being is about to be declared haram. Should l consider joining my neighbours in their daily morning qigong exercise at the playground? But I bet qigong will probably be next on the ever-expanding list of the forbidden for Muslims.

I know so many Muslims who do these exercises to keep healthy because of ill-health and stressful living. Many cancer survivors and heart patients find yoga and qigong essential to their healing process. The breathing, meditation and physical exercises in yoga all have scientifically proven health benefits.

Hanging in the balance: Many Muslims practise yoga to keep healthy because of ill health and stressful living. And I know Muslims who say practising yoga has enhanced the depth of their daily prayers. And yet, there are those who speak in the name of Islam, who have not done a minute of yoga in their lives who claim to know the destructive effects of this exercise. And in order to save our souls lest we deviate from the straight path, they tell us yoga is haram.

Little do they realise that it is they who are turning Muslims and people of other faiths away from Islam with their intolerance, ignorance and extremism.

For many Muslims, the warning that Islam is constantly under threat is getting to be very tiring. Who are the enemies of the religion? Are they real or largely imagined? Why the grim determination to focus on an Islam that punishes, hates and fears others?

Recent events confirm this. The first Muslim woman Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi was banned from giving public lectures in the country. Then came the fatwa on tomboys. Now yoga is likely to be the next victim. It would seem as if those in authority are determined to damage our image as a country of moderate Muslims.

How odd this all seems. While one arm of government sells Malaysia abroad as a Muslim country that is progressive, democratic, peaceful, stable and respectful of all cultures and religions, other arms of that same government seem bent on undermining that message.

For those who support the Opposition in the belief that Pakatan Rakyat stands for liberation and moderation, Zulkifli Noordin’s outburst in the Dewan Rakyat on Oct 23 and his subsequent interview with Mingguan Malaysia were shocking and chilling at the same time.

Some bloggers are begging Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to sack the MP and let him join Umno, while others think Umno deliberately withdrew an election petition to declare the Kulim Bandar Baru result null and void, knowing that Zulkifli would be a liability to the PR image-building exercise.

Set mindset

Zulkifli declares himself puzzled why Muslims are not supporting him. He does not understand why Khalid Samad, the MP for Shah Alam and a fellow Muslim, criticised his speech in Parliament. He accused Khalid of prioritising party interest above Islam.

Zulkifli regards any challenge to anything he deems Islamic as an attack on the religion. In his eyes, the debate on issues such as freedom of religion, conversions to Islam, road signs in Arabic, the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims, the appointment of non-Muslims to positions traditionally held by Muslims and the controversy involving loudspeakers to amplify sermons from mosques are systematic attacks on Islam from “the left, right, above, below, behind or in front”.

He sees young Muslims who believe in human rights as a danger to the race and religion as these ideas conflict with Islam, and he urges the authorities to take immediate action to stop the dangers posed by these young, educated, liberal Muslims.

As another law professor from the International Islamic University said in an interview a few weeks ago, these young Muslims are poisoning the minds of other Muslims and they must be stopped!

What is most distressing is that Zulkifli and those like him are trying to wipe out the diversity and differences of opinion endorsed, advocated and studied by generations of enlightened Islamic scholars.

Ikhtilaf (diversity) is a recurring theme in the Quran and widely recognised in Islamic tradition as a natural phenomenon. Have we forgotten the Quranic verse in which God says “we have created you into nations and tribes for you to know each other”, not hate each other?

Or the Hadith that says diversity is a blessing to the community? Why the different sects and the different schools of theology and law in the Islamic tradition? It is precisely because of this diversity in interpretation, juristic opinion and recognition of diverse local practices that Islam has spread to all corners of the world. Every culture, every tradition has been able to accommodate and celebrate the universal message of Islam.

And yet those who claim to be the experts in Islam deny this rich and complex heritage of Muslim scholarship, history and practice. Instead, using their authority, they interpret the authoritative text to impose authoritarianism on those who do not share their narrow understanding of the faith. To them, there can only be one way of knowing Islam and one way of being Muslim.

It is this mindset that inspires the Malaysian religious authorities to issue one fatwa after another to regulate what Muslims can do and cannot do, what they can think and cannot think, and what they can read and cannot read.

Banning the works of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, two Western writers most sympathetic to Islam, only exposes the politics behind that decision. I have not met anyone who has read the writings of these two authors and felt their faith undermined. In fact, it is the writings of fair-minded Chris¬tians like them that has brought a kinder, gentler face of Islam to many young Western-educated Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world fed on a diet of the punitive Islam of the traditionalist ulama, and the fire and brimstone Islam of political Islamists.

So, let’s be honest here: Is it Islam that needs to be protected as they so claim, or is it Muslims pushing the Islamic state and supremacy of Islamic law ideology who command that their ideology be protected from any challenges posed by those who disagree with them?

When Zulkifli declared, “I am a Muslim first, party member second; I am a Muslim first, a lawyer second; I am a Muslim first, an MP second, I am a Muslim first, everything else is second,” some obvious questions come to mind. What does being a Muslim mean? Is it not possible to be a good Muslim and still be a good lawyer, a good MP, a good human being?

More disturbingly, could he be saying that being Muslim means being divorced from the real world? This is actually a very secular notion that the likes of Zulkifli abhor.

Does a judge who declares he is a Muslim first, a judge second get the licence to violate the Federal Constitution and the rule of law which he swore to uphold in office because he deems them contradictory to his religious beliefs?

Does a lawyer who declares he is a Muslim first, a lawyer second have the right to condemn another lawyer for defending a client’s interest and his right to exercise his freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Federal Constitution?

Can a doctor who declares he is a Muslim first, a doctor second break his professional oath to save lives and do his best for his patients by refusing to save the life of a Muslim in a drink-driving accident?

Flying the flag of Islam does not give anyone the prerogative to think that he or she can become the walking embodiment of Islam. No one knows what God knows. If we accept this — and certainly as Muslims we must — why then should we bow to anyone who claims that he or she knows with certainty the will of God?

In the Islamic tradition, the arrogance of these supremacists is regarded as takbur — considering oneself superior to others. Although the ulama warns us against this, the attitude is prevalent in the Muslim community. It underpins all practices and systems of oppression and discrimination in this world.

It is sad how Islam is instrumentalised today as if it is nothing more than a label. Stick the Islam label on any and every issue and it becomes untouchable, even sacrosanct. No one is to question or to debate it except the experts.

Yet, it is the failure of these so-called experts and those in authority to deal with all these grievances and injustices over the years that we now see open and ugly contestations that have also impacted race relations in this country. The answer is not to silence the debate. The answer is to sit together and find solutions.

We say we are Muslims first, everything else second; we wear our Islam proudly on our sleeves and we put the religion on a pedestal to make it unchanging and unmoving. At the same time, we employ unkind words and practise unkind deeds, especially towards those who think and act differently from us. Without reflection or compassion, we declare that difference is wrong. Is this not a betrayal of what is truly Islamic?

2 November 2008

By: Zainah Anwar

Source: The Star