October 26, 2014
Thinking Malaysian Muslims Needed, says IRF’s Dr. A. Farouk Musa
by Elizabeth Zachariah@www.themalaysianinsider.com
Seen as one of the brighter prospects in the Muslim world, Malaysia is now at the crossroads of either being a progressive Islamic country or regressing into a world where clerics rule without any question.
An unprecedented “touch-a-dog” day over the weekend seemed to have touched off more than a bark in a country of 30 million where three out of five are Muslims. Liberal and progressive Muslims voices are being drowned out even as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak talks about moderation.
One such voice is the founder of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) group, Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, who was never perturbed with the criticism thrown at him nor the numerous police reports lodged against him.
But when he began receiving threatening emails from unknown people, the vocal activist considered throwing in the towel once and for all – mostly out of concern for his family – whom he guards closely, never discussing them with journalists.
His “sin” was his struggle to see a progressive Islam in Malaysia, but this did not go down well with certain quarters.
“They were trying to intimidate me, to stop me from expressing my views.This was after I spoke at two forums on the hudud issue earlier this year. I began thinking it was not worth it as I was afraid for my family,” he told The Malaysian Insider. However, after confiding his fears in a friend – Law Professor Dr Azmi Sharom, who was recently charged with sedition– Dr Farouk changed his mind.
“He (Azmi) told me not to give up, to fight on. He said I was their voice and that I could not give up.”
Banning other voices
Months later, the academic cardiothoracic surgeon found himself at the receiving end of more brickbats and flak after inviting Indonesian Muslim scholar Dr Ulil Abshar Abdalla for a roundtable discussion in Kuala Lumpur.
Ulil, well known for his liberal views, was barred from entering Malaysia after the Immigration Department put him on its blacklist, with the Home Minister claiming that the former would “mislead Muslims in the country if he is allowed to spread his brand of liberalism here”.
The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) also said forum should be stopped as it would contravene the teachings of the Shafie school of Islam and “threaten the faith of Muslims in Malaysia”.
Critics, including Dr Farouk, slammed Putrajaya over Ulil’s ban, saying the government was showing its “fundamentalist” stripes and insulting the intelligence of Malaysian Muslims.
However, last week, Ulil appeared to defy the ban on his teachings after he addressed an audience of about 100 people in Kuala Lumpur at the 3rd International Conference on Human Rights and Peace and Conflict in Southeast Asia, via Skype.
“That was a slap in the government’s face. In this age of technology, it is impossible for you to prevent ideas from being disseminated,” Dr Farouk said, adding that the idea of using Skype came from his friend, Azmi.
“Although I expected some resistance from the government over the forum, I did not expect that it would be to the extent of banning Ulil from entering Malaysia.”
This, the 51-year-old said, was Putrajaya’s way of stamping out the spread of progressive ideas on Islam to control the people, especially Muslims.
“They ban certain books written in Malay that were translated from English. Only the Malay books are banned. Why? Banning them from reading such literature which promotes progressive ideas is because they want to control how people should think.
“Nowadays when you listen or read the Friday sermons by JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia), it seems as if they are trying to vilify certain terminologies, such as liberalism, democracy and secularism. According to them, these are dirty words and if a Muslim speaks about it, they are bad.
“If liberal means you are fighting against injustice, inequality, then I am a liberal,” he said, quoting a Tunisian activist.
“It is not to detach yourself from religion or religious values but to ensure that you will fight for the oppressed, the minorities and justice.”
It is with this determination that Dr Farouk, who is currently attached with Monash University, decided to set up the IRF in 2007 while working in Australia but only officially launched it two years later when he returned to the country after his stint Down Under.
Ten months after launching the IRF, Dr Farouk was struck with meningitis and was hospitalised for six months, spending two months in a coma. “And that is why I am now in a wheelchair. After that, it took me a while to get back to my work in IRF,” he added.
Dr Farouk had earlier moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2002 from Kota Baru and began working at the National Heart Institute (IJN) which was when he and some friends co-founded the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF).
“I used to be a lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia in Kota Baru, Kelantan. My friends were telling me that my place was in KL, where I can actually share my ideas and thoughts, which, they said, were far ahead.
“And in Kelantan, if you are an ustaz, anything you say will be considered the Biblical truth. But if you are not, people are more sceptical of the ideas you promote.”
He left the MPF three years later after the issue of Lina Joy, the woman who had converted to Christianity from Islam, had cropped up and left him and his friends in odds over the matter.
“It seemed that they (his friends) predominantly decided to go against Lina for leaving the faith and I was against the idea, as I believed that there must be freedom of conscience. As the Quran says, ‘there shall be no coercion on religion’, meaning that you cannot force other people to embrace your faith as much as you cannot prevent a believer from leaving his faith.”
Critical thinking required
“To me, this commentary is the most important work in the modern Islamic world. He (Asad) was influenced by Muhammad Abduh (an Egyptian reformer and key founding figure of Islamic Modernism). Their thinking was so modern and that is what we need now in Malaysia.” He said that the country was in dire need of critical thinking, noting that the dogmatic way of thinking here has led to Malaysia lagging behind other societies in the world.
“If you look at our tagline, it reads ‘for people who think’. So thinking is the most important part that we are trying to promote. And this is what is lacking in Malaysian society. What we need now also is to ensure that there is justice, good governance, economic equality, transparency and accountability. These are the values we should strive for, not the ideal of Islamism where we set up an Islamic state for the state to impose upon its citizens.” – October 21, 2014.