The Muslim World’s Challenges–Part 1

May 28, 2014

The Muslim World’s Challenges

By Dr Farhan Ahmad Nizami

ISLAMIC PAST: Legacy was built on Muslims’ confidence in Islam, sustained by material prosperity, combined with political and legal stability

Dr Farhan Ahmad NizamiFOR about a thousand years, roughly from the 7th century onwards, the people under Islamic rule made striking advances in their material and intellectual culture.

The contribution of those advances to modern Western philosophy, sciences and technology has been extensively studied. But I want to speak about their distinctively Islamic qualities.

The area under Islamic influence stretched overland from the Atlantic in the west to the borders of China, and across the Indian Ocean to the islands of the Malay archipelago.

This vast area was commercially interconnected with much continuous and profitable exchange of goods. It was also culturally interconnected, with prodigious traffic in books and ideas, scholars and travellers.

Its people busied themselves in seeking knowledge and writing it down. So much so was this that, to this day, there remain huge quantities of manuscripts, from different ends of the Islamic world, yet to be catalogued and studied.

The regional diversity and assimilative embrace of Islam as a civilisation is manifest in the names by which great figures in Islamic scholarship are best known: al-Qurtubi, al-Fasi, al-Iskandari, al-Dimashaqi, al-Baghdadi, al-Isfahani, al-Bukhari, al-Dihlawi and al-Jawi.

The language of communication among scholars was mostly Arabic, with Persian and Turkish becoming important later in the east. This dominance of Arabic was not the result of any policy to diminish local languages. It was simply a gradual extension of the authority of the language of the Quran and its teachings.

Muslims believed that the way of life defined by the Quran summed up the best of the teachings of the past. They expected that non-Muslims, too, would have knowledge, skills and virtues. They expected to learn from them and to fit that learning with Islam.

Islamic civilisation thus self-consciously set out to co-exist with and absorb the cultures of others. It did so from a position of political strength.

The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) in Baghdad, funded by the Caliph, is the best-known example of this attitude. Translations were commissioned of works in every branch of learning, from metaphysics to the science of making poisons. Once translated, these works were studied critically, then improved and extended.

The dominant streams in this flood of knowledge were Hellenic, Persian and Indian. The Chinese script proved too severe an obstacle to the absorption of Chinese philosophy and science. However, Chinese influences are found everywhere in the material culture of the Islamic world, in decorative motifs, and in the skills of making paper, ceramics, glass, metal-ware, textiles, dyes and drugs.

The Quran presented the teaching of all God’s messengers as a unified legacy. Muslims set out to harmonise older traditions of learning with that legacy. This effort was not universally admired.

In particular, the presentation of Islamic teachings in the style of Greek philosophy remained controversial for centuries. In the end, it had a more enduring influence on the medieval Christian world than on Islam.

Such controversies did not dampen Muslims’ self-confidence. In general, Islamic norms continued to encourage intellectual adventure and achievement. Muslims were aware of living in prosperous, stable societies, and comfortable with non-Muslim communities among them. They considered themselves forward-looking, inventive and multi-cultured.

Their best scholars made innovations of lasting importance in mathematics and experimental science, and applied them in technical instruments, manufacture, and engineering. And the wealthiest royal courts competed to own and display the results.

Al-Jazari’s famous water-clock illustrates this well. Its water-raising technology is Greek; the elephant, inside which the great vat of water is hidden, represents India, the rugs on its back are Persian; on top of the howdah sits an Egyptian phoenix; on its sides are conspicuously Chinese red dragons. This deliberately multicultural device was constructed shortly after the Crusades.

All that said, while Muslim societies were stable, their governments were often not: regime change was usually violent and disruptive. Politically, the Muslims became ever weaker and more divided.

Little now survives of their cultural self-confidence; even less remains of the personal and political skills they had developed to manage life alongside different communities and confessions.

Their ways of organising long-distance commerce and regulating free markets have vanished completely. The material remains of the rest — all the thinking in all the books, colleges, libraries and hospitals — interest only medievalists, museums, and tourists.

The past still has presence in the public spaces; you still hear the call to prayer, even in secularised city centres. There is still a feel of Islam in private homes and personal manners.

We can objectively map the movements of books, ideas and scholars from one end of the Islamic world to the other in every century until the modern period.

The recovery following the Crusades and Mongol conquests included the building of madrasa and colleges that taught a rich, varied curriculum.

There is little evidence of that during European colonial rule. The madrasa of that era were not well funded. They could afford to focus only on Islamic sciences narrowly defined.

For the rest of their education, Muslims had to leave the cultural space of Islam. A division became established between religious and secular education, between old and modern, with Islam on the side of the old. That division is at the heart of the present challenges facing Muslims in every part of the world.

When we memorialise the legacy of the Islamic past — when naming public institutions, or presenting past glories in books and museums — we should remember that this legacy was built on Muslims’ confidence in Islam.

This confidence was sustained by material prosperity, combined with a sufficient degree of political and legal stability. Without prosperity and stability, the constraints on political and economic decisions are too strong for people to make their own choices for their future.

We need only look at the difficulties in post-recession Europe to know that feeling powerless to shape the future is not special to Muslim societies. It is not related to their being Muslim but to the material conditions in which they are Muslim.

The end-goal is hardly a matter of dispute among the vast majority of Muslims. It is to re-establish connections between Islamic upbringing and education and modern secular, technical education.

The latter provides the means for individuals to make their way in the world, to have things to do in it and to enjoy doing them successfully. The former provides them with their religious orientation and identity.

Religious orientation is not itself the goal. The aim is not to have people identify as Muslims; the vast majority already do that. Rather, the aim is to enable them to prosper in the world in ways that express and test, inform and improve, their identity as Muslims.

As the Chinese saying puts it, the journey of a thousand miles begins from where your feet are. We in the Muslim world can only set out from where we stand in reality. That reality needs to be stated bluntly.

Today, Muslim identity is not sufficiently relevant to how things are done in the world, especially in the collective spheres of life.

Muslim identity is not the engine of prosperity, of either the production or the distribution of wealth. Muslim identity is not the engine of knowledge, of collecting it, or adding to it, or disseminating it. (This is true, rather unexpectedly, even of knowledge about the past legacy of Islam.)

Muslim identity is not the engine of political and legal order. Or rather, it is not so in a positive way. Instead, we see mainly negative expressions of it. We see it in a despairing withdrawal from the evils of power: in the attitude that the status quo, however bad, is still better than chaos.

We see it also in despairing violence intended to erase the status quo, without any labour of understanding and analysis about what will follow.

The end-goal is to make being Muslim relevant and effective in the quest for knowledge, in the quest for prosperity and in the quest for political order. Except in the sphere of personal courtesies and private concerns, being Muslim is no longer the currency of exchange neither among Muslims themselves, nor between them and non-Muslims.

To make it so again is a task of huge scale and complexity. Our first priority must be to establish institutions and forums so that the present challenges are properly identified, and then try to guide expectations towards realistic, achievable goals.

The hurdles in the way are real and substantial.First, there is the hurdle, as I said, of determining what is do-able and specifying it intelligently, in the light of local realities; in the way that sustains momentum towards the next objective; and without losing sight of the end-goal.

Second, there is the hurdle of co-ordinating effort with other societies and states. Priorities can vary sharply with local conditions. Therefore, there will be a need for trust among policymakers, with tolerance for variable levels of competence and energy.

Thirdly, there is the hurdle of rejection by those who oppose any attempt to bring religious concerns into the public sphere. The response will sometimes be concession, compromise and conciliation. At other times, it will take the form of steadfastly holding one’s ground. In either case, alert flexibility — the readiness to adjust to different circumstances — is essential.

Among general objectives, the most inclusive is to build up the commercial, financial, trade and cultural ties between Muslim societies.One measure of the need is the low values and volumes of bilateral trade between Muslim-majority countries, compared with their trade with non-Muslim countries.

Another measure is the low values and volumes of trade outside the dollar-dominated banking system.

Another is the low numbers of Muslims travelling for higher education from one Muslim country to another; the general preference, for those who can afford it, remains Europe or America.

Yet another measure is the massive inflow of cultural product from the non-Muslim into the Muslim world — the information and imagery people get from their televisions and computers; the advertising that influences the things they want to own; the time they give to sports and other entertainments.

All of this shapes people’s horizons, and their understanding of what is important and what is possible.

For the states that make up the Islamic world, the need to work together is clear. Modern technologies make it much easier to do that than it used to be. The sacrifices needed for cooperation to succeed are widely understood. But we should also highlight the benefits of a strengthened economic base in Muslim states, through increase in trade and long-term investments in human development.

The distribution of resources favours Muslim nations, but they lack the will and confidence to manage them to best advantage. If only because they are Muslim nations, their leaders have a special responsibility to nurture that will and confidence.

Their aspirations and policies should be consciously linked to the history, culture and faith that Muslims share. If enough far-sighted individuals have the courage of their Islamic convictions, what seems desirable but unrealistic can become a realistic and achievable goal.

Muslims are commanded to “bid to the good and forbid from the evil” (amr bi-l-ma`ruf wa-nahy `ani l-munkar). This entails commitment to the direction and quality of the whole social ethos. Not just traditional forms of family life and neighbourliness but also religiously valid ways of earning a living, co-operatively with others and with the natural environment.

As I mentioned, in the past, Muslims traded globally. The expansion of Islam’s influence followed the trade routes out of its Arabian heartland. For Muslims, economic effort is an integral part of responsible living.

We have a reliable record of how the Prophet and his companions went about discharging that responsibility. Muslims may not engage in practices that deliberately and systematically deprive others of their livelihood, and then, in response to a separate impulse, give charitably to relieve the distress their economic practice has generated.

Rather, the effort to do good works and the effort to create wealth must be sustained as a single endeavour. Both means and ends must be halal.

More Muslims need to join, with each other and with non-Muslims, in the urgent need to balance the creation and distribution of wealth so that a good life is available to all, including future generations.

Muslims’ efforts to develop techniques of financing and investment that are free of usury and uncertainty (speculation) are pertinent to the wider concerns about ethical investment, fair and genuinely free trade, and abolishing the export, through debt-slavery, of poverty, instability and pollution to the poorest and weakest on this earth.

We have seen over the last forty years massive growth in the stocks of Islamic financial capital. But these stocks are not being deployed to develop the economic capacity of Muslim countries. It seems that the wealthiest Muslims, individually or as sovereign powers, prefer the safe, quick returns from investment in the non-Muslim world.

In many Muslim states, economic infrastructure and activity remain linked to servicing the economies of former colonial powers. Those linkages are not sustained only by fear, but by individual and institutional inertia — by lack of will and imagination on the part of officials to take the necessary steps to put in place the needed skills and systems.

One reason that Muslims do not invest their wealth and talents in Muslim countries is that those countries are unstable, unsafe and unproductive to work in.

This vicious circle is not a function of those countries being Muslim: similar socio-economic conditions elsewhere have similar effects — an exodus of energy, talent and money.

Many Muslim states inherited their political boundaries from the colonial era. Those boundaries increased dependence on the colonial power to keep order. The anti-colonial struggle provided a shared history for communities separated by ethnic and religious differences. In the post-colonial era they have not been able to find common ground. Solidarity is not a precondition, but an outcome, of the effort to identify common purposes. It is something that has to be, and can be, constructed.

To make Muslim identity effective in the world, a major policy commitment must be to make justice and fairness the decisive value for all modes and levels of governance.

This means allowing independent centres of authority to emerge and recognising their concerns and aspirations. It means a redistribution of opportunities to acquire wealth and influence, so that decision-making is not concentrated in the same few hands.

This must be a process, not a gesture. It must be given the time it needs, according to local conditions, to happen gradually.

In this way all parties learn to trust and work with each other to mutual benefit. If government is seen to be in the service of the people as a whole, its security is guaranteed by them.

Tomorrow: Part II

Dr Farhan Ahmad Nizami presenting the Perdana Putrajaya Lecture at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre yesterday. Bernama pic

Tribute to Sam Berns

February 3, 2014

Tribute to Sam Berns, RIP

COMMENT: I pay tribute to Sam Berns for his courage and  mental attitude. I am deeply moved by Sam’s plight but I admire this young 17 year old. I thought I should share this story with you. It is important that we all accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative and anything in between. Yes, Sam, we will keep looking forward and hope we have your spirit and verve.–Din Merican

Sam Berns is an inspiration to us all

by Margalit Fox@http://www.nytimes (01-13-14)

Robert Kraft, owner of The New England Patriots, pays a tribute to Sam Burns:

Robert and Sam“I loved Sam Berns and am richer for having known him. He was a special young man whose inspirational story and positive outlook on life touched my heart. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with him and to get to know his incredible family. Together, they positively impacted the lives of people around the world in their quest to find a cure for Progeria. The HBO documentary, ‘Life According to Sam’ shared his incredible story with a national audience. It was so beautifully done. It made you laugh. It also made you cry. Today, it’s the latter for all who knew Sam or learned of his story through that documentary.”

Sam Berns, a Massachusetts high school junior whose life with the illness progeria was the subject of a documentary film recently shortlisted for an Academy Award, died on Friday in Boston. He was 17.

His death, from complications of the disease, was announced by the Progeria Research Foundation, which Sam’s parents, both physicians, established in 1999.

Sam Berns and His parentsSam with his parents, Drs Leslie Gordon and Scott Berns

Extremely rare — it affects one in four million to one in eight million births — progeria is a genetic disorder resulting in rapid premature aging. Only a few hundred people have the disease, whose hallmarks include hair loss, stunted growth, joint deterioration and cardiac problems.

Though the gene that causes progeria was isolated in 2003 by a research team that included Sam’s mother, there is still no cure. Patients live, on average, to the age of 13, typically dying of heart attacks or strokes.

The feature-length documentary “Life According to Sam,” directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, was released last year. They won an Oscar for their 2012 short documentary “Inocente,” about a homeless teenager.

“Life According to Sam” has been shown at film festivals, including Sundance, and it was broadcast on HBO in October. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it is among 15 documentaries considered for Oscar nominations.

Through the film, through a profile in The New York Times Magazine in 2005 and through a talk he gave last year at a TEDx conference (a community-based incarnation of the TED talks) that gained wide currency on the Internet, Sam became progeria’s best-known public face.

“Life According to Sam” opens when its subject, who lived in Foxborough, is 13 and follows him for three years. He agreed to participate on one condition, which he sets forth firmly in the film: “I didn’t put myself in front of you to have you feel bad for me,” he says. “You don’t need to feel bad for me. Because I want you to get to know me. This is my life.”

Diminutive and bespectacled, Sam was a riot of enthusiasms: for math and science, comic books, scouting (he was an Eagle Scout), playing the drums and Boston-area sports teams.

In his TEDx talk, he spoke of his heart’s desire: to play the snare drum with the Foxborough High School marching band. The trouble was that the drum and its harness weighed 40 pounds. Sam weighed 50 pounds. His parents engaged an engineer to develop an apparatus weighing just six pounds. Sam marched.

sam bernsThe only child of Dr. Scott Berns, a pediatrician, and Dr. Leslie Gordon, then a pediatric intern, Sampson Gordon Berns was born in Providence, R.I., on Oct. 23, 1996. He received a diagnosis of progeria shortly before his second birthday.

Finding little medical literature about progeria, his parents, with Dr. Gordon’s sister Audrey Gordon, started the research foundation. As a result of its work, clinical trials of a drug, lonafarnib, which appears to ameliorate some effects of progeria, began in 2007. Though preliminary results are considered encouraging, the drug does not constitute a cure.

Besides his parents, Sam’s survivors include his grandparents, Alice and Lewis Berns and Barbara and Burt Gordon.At his death, Sam had been planning to apply to college, where he hoped to study genetics or cell biology.

“No matter what I choose to become, I believe that I can change the world,” he said in his TEDx talk last year. “And as I’m striving to change the world, I will be happy.”

Social Democracy needs rejuvenation

January 27, 2014

Social Democracy needs rejuvenation

by Liew Chin Tong and Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

social-democracy-needs-rejuvenationThe world, in particular Asia, is in dire need of a coherent left-of-centre discourse. The recently concluded elections in Australia and Germany, just like those held in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia in the past year or so, produced, domestic peculiarities aside, strikingly similar recipes for right-wing parties.

First, hijack the populist pronouncements of their nominally left-leaning opponents, and second, couple these with the drumming up of the nationalist fervour that often favours parties on the right, especially in times of crisis or insecurity.

Even in Germany, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats moved strategically leftward to accommodate the growing public malcontent towards capital and in so doing, she stole the thunder from the Social Democratic Party.

At the risk of generalizing to the extent of ignoring local conditions, it is still worth asking why left-leaning parties, which supposedly represent the less-well-to-do, are failing to win elections in times of global economic hardship.

Lack of social democratic discourse

Perhaps the challenge lies in the fact that there is no vibrant left-of-centre social democratic discourse around today. In Asia, most social democratic parties were lumped together with the communists, which in itself is ironic since the two were usually hostile towards each other. They were then wiped out together, often violently and brutally at the height of the Cold War. To this date, anything that is left-leaning is treated suspiciously in many Asian societies—Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia included.

In the European context, the most effective rivals of the communists were in fact the social democrats, not the right-wing parties. The social democratic movements allowed for peaceful victories after accepting the parliamentary process.

But since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan shifted the centre rightward, neoliberals have been defining the macro-economic agenda through tax cuts, the creation of tax havens, and privatisation of government functions, hence diminished the ability of the state to redistribute wealth and opportunities.

The New Labour constructed by Tony Blair takes its lineage from Australia’s Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-1996). All hitherto social democratic parties converged with the right, accepting “economic rationalism” or neoliberal ideals as gospel truth.

How the Right hijacked the People’s Agenda

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites – dramatically remembered through the tearing down of the Berlin Wall – there is no more ideological challenger to neoliberalism, a situation Francis Fukuyama euphorically called “the end of history”.

Secure jobs, decent wages and social welfare quickly turned into old ideas standing in the way of the coming of the Brave New World. “Globalisation” often means that more workers all over the world are moving in all directions to look for jobs, resulting in a race to the bottom for wage levels, while capital flees from high-tax states in search of “tax holidays” or even tax havens.

Essentially, the economic programmes of the mainstream parties representing the left and the right no longer differ in substantive matters or even in their manifest values. And so, during bad economic times, when left parties tend to do well, all that the right simply needs to do is copy the nicer sounding policies of its opponents to boost voter support.

Why the right is able to do this so easily and so successfully, is that there is hardly a coherent left-of-centre discourse around today that offers a somewhat comprehensive understanding of the socio-economic problems of our times and that at the same time provides solutions based on that analysis.

With the fall of Communism, the idea that wealth and opportunities generated by society needs to be redistributed throughout society by the state is forgotten. With that amnesia comes the tremendous widening of the income gap experienced throughout world since 1990.

Not only does this threaten the political stability of most countries, the excessive accumulation of wealth in the hands of the increasingly small class of the super-rich almost sucks consumption capacity away from society at large as aggregate demand falls.

In many ways, therefore, we are back in the days of the early 20th century when social instability threatened to destroy capitalism. What saved it then were the reformist movements that we came to know as social democratic parties.

The need for a coherent Centre Left policy

However, because Communism is not knocking at the door, the need for social democratic policies is not properly felt, and governments crave for endless increments in their GDP in the blind hope that wealth will distribute itself naturally.

The increasing income gap tells us one definite thing—whether or not wealth trickles down, it is certainly not doing it faster than wealth being accumulated into the investment accounts of the increasingly smaller group of fantastically wealthy families and individuals.

In the days when the Left effectively faced the Right in parliament, the differing values were simplified as that between Justice and Freedom. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, freedom for the few has taken over, and notions of justice have disappeared from everyday thinking.

It is time, for the sake of the social sustainability of economic growth and political stability throughout the world that justice and freedom needs a new balance. Social democracy needs rejuvenation.

And, in Asia, the opponents of right-wing ideologies cannot just rely on piecemeal populist ideas to win. They need a coherent centre-left policy platform that balances justice and freedom—and seeks to integrate them in practice.


Liew Chin Tong is the Member of Parliament for Kluang; Dr. Ooi Kee Beng isooikeebeng_0017 the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The article was first published in Socdem Asia Quarterly, October 2013.

Uncertainty as the Secret of Happiness

December 29, 2013

Food for Thought ahead of 2014. Negativity is the antidote to positiveFacebook-K and D thinking. So rediscover the power of negative thinking and may you find Happiness and Success, says Mr. Burkeman. For me the key to happiness is to be one’s authentic self. I have always looked at the positive side of life. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. That is the dictum for me. Good luck, Mr. Burkeman.–Din Merican

Against Positive Thinking: Uncertainty as the Secret of Happiness

by Maria Popova

Exploring the “negative path” to well-being.

Having studied under Positive Psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman, and having read a great deal on the art-science of happiness and the role of optimism in well-being, I was at first incredulous of a book with the no doubt intentionally semi-scandalous title of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (public library). But, as it often turns out, author Oliver Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty.

Besides, the book has a lovely animated trailer — always a win

Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

[Research] points to an alternative approach [to happiness]: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.

The American edition (once again with an uglified, dumbed down, and contrived cover design) won’t be out until November, but you can snag a British edition here, or hunt it down at your favorite public library.

Western Education is not bereft of Ethical and Moral Values

December 11, 2013

Western Education is NOT bereft of Ethical and Moral Values

By Terence Netto@

COMMENT: In a much-awaited speech on the reform of higher education 220px-Anwar_Ibrahim-editedin Muslim societies, Anwar Ibrahim disagreed with the popular notion among Muslims that Western education is devoid of an ethical and moral dimension.

Anwar said this notion, widely disseminated in Islamic intellectual circles, has been a hindrance to the development of Muslims, particularly in the scientific and technical spheres.

“… [T]here is a general perception among the discourse of many Muslim scholars that Western education and philosophy is secular and bereft of an ethical and moral dimension. To my mind, this is unfounded,” declared Anwar in a keynote address to a symposium organised by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Washington DC on Monday.

Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition leader, highly regarded abroad than at home for his intellection, observed that the misperception of Western education as ethically vacant was also shared by intellectuals in the West.

He said seminal Western thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith were concerned to base their philosophies on a moral core, but that Smith, in particular, “the icon of ‘capitalism’, has been seriously misread”. Anwar argued that the “moral sentiments” that were an integral part of Smith’s economic propositions were “not at loggerheads with Islamic percepts”.

He likened Smith’s concern for morality in economics with Islamic thinker Ismail Faruqi’s conception of a good economy as the expression of Islam’s spirituality.

FaruqiTo Faruqi, “the economy of the ummah and its good health are the essence of Islam, just as Islam’s spirituality is inexistent without just economic action.”

Anwar held that the Islamic percept ‘inna al din al mu’amalah’ (religion is indeed Man’s treatment of his fellows) made it imperative for Man to “order human life so as to make it actualise the pattern intended for it by its Creator”.

He said Muslim societies would not be productive if it they do not “emerge from the exercise of finding fault” with Western systems. Quoting from a host of Islamic philosophers ranging from the 11th century’s Al Ghazali to the 20th century’s Naguib Al-Attas, Anwar made the point that education in Muslim societies must “proceed on the basis of rationality”.

He defined rationalism the way Faruqi conceived it as not “the priority of reason over revelation but the rejection of any ultimate contradiction between them”.

Anwar acknowledged that the rationalist strain in the interpretive process (ijtihad) left its exponents vulnerable to the charge of espousing secular thinking.

The pursuit of Knowledge

From the time of Muhammad Abduh, the 19th century Egyptian thinkerMuhammad Abduh famed for pushing for the modernisation of Islamic education, Anwar said that Islamic modernists had to combat the suspicion of attempting to “introduce secularism through the back door of ijtihad” but that this allegation was misconceived.

“On the contrary, what Abduh did was to subject the moral and epistemological premises of secular modernity to scrutiny and he came to the conclusion that Islam’s modernity was both non-Western and non-secular,” said Anwar.

In his oration, Anwar did not explain how Islam’s modernity could be both non-Western and non-secular. Neither did he expatiate on “Islamisation of knowledge” which he said would immunise Muslims from the excesses of the liberalist mindset that would lead to the placing of reason above revelation.

He seemed surer, though, of his thesis that current approaches to the Islamisation of knowledge in Muslim societies tended to place a preponderance of focus on the social sciences, whereas he said it was in the technological and scientific disciplines that Muslims were lagging behind non-Muslim communities and where the quest for knowledge, therefore, needed greater emphasis.

Anwar reminded that the ‘Bayt-a-Hikmahof’ (Golden Age of Islam) gave birth to not only philosophers but also to eminent scientists. He attributed this to the holistic pursuit of knowledge that he credited to the Quranic injunction on the use of the intellectual faculty.

He said the “Quran enjoins the use of reason as provided by the senses, and the truth grounded on revelation”. He concurred with Faruqi that Islam was ‘the religion of world-affirmation par excellence’.”

Dato Dr Mahmood Merican: Be Kind to Your Fellowmen and Love our Nation

September 30, 2013

Dato Dr Mahmood Merican: Be Kind to our Fellowmen and Love our Nation

“Now at the end of my long lecture and near the end of my long career and my life the one worthwhile message I can leave you is “Be Kind”. It is easier than to be wise. We can be kind with our time, energy or money. Or we can be kind with just a smile, a word or a gesture. Kindness or charity is basic to the points I made in the talk: good and ethical medicine, cordial interracial relations, affirmative action, help for the disadvantaged, love for our fellowmen and for our nation.”–Mahmood Merican

Event Title: 12th Tunku Abdul Rahman Lecture
29-Sep-2013 to 29-Sep-2013 Past Event
Venue: Medical Academies of Malaysia,
210, Jalan Tun Razak, 50400 Kuala Lumpur
Secretariat: G-1 Medical Academies of Malaysia 210 Jalan Tun Razak 50400 Kuala Lumpur Tel: 603 40234700, 40254700, 40253700 Fax: 603 40238100
Organizer: Academy of Medicine of Malaysia & Ministry of Health Malaysia
Theme: delivered by Dato Dr Mahmood Merican
Master of the Academy of Medicine of Malaysia, Dr Chang Keng Wee,

Dr Mahmood Merican2I thank you for the honour you bestow on me by inviting me to deliver this, the 12th Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra  Lecture.

I accept the honour with trepidation in view of the greatness of Tunku, our First Prime Minister. The Tunku to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude, in particular, for four major achievements:

  1. Winning Merdeka from the British and winning in a uniquely peaceful way in 1957.
  2. Steering the independent nation through 13 years till his retirement in 1970
  3. Successfully creating the enlarged nation, Malaysia, in 1963 and
  4. Leaving a legacy of charm, moderation and inclusiveness in our culture.

I believe Dr Chang chose me because I am old. Old enough to have known Tunku personally and to have lived through British colonial times, then the Japanese occupation, to have studied during the tumultuous years of our agitation for Independence and the Communist Emergency and to have worked as a doctor over a period concurrent with the Merdeka years. I graduated from University Malaya then in Singapore a year after Merdeka in 1958. That’s how old I am. Otherwise Dr Chang would not have chosen me.

I first met Tunku in December 1957. I was then a medical student in Singapore and President of the University of Malaya Students Union. It was soon after Merdeka and Tunku came to declare open the King Edward VII Hall of Residence in the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital.

Tunku was an aristocrat and a leader. He was also tall and big. Like every other student I held him in awe. But on that morning he spoke with such relaxed candour and humour that we were all put at ease. He said he hoped for two things:

  1. One was that “ from these portals will issue a steady stream of qualified doctors” to relieve the shortage in the government medical service and
  2. “My other hope is that when the students here leave this Hall to practise the art of healing, they will continue to practise the art of living with others in harmony and a gracious atmosphere”

Let me lead off first with Tunku’s first hope of “a steady stream of doctors” to see how we have done healthwise for our country. After that I will return to Tunku’s second hope for our practising “the art of living in harmony and a gracious atmosphere”.

On Tunku’s hope for good doctors and good health care for the country, we have done very well indeed though, of course, there are some concerns. Many present here in this hall deserve credit for how well Malaysia has implemented public health and preventive medicine and has kept up with the remarkable advances in clinical medicine. Our health indicators such as life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality show the overall health of the people to be comparable with advanced countries.

There are also undesirable changes including the rising cost of medical care, the commercialisation of healthcare, a lowering of ethical standards and a lowering of training standards – this last due to the recent meteoric rise in the number of medical schools and the annual number of new graduates for whom we simply do not have enough hospital facilities and specialists to adequately train during their housemanship and early years of practice.

These less desirable developments have contributed to  a waning of respect for doctors. Sadly, present doctors will not receive the high respect that old doctors like me enjoyed in days gone by. Commercialisation of healthcare and lowering of ethical standards are among the causes. It is appropriate that this Congress with the theme of  “Towards Excellence in Healthcare” incorporates the National Ethics Seminar.

Ethical practice is basically placing the interest of the patient as the paramount consideration.

Let us now turn to Tunku’s second hope – that we continue to “practise the art of living in harmony and a gracious atmosphere”.

It is a hope and a prayer.Racial harmony continues to be our greatest concern.

It was 1957 when Tunku expressed these hopes. If ever there was a time when we can say there was harmony it was then when we had just achieved Merdeka. At least among English educated students race was not a concern. We lived, played, studied and laughed together and even laughed at each other without risking offence. During my days in the university I always had a Chinese roommate.

Tunku then epitomised unity. To quote Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim, the distinguished former Lord President (as the Chief Justice was then called), Tunku “won the confidence of the Sultans, united the leaders of the three main parties to form the Alliance, won the love of the Malays and the trust of the non-Malays.”

Under his leadership the country made great strides, overcame the Communist menace, developed rapidly and then grew larger with the creation of Malaysia in 1963, 50 years ago.

Yet in 1969, 12 years into his stewardship, racial riots erupted on May 13. About 200 people died. Many more were injured. Vehicles and buildings were burnt.

On that fateful day I was in charge of the Orthopaedic Department of the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur, my boss, the late Datuk (later Tan Sri ) Dr Abdul Majid Ismail, being overseas then. Normally already understaffed and overcrowded with patients the hospital, especially the Orthopaedic and Surgical Departments, had to deal with the casualties. I must pay tribute to all the staff and the volunteers who for several days never left the hospital.

Like others who lived through it I want to stress we must never forget the lesson of May13.

The riots exploded 12 years into the premiership of a kind, tolerant and generous leader, the Tunku.

Why May 13?

The basic essential cause was racial polarisation – the mutual resentment between Malays and Chinese – the Malays feeling themselves being dispossessed in their own country, the Chinese feeling themselves to be discriminated against. Malays were aggrieved not only with their poor economic status but also with the challenge to their political strength.

In the run up to the 1969 Elections communal appeals by politicians heightened racial grievances and resentment. The opposition parties made large gains. Their exultant victory parade ignited the riots.

The outlook for the country then was truly gloomy. It is to the credit of the administration and of leaders like Tun Abdul Razak, who succeeded the Tunku as Prime Minister, and his Deputy Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman that order was quickly restored and measures taken to set the country back on the path of progress.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was launched to attain national unity by a two-pronged strategy of eradicating poverty irrespective of race and restructuring society by eliminating the identification of race with economic function.

The Policy has succeeded remarkably well in reducing poverty. It has to some extent elevated the economic standing of the Malays and their participation in the professions. Malays, however, have not progressed as much as they should in commerce and industry. In these fields the Chinese have gone farther ahead. Certain Malay attributes such as their politeness, self effacement, their attitude to money and immersion in religion, while desirable in themselves, place them at a disadvantage in the competitive world.

Observing over the years, I have to say that racial polarisation is even worse now than at the time of the riots. The racial divide has been accentuated by differences in a whole range of things: divisions of vernacular schools, national and private schools, divisions between rural and urban living, job segregation, rich and poor and differences in culture, language and religion. Interracial ill feelings have been recklessly fanned by politicians seeking votes and lately by irresponsible users of the internet venting their prejudices.

Almost every day we get incidents or pronouncements that grate on one or other race. For example; when a good Chinese student fails to get his desired course or scholarship it is instantly loudly blamed on racial discrimination although it arose out of an administrative lapse- something that has happened to Malay candidates too. Candidates not offering alternative university options and lacking in extracurricular points, although excellent academically, can be denied by the computerised selection system. A problem that can be sorted out with the relevant admission bodies without blowing it up in the media.

Another example is the claim of Ketuanan Melayu. It inflames some of us. It dismays some others. Yet just a moment’s reflection shows how ridiculous is the claim. The Tuan or Master race is the poorer race, less educated, living mostly in the kampong and less robust and healthy having a shorter life expectancy, not to mention other health indicators. The supposedly Subject race, much richer, controls much of the economy and commerce and clearly has the means to better enjoy life.

Lee Kuan Yew too in his latest book talks about the “dominance of one race” in Malaysia. During the years Singapore was a part of Malaysia Kuan Yew questioned the special rights of the Malays and of the Malay Agong and Sultans. Much of what Kuan Yew demanded would have angered the Malays. Even Tunku Abdul Rahman, the epitome of magnanimity, tolerance and inclusiveness, could not accept it and asked Singapore to leave Malaysia in the interest of, in Tunku’s own words, “the security and peace of Malaysia as a whole”.

In a recent comment Dr Chandra Muzaffar lamented that Kuan Yew “chose to be an ethnic hero” instead of a bridge-builder helping to develop a cohesive nation. Dr Chandra noted that the special rights in the Constitution are a part of the social contract in which Malays at Independence conceded citizenship to millions of non-Malays, whereby Malays, who before were the definitive people of a country in large part comprising Malay Sultanates, became just a community in a multicommunal or multiracial nation.

Yes, Malays do have special rights. Former Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, likened the special rights and affirmative action to the handicap in golf. It is “mainly intended to enable them- to borrow an expression in golf – to have a handicap, which would place them in a position for fair competition with better players.” That Malays need a handicap is a humiliation for them.

Like keen golfers Malays have to strive and be coached to improve their skill and competitiveness to then no longer need or want the handicap.

Tun Mahathir, doctor that he is, talked of crutches. In a recent discussion of affirmative action he said, “ We still need the crutches, but maybe not on both sides; we could discard one crutch and then we’ll exchange the crutch for a walking stick. Eventually, we will throw away the walking stick. I pray and hope that this will be soon..”  Some successful Malays, less realistic, wish to have the crutches discarded now, for we can’t walk tall with crutches.

I like to quote at some length another comment on affirmative action specifically the New Economic Policy (NEP):

“No medicine is without its adverse effects. Yet that does not stop us from taking medicines. Why? Because we reckon we will feel still worse without them. For all its shortcomings there is no question that we are still better off with the NEP than without. To realise the truth of this, you have only to ask yourself the question: “What if there was no NEP?” (I continue to quote)“To me the answer is obvious. There would have been a disaster scenario. There would have been an enormously widened gulf between Malays and non-Malays, and there would have been a dangerously lopsided economy, inviting Malay despair, disaffection, hatred and violence. All this weighing of who gains and who loses obscures a fundamental fact that if the Malays lose, then the Chinese lose too because if racial hatred tore the country apart, then everyone loses.”

You would think that passage is written by a Malay politician or civil servant defending NEP. Surprisingly, it is actually by a Chinese Malaysian businessman, Ye Lin-Sheng, in his book “The Chinese Dilemma”. This  book should be essential reading for all Malaysians along with Tun Mahathir’s “The Malay Dilemma”.

These two books would help Malaysians understand each other better. If the majority of Malaysians can have a rational and unbiased perspective, our interracial problems would sink into insignificance.

Ladies and Gentlemen

We are too fond of emulating the West without thinking for ourselves to see the difference between what the West proclaims and what it practises and the difference between what the Western media project and the reality. There is much in the West that we do well to reject. But one achievement of the West we should energetically emulate is their technology. Technology has enabled them to advance and to subjugate the world. Yet we choose to learn vernacular Science and Mathematics – a retrograde step, oddly enough, supported by the Opposition.

If Malays wish to survive and not be left further behind, they must embrace Science and English. But the signs are that Malays are turning more to religion. They are naturally spiritual and more concerned with the hereafter. Islam rightly understood and interpreted can be a force for progress. But Malays appear to be adopting a narrow restrictive trend, becoming preoccupied with details of dress, beauty contests, heterosexual handshakes and overly meticulous definitions of halal. The recent demolition of a mosque because some Buddhists meditated in it is symptomatic of this trend. Also, we appear to be adopting an unnecessarily hostile stance towards Shiah Muslims, thereby risking importing the murderous animosity between Sunni and Shiah, that bloodies so many Muslim countries. Are these the actions of the progressive moderate Muslim model we aspire to be? I believe Tunku would be as dismayed as I am.

We need to shift the emphasis to more fundamental values central among which is caring for and love for our fellowmen.

On 28 September 1978 exactly 35 years ago as Master of the Academy I was privileged to confer on Tunku the Honorary Membership of the Academy. I hope our remembrance of him today pleases his soul.

Although certain trends would upset him, much has been achieved of which we can be justly proud. It is sad that some Malaysians are so devoid of this pride or patriotism for their own country that they denigrate Malaysia not only here but also abroad.

In Vision 2020 Tun Dr Mahathir has set us a commendable target to become a developed nation not just economically but also morally and ethically. We must keep aspiring high and constantly examine our attitudes and actions to be consistent with our high aspirations.

I lived through May 13 and with others mended the injured. We must be thankful that we have since had peace in stark contrast to the racial, tribal and religious clashes that make daily headlines in the media- murderous clashes in so many countries all over the world. We know our complex situation makes a repeat of May 13 possible. Try to understand the interracial tension. When an action is contemplated consider the impact it can have on this tension. You can love your race – it is natural. But love your nation more. To do otherwise is to make the possible conflict inevitable.

I like to end on a personal note. Friends have asked me, now that I have worked 55 years, what do I do. I still work – work is a privilege – but I work only a few hours a week at the clinic I share with my very long time partner, Datuk Dr Yeoh Poh Hong. The rest of my time I enjoy reading, enjoy my family, golf and charity. Charity I like to think of as my second career. With doctors charity begins as soon as they start work. On retirement or semi-retirement they have more time for charity.

Now at the end of my long lecture and near the end of my long career and my life the one worthwhile message I can leave you is “Be Kind”. It is easier than to be wise. We can be kind with our time, energy or money. Or we can be kind with just a smile, a word or a gesture. Kindness or charity is basic to the points I made in the talk: good and ethical medicine, cordial interracial relations, affirmative action, help for the disadvantaged, love for our fellowmen and for our nation.

I end with a verse from a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1855-1919

The Abdullah recrudescence

September 19, 2013

The Abdullah recrudescence

by Terence Netto (09-16-13)  @

badawi yearsAn upswing in the hitherto low ratings of the premiership of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi seems to be taking place.

The stock of Malaysia’s fifth Prime Minister was low when he was compelled to give up office in April 2009 in the face of electoral shocks to Umno-BN in Election 2008.

It was a vertiginous fall, after a mere 48 months, from the results of Election 2004 when Abdullah, cresting on the wave of national expectations of political reform and institutional revival after 22 years of the Dr Mahathir Mohamad imperium, led his coalition to an impressive 64 percent take of the popular vote.

Four years later, as a result of his backpedaling on critical areas, like reform of the Police force and the fight against graft, Abdullah saw his popularity nosedive from its heady electoral perch of 2004 to the doldrums of Election 2008.

A year on from that stinging setback – months spent in a forlorn bid to stave off the inevitable – Abdullah bowed and accepted the end of his season at the top.

Perhaps the only consolation of his retreat was the grace with which he brought if off, it being a mark of statesmanship that a leader yields gracefully what he has no longer the power to withhold.

Now, a little over four years from Abdullah’s valedictory graces, there is an uptick in his ratings.  For sure, a leader’s ratings on those fairly bogus scales of history can flicker around like a speedometer gone wrong.

This is because not only are leaders judged on what they have done and what they have failed to do there is also the question of the vagaries of history.

The forces that influence the historical standing of leaders – shifts in popular opinion, the emergence of consciousness of some ideal or necessity, demographic changes – operate on levels of complexity one can only perceive, and that too vaguely, some time after they have occurred.

Maintaining a certain restraint

Abetting the Abdullah recrudescence is his relative quiet in comparison with the noisily captious ways of his predecessor. It’s de rigueur for retired leaders to maintain a certain restraint when commenting on current affairs.

It’s not that they are debarred from commenting on current goings-on: awareness that vision is always 20/20 in hindsight properly restraints the impulse to hold forth archly on current affairs.

Abdullah has abided by this restraint and only commented when there was a need to or when such comments as he made did not obtrude on the prevailing debates.

The retired Mahathir, by contrast, was an albatross around Abdullah’s neck Dr Mand is a millstone around present Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s.

[The] ‘Awakening’, a book of retrospectives and assessments of Abdullah’s tenure, published last month, has been well-timed to call attention to moves he made during his tenure –  checking fiscal irresponsibility, opening space for dissent, and attempting to restore judicial independence – which stand him in good stead compared to the track record of his predecessor and that of his successor.

Again here, the contrast with the memoirs of Mahathir, ‘A Doctor in the House’, a tawdry exercise in obfuscation, was stark. Mahathir is the more prolific writer, having written tracts early in his career and even during his time as Premier, but his aims in his memoir were abjectly self-serving. His book deserves the oblivion it quickly attained.

Which brings us to the factor that judicious observers would be apt to cite as the most likely to figure in the revised estimates of the premiership of Abdullah Badawi.

This was his attempt to restore independence to the judiciary, an institution that suffered the debilitation Mahathir visited it through the impeachment of Lord President Salleh Abbas in 1988 and promotion of mediocrities to the bench.

Mahadev Shankar,This plus point about Abdullah’s tenure was made by no less a judicial luminary than Mahadev Shankar, the retired Court of Appeal judge, who presided at the launch of ‘Awakening’ in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

At the launch, Shankar cited the acquittal of Anwar Ibrahim on appeal of the guilty verdict in the first sodomy charge preferred against him in 1999 in validation of his opinion that Abdullah freed the judiciary to do the thing they were appointed to do.

Shankar deployed the inelegant term “scrotal gumption” to describe the decision of judges who sat on the acquitting panel.

It may have taken “scrotal gumption” for the judges to acquit Anwar on the charge which many felt at the time it was levelled – and more so in retrospect – to have been trumped up.  For Abdullah, however, it must have been plain decency that prompted his exercise in judicial restoration.

That exercise is by no means complete but that he commenced it at all is stupendous and explains the man’s reviving historical fortunes.

Book Review: ‘Conscience and Its Enemies,’ by Robert P. George

Waldoff-Astoria, New York City

June 24, 2013

The-Helmsley-Building-230-Park-Avenue-1Helmsley Building@ Park Ave


Natural Lawyer

‘Conscience and Its Enemies,’ by Robert P. George

by Kay S. Hymowitz (06-21-13)

Most of us live our partisan politics through the media, which generally means cross-firing tweets, posts and cable news shows about the latest scandal as interpreted by a rotating stable of Washington strategists, party faithfuls and pundits. But behind the klieg lights, there has always been a less topical, more abstract debate between liberal and conservative academics and philosophers about the nature of human flourishing and the political and social institutions that best promote it.


Robert P. George is one of the most prominent conservative backstagers. The McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, author of myriad books and articles, he is embraced in social conservative circles — and despised in liberal ones — for being staunchly opposed to abortion, gay marriage, assisted suicide and embryonic research.

His newest book, “Conscience and Its Enemies,” doesn’t add much to what he has already written on these matters. But it does bring together an accessible group of essays that put his highly burnished philosophical and constitutional learning on full display. They should, at the very least, unsettle those whose only experiences of social conservatism are the blunderings of Todd Akin and the theatrics of Rush Limbaugh, and perhaps even lead to some reflection that rises above the media brawl.

Though a devoted Roman Catholic, George is not preaching religious dogma in these essays. Following the natural-law tradition, he relies on reason and science (the very tools that liberals, he posits, wrongly believe are always in their corner) to uncover immutable human nature. Certainly his starting premise — “Each human being possesses a profound, inherent and equal dignity” and is “an end in himself” — won’t raise atheistic or liberal hackles. Nor will the logic that this premise leads to: infanticide, slavery, segregation and eugenics, all of which deny human dignity, are immoral. But that’s about where agreement will end. George goes on to argue that the dignity we attach to the autonomous individual is also inherent in the human embryo.

Modern embryology has corrected an earlier view of the fetus as a part of the mother; from the moment of conception, he holds, it is a “complete, self-integrating organism,” with unique self-directing DNA. The unborn are “living individuals of the species Homo sapiens — members of the human family.” Like all vulnerable beings, they need protection from the powerful who would like to control them. Utilitarian arguments about the benefits that could come from embryonic research or from preventing the birth of an unwanted child are no more valid than the social improvements promised by a eugenicist.

Critics will object — correctly — that a Georgian regime would impose an alien morality on nonbelievers. But George contends that liberal secularists enforce their own morality, which they mistakenly confuse with neutrality and, more disingenuously, with science. In an essay that challenges his usual even temper, George argues that Justice Harry A. Blackmun’s reasoning in Roe v. Wade relied both on dubious constitutional doctrine — a position that has also been held by a number of highly regarded liberal scholars — and on assertions of medical necessity, to disguise what was actually a moral claim.

The Supreme Court could get away with this in part because the liberal secularists who applauded the decision didn’t grasp that they were asserting a particular morality based on a debatable view of the human person. In George’s view, they are “dualists” who believe the desiring mind is the locus of the authentic self, with the right to use the body to pursue its own ends.

Natural-law followers, on the other hand, believe the self is a “dynamic unity of body, mind and spirit.” The difference in visions of personhood is at the heart of what he has called elsewhere “a clash of orthodoxies.” Everywhere Georgians turn — on television and billboards, in schools and universities, music lyrics and videos, laws and judicial decisions — they find messages seeped in secular orthodoxy reiterating that we are “objects of sexual desire and satisfaction” rather than integrated persons. These hidden messages shape the next generation’s understanding of themselves and destroy the foundations of morality essential for a healthy political culture.

George is exceptionally nimble when he spars with conventional contemporary political and social thought, so much so that it presents us with a puzzle: in ­natural-law terms, humans are rational beings who have “intelligible reasons . . . for their choices and actions.” So why is he at odds with many whose logical skills are inferior to his? It could be they are prisoners of their own orthodoxy. Another possibility, as contemporary moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt might suggest, is that they are guided by moral intuitions largely resistant to reason but potentially truthful nonetheless. In the case of abortion, for instance, many people surely believe, as George does, that reason affirms the equal dignity and value of all human life from conception on.

Yet though women often grieve a miscarriage, there is no human society where people mourn a fetus 12 weeks after conception to the same degree they do a stillbirth at 7 months or (especially) the death of a 1-year-old. In George’s schema, these distinctions have no moral validity. But moral intuition senses they do.

The limits of moral reasoning hover even more around George’s discussion of marriage. Again, he begins with premises that are uncontroversial. In the Western world, marriage is now defined as an emotional union. We assume you should marry for love. Historians would agree that this view is relatively new in human history; they would probably also agree that on its own, love has proved a shaky foundation for the ancient institution. The modern ideal of marriage as a pure emotional bond, rather than the primary locus of procreation and child rearing, eventually led to the easing of divorce laws and the mainstreaming of cohabitation and single motherhood, and now — since clearly two individuals of the same sex are capable of loving each other — to gay marriage.

George rejects the idea of marriage as an emotional union, but not because of the way that ideal has weakened the institution. He believes that conjugal (or traditional) marriage unites husband and wife across all levels of being, physical, emotional and spiritual. Male and female complementarity allows them to unite “organically” as “a single procreative principle.” Note the word “principle”: whether they actually procreate or not, men and women are engaging in “one flesh unity.”

To chalk this up to homophobia is to miss something crucial; George is relying on philosophical ideas that predate the modern concept of sexual identity and that lead him to reject all extramarital — and even some kinds of marital — sex. The more pertinent philosophical objection is that his reasoning about the nature of marriage, however well pedigreed, is so far removed from most people’s lived experience that it will be inconsistent with their intuitions about the human good. George might counter that contemporary liberal secularists have no coherent philosophy of marriage, reasoned or intuited. About that, he is almost certainly right.

In the end, you don’t have to agree with any of this to support the central message of “Conscience and Its Enemies.” George’s book is more than anything a plea for liberty of conscience, or more specifically, for religious liberty. Religion, he reasons, should be thought of as “conscientious truth-seeking regarding the ultimate sources of meaning and value” and, therefore, “a crucial dimension of human well-being and fulfillment.”

George, in other words, speaks for a sizable number of conscientious objectors to America’s ruling liberal secularism.

Kay S. Hymowitz is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author, most recently, of “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.”

A National Unity Government for MALAYSIA?

June 18, 2013

MY COMMENT: Politics is the art of the possible. A Government of NationalDin Merican at RSGC Unity with Tengku Razaleigh, a man of considerable political and administrative experience, wisdom and personal integrity, as Prime Minister is what Malaysia needs right now. This is because the newly elected government is in a gridlock given uncertainty over the political future of Najib.

The ideal may not become reality because it is near to impossible for two ambitious men, Najib and Anwar with both wanting the premiership. Anwar’s lifelong ambition is to be Prime Minister while Najib will want to cling to the job. “So politicking rather than governance is dominating the national narrative”, says Murray in his article. Let us  recognise that there are also forces within UMNO and Anwar’s coalition that will nip this prospect in the bud. But then miracles can happen. Could a national unity government be one? –Din Merican

A National Unity Government for MALAYSIA?

by Murray Hunter (06-17-13)

Najib-Anwar-300x202With the perceived weakening of Najib Tun Razak’s position of tenure as Malaysian Prime Minister, there is deep speculation within the country about moves afoot to form a national unity government.

Since the Barisan National’s re-election on May 5, there has been a distinct shift in stance towards ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ or Malay privilege, at the cost of 1Malaysia inclusive philosophy. There is now little talk about Najib’s Economic Transformation Program, and after a relaxed stance towards rallies by the Opposition, authorities are now taking stern action towards Anwar’s Black 505 movement with mass arrests of demonstrators over the weekend. Even Najib’s calls to make UMNO more inclusive have aggravated many within his party.

According to political pundits and more specifically former Prime Minister Mahathir The Super Mamak al KuttyMohamad, who is now viewed as kingmaker inside UMNO, Najib is still Prime Minister only because there is currently no other creditable and popular figure who could take the mantle of leadership away from him.

If we go back to pre-May 5 feeling in the community, there was great anticipation that an era of change was about to sweep the country. There was excitement on the streets with an almost carnival atmosphere. But the result on election night disappointed so many people, where denial and claims of massive cheating showed that many refused to accept the result.

This has left the country just as divided as it was before the election. Nothing was settled and politicking rather than governance is dominating the national narrative. Anwar Ibrahim is pushing the government into a corner with his national Black 505 tour, disputing the election result which seems to be directly challenging Najib to take action against him.

Today’s political situation is of concern to many of Malaysia’s top echelon of business people, politicians, civil servants, and even members of the Royal families. There is a strong feeling among the country’s elite that Malaysia needs good governance rather than politicking. Many are very sympathetic to the concept of a national unity government as a solution to this impasse, as it appears any election would not bring the harmonious result the nation needs. The idea of a national unity government is not without any precedent, as PAS was once a member of the Barisan Nasional back in the early 1970s.

Some feel that although the Barisan won through the first-past-the-post electoral system, the Pakatan Rakyat’s higher popular vote justifies the Opposition having some say in government. For these people, a unity government would restore moderate policies and narrative, and keep ‘ultra-ism’ in check. Even within UMNO itself, some see the possibility of a national unity government as a means to maintain the party’s long-term survival, as the party to many Malays is an icon of political history and development. UMNO’s participation in a national unity government would act as pressure for internal reform, something many members want.

anwar ibrahim 39From Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, there are many, particularly those ex-UMNO members that see the party’s participation in a national unity government would give it the legitimacy it needs to survive in the long term past the persona of Anwar Ibrahim. They want PKR to stand on its own two feet without the ‘Anwar personality cult’.

PAS has been reluctantly romanced by UMNO many times over the years, but the party may favorably consider the concept of a national unity government under certain conditions. Many just feel that it’s time to stop talking about race and religion, and address the real needs of the country.

If one looked through the blogs and even the mainstream media over the weekend, many different scenarios and numbers have been canvassed. Two speculative scenarios exist. One involves Premier Najib himself and the other with a move by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah or Ku Li as he is known.

The first option would involve Najib making a move to bring in parties from the Pakatan Rakyat into the government, as has been periodically mooted over the last few years. Such a move would probably ensure UMNO a much brighter future electorally. This would stall the forces of Malay nationalists Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir, and if completed smoothly, would shore up Najib’s position as President of UMNO in the coming October elections.

Such a move would also allow Najib to change the narrative from the ‘ultraist’ direction it is going, to a more moderate and inclusive one. Such an achievement could elevate Najib’s status, which might create a positive legacy for him despite the allegations of deep corruption that have swirled around him and his wife, Rosmah Mansor.

However this move would also seal the fate of the Malaysian Chinese Association and Gerakan, the two ethnic Chinese parties in the Barisan which were reduced to a shambles in the May election, and maybe even the Malaysian Indian Congress, which won four Parliamentary seats, as they are tossed aside for the DAP, PAS, and PKR.

Many outstanding issues must be solved before such a government could happen. It would include policies and corruption, where it is rumored the new minister in the PM’s office Paul Low is shocked by the extent of waste and corruption within government. Determining a way for all parties to work through these issues could be big stumbling blocks to any potential agreement.

The biggest problem would be that any initiative by Najib may lack the persuasion and statesmanship needed to pull of such a big coup. His track record has been a very passive one during his tenure as prime minister, especially since the May 5 election. The formation of a national unity government would take a massive amount of negotiation and convincing to all parties, including the UMNO rank and file. To date Najib hasn’t shown that he has got what it takes.

The Tengku Razaleigh option has been gathering much speculation over the last few days, and there is a difference in the stories circulating as to whether he may make a bid for the UMNO party presidency, or seek to move a no confidence motion against the Prime Minister during the first day of Parliament sitting. His discussions with members of parliament from both sides fuel speculation about the latter.

Tengku Razaleigh HamzahKu Li is reported to be meeting political leaders in Sabah and Sarawak who are disillusioned with Najib for not appointing them to the Federal cabinet. Moreover they feel let down with the solid performance that they achieved in support of the Barisan with little reward. Finally they have concerns about how a weakened Barisan will be able to govern effectively. Although there is much wishful thinking about this scenario, such a dramatic seizure of power doesn’t seem to be Ku Li’s modus operandi. A Kuala Lumpur-based businessman with extensive connections to the party says the chances that Ku Li could oust Najib are extremely slim.

So what are the realistic chances that a national unity government could occur sometime in the near future?

A meeting between Najib and Anwar Ibrahim, although denied by Anwar, was reported to have taken place at the Istana Presiden Indonesia in Jakarta last Saturday. It can only be speculated upon what was discussed, but with pressure put on Najib by Mahathir, Najib’s options are limited. Najib’s bid to stop the two top posts within Umno being contested by election was met with great animosity by pro-Mahathir bloggers.

Likewise the authorities clamping down on the 505 rallies might put some pressure on Anwar to consider a national unity government, if that was indeed on the agenda of their discussions, if at all they occurred.

Any attempt to seize the initiative by Najib would no doubt meet with the full wrath of Mahathir, who would go into overdrive to replace him as PM. This fact alone casts doubt about any moves by Najib to discuss the possibilities of forming any type of national unity government. It would be a brave man who crossed the Tun, yet Najib is also desperate for self- survival.

The logistics of organizing any form of national unity government which could survive the whole parliamentary term would be horrendous. Allocating ministries among DAP, PAS, and PKR, developing policies, and creating a working cabinet among previous adversaries is a tall order. However if this could be achieved a certain amount of political stability would be achieved and the centre of political gravity would return to the peninsula, something many want.

A national unity government might give the people of Malaysia the feeling that some of their aspirations have been met.

Ku Li first postulated a national unity government back after the 2008 election. In the post GE-13 scenario he would need Pakatan Rakyat’s 89 members, plus 35 other supporters to enable him to win a vote of no confidence on the floor of the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house. Ku Li is probably seen as the only figure left in the parliament who could not only unite Umno, but a government, and even the country as a whole.

The political leaders in Sabah are known for their fickleness, which was blamed for Anwar’s botched attempt to win their defection on September 16, 2008. Within UMNO, one of the biggest unknowns is the new voting system the direct election of the party resident this year. Nobody really knows what the majority of UMNO members really want. However there are many people inside of UMNO who might welcome Ku Li as a chance to break away from the current mold and allow the party to progress.

Things start to get much more complex from the Pakatan Rakyat side. The spiritual leader of PAS Nik Aziz has been against negotiations with Umno, but now after standing down as the Chief Minister of Kelantan, his continued influence within the party is unknown. There are those within PAS who see negotiations as a good thing for Malay and Muslim unity.

The ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, now the second-biggest party in theLGEng country, has gone so far without compromise and stalwarts within the party would likely oppose any such moves. But then many also said that the DAP would not last long within PR. The DAP has surprisingly lasted, even with the unfriendly rhetoric that arises from time to time from its coalition partners.

Ironically, it may be two arch rivals Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir who might be the big spoilers of any such moves towards any form of national unity government. Many close to Anwar Ibrahim often comment about his strong personal drive and determination to become PM, and a national unity government would probably exclude him of that chance. Consequently he may not allow PKR to become involved in any discussion or participate in any government.

However those within PKR who believe that the party is more than a vehicle for Anwar to achieve his own political ambitions may be more conducive to the possibility of negotiations, especially given the fact that many PKR members are in actual fact ex-UMNO members. The serious mooting of a national unity government could develop a crisis within PKR between those who are opposed and those who want to explore the possibility.

From Mahathir’s perspective, he is rebuilding influence within the party and any national unity government would threaten this. Any national unity government would take Malaysian politics to a new era where he may become excluded.

Malaysia’s political future must have UMNO within its calculations. UMNO has strong enough support by those who belief in its heritage, the party cannot be ignored. For those who see politics as the art of the pragmatic and possible, power sharing may be the avenue to change that so many Malaysians desire.

However, besides the spoilers, self interest is likely to get in the way of any real breakthrough with people fearful of losing positions and influence. Developing a new model of government without the embedded corruption may be too difficult a task, as those involved will need to cover up their deeds.

It is difficult to see how this issue could ever be resolved without giving immunity of prosecution, something people may not be willing to agree on.

Although a national unity government has so much to give Malaysia, and so many people view this as a real hope for the future, there are too many forces against this reality. Had a hung parliament resulted from the May 5th election, a national unity government led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah might have been a real possibility, but the reality today may be that any potential national unity government is only a fairytale, albeit one shared by many.

(Murray Hunter is an Australian academic teaching at a Malaysian university and a consultant to several Southeast Asian governments.)

A Pluralistic Legal System: the Malaysian Experience

June 9, 2013

A Pluralistic Legal System: the Malaysian Experience

by Zaid Ibrahim (05-17-2013)

zaid1As a former colony, Malaysia was at the time of its independence in 1957[1] the beneficiary of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. Predicated on a written document, the Federal Constitution, which declared itself the supreme law of the land, the arrangement accommodated the establishment of Islamic, or Shariah, courts and the native courts.

The concept of law, as it was to be understood moving forward, was reflected in the definition of “law” under the constitution: “law” includes written law, the common law in so far as it is in operation in the Federation or any part thereof, and any custom or usage having the force of law in the Federation or any part thereof.

I would like to think that this all embracing definition of law was intended by the founders of the constitution to serve the “needs of all “and yet the many communities comprising Malaysia were to be bound by laws and values “common” to them.

This arrangement also serves as a means by which society would operate a system of “checks and balances” as it resolved its disputes or shaped its entitlements or obligations by reference to the normative standards of the sub-communities within the nation. The Federal Constitution cemented these sub-communities together in a way that would over time lead to the creation of a unique Malaysian common law system.

Laws are useful instruments in bringing about societal change. Newly developed countries feel compelled to introduce new laws to replace those left behind by the colonial masters. These newly independent states do not always produce good laws but even when they are ineffective, they are harmless if left to the devices of lawyers, judges and competent legislators. The problem starts when over-zealous or self-serving politicians join the fray and try using laws to effect social change by force.

The compulsion imposed by these legislators often gives rise to conflicts and distorts the balance and harmony between the different   communities. In Pakistan, for example, such harmony had existed between civil and Islamic laws for many years until President Zia-ul-Haq upset the balance in 1976 by pushing for an Islamisation programme. Sudan’s break-up can be attributed partly to the attempt by its  leaders to impose religious laws on non-Muslims in that country.

Still, it would be unfair to Muslims if they are denied the right to live their lives in accordance with Islamic laws and values where they desire to do so. Their community identifies itself by certain practices which flow from such laws and values. Their value systems have to be accommodated at least in areas where those value systems would not  infringe on the public sphere or affect the rights of others. That is why in Malaysia personal laws for Muslims have been accorded a special place in the country’s legal system.

Things have, however, changed. Due to the harnessing of Islam for political purposes and an undue and dangerous emphasis of race and religion in politics that began in the late 1980s and gained traction in the 1990s, the role of Islam in Malaysian society has become more pronounced and so increasingly contentious as to threaten to undermine this multicultural and multi religious nation. To a large extent this has been made possible by a collapse of the Rule of Law which is the result of a style of government that was contemptuous of the essential checks and balances of democracy.

In the two plus decades since Dr Mahathir precipitated a constitutional crisis that resulted in, amongst other things, the sacking of the then Chief Justice and the creation of a subservient Judiciary, we have gone from being one of the more promising young democracies of the post-War era to a nation deeply undermined by corruption and the retrograde politics that perpetuates it.

In the process, a personal law system (the Shariah) that was aimed at allowing Muslims to regulate such personal matters as marriage, divorce, custody of children and inheritance has now threatened to become the general law of the land.  Islamists no longer feel satisfied that there are laws already in existence which can enrich their spiritual experience; they now want Islamic laws to reshape the way of life of all Malaysians; and to regulate the way in which things are done in Malaysia. As a result, the guarantees of fundamental liberties, equality and the equal protection of the law promised under the Constitution are threatened in very fundamental ways.

In the early years, this carefully-crafted system that had been put in place by the founding fathers served us well. The Islamic legal system, was limited in its scope purely to matters of personal law, matters that primarily pertained to the personal faith of the Muslim majority population. The law in the public sphere was for all purposes and intents secular, or religiously-neutral, law. A decision of the apex court in 1988 made this clear, explaining its decision by reference to the constitution being the supreme law.[2]

This dual system of Islamic and civil laws worked well in Malaysia because the civil courts and the secular Constitution were respected and they held sway in cases of conflicts. This was because the High Courts always had the power to review the decisions of the inferior courts, including the religious (Shariah) courts.  Under the then Constitution the High Courts had broad judicial powers vested in them and such powers enabled them to resolve conflicts emanating from the religious courts.   But in 2002, the then Prime Minister unilaterally and controversially declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state .

In 1988 he had amended the Constitution to remove any possibility of judicial review by the civil courts of any decision of the Shariah courts . This was done by removing any judicial power bestowed by the Constitution on  the High court. When Dr Mahathir made this declaration that Malaysia was an Islamic state  he did so knowing that there was a clear ruling by the nation’s highest court that Malaysia was a secular state, and that the Constitution reigned supreme. The Constitutional amendment  giving equal status to the Shariah Court and the civil court, and enjoining that the the High Courts are precluded from reviewing any cases or matter that fall within the jurisdiction of the Shariah court completed the dismantling of the checks and balance  we had since independence.

This so called ‘clear separation’ has resulted in severe injustice and hardship to many people. There have been many cases where a husband who is estranged from his wife has converted to Islam simply so that he can get custody of his children because, by doing so, he can ensure that the civil courts are  unable to touch him. As a Muslim he is entitled to come to the Shariah court for his entitlements, but his non-Muslim wife (or ex-wife) has no such recourse. She has to go to the civil court. In cases of this nature one of the parties will be left without remedy,  especially given that the judges in the civil courts will be reluctant to interfere contradict  or intervene with the decision of the Shariah court. They would not want to be  accused of not being sympathetic to the official religion. They will use the lack of jurisdiction as their excuse for not interfering.

In my book Ampun Tuanku I have tried to explain these cases in greater detail. In any case, it is not possible to regulate human affairs in tight compartments as mandated by the Malaysian legal system. It can only result in injustices and conflicts.

The extent to which religion has been used perversely by over-zealous politicians can be seen from an attempt made sometime back to prevent non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’.  In a challenge mounted against that attempt, the High Court, in a judgment delivered three years ago, decided that Christians can indeed use the word Allah in their bibles and their prayers.  This, said the court, is part of the freedom to practise their faith as guaranteed by the Constitution. The government refused to accept this decision as they felt they would lose the Muslim votes in the ensuing general election. What did they do?  They got the Christians who filed the suit to agree to a stay of that the decision for 30 days and stopped the appellate proceedings that  would have  followed the decision.  The 30 days have become three years and there is no appeal in sight.

Muslims in Malaysia believe that the word Allah belongs to them.  So no one else can use it regardless of the fact that the word was used by pre-Islamic Arabs even before Prophet Muhammad. The Coptic Christians  and   the Sikh religion have the word Allah appearing in their holy books.  The subject is undoubtedly sensitive  and certainly not a matter that can be taken lightly by any quarters. However in a  modern democracy; there are enough laws that cater for all situations and circumstances. Any responsible government should be confident of allowing the court to decide contentious and delicate issues  based on the laws;  and  to trust the court to do justice by balancing the rights  of the community.

Unfortunately in Malaysia we are still in  that stage in  our development  where  the  Muslim public are still unsure if man made laws are adequate to cater for their needs. This is what happens when the laws and the courts are, in effect, rendered irrelevant by politicians and religious extremists  in determining disputes and conflicts.

Malaysia is a federation of states. The Constitution is clear about the division of powers between the federal government and the states. The federal government has authority over commercial, criminal and constitutional laws, and only Parliament can legislate on these matters. The States, on the other hand, have authority over the personal laws of Muslims, and have limited power to create offences against the precepts of Islam and the Shariah Courts.

When, however, Islamisation became a battle cry, the proponents of Islamic laws were not interested in the so-called separation between civil and religious laws. They wanted the all-consuming Islamic laws to be the main body of laws for the country. Islam, after all, is all about a way of life, so in their minds only Islamic laws and the Shariah must prevail. As a result, the balance that existed in Malaysia since our independence in 1957 can no longer be found.

Allow me to illustrate the conflicts and injustices caused by this imposition by citing a few examples. The Constitution explicitly provides for freedom of religion, but if you are a Muslim, you do not have that right. Apostasy is not a crime under federal law yet a crime punishable by death in Islam, so no Malaysian judge (the majority of whom are Muslims) will make a ruling to defend this fundamental right to religious belief. Those who are interested in seeing how such cases play out in Malaysian courts can read the case of Lina Joy.[3]

The Constitution explicitly provides that criminal laws are within the exclusive purview of the federal Parliament and yet the state governments in Malaysia continue to defy this arrangement by passing criminal laws of their own – criminal laws and punishment in accordance with Islamic law. A multitude of criminal offences have been created by the state legislators based on Islamic law in defiance of federal legislation dealing with the same matter. Not only are the punishments different, the evidential rules required to prove these cases are also not the same. For example adultery is not a criminal offence under federal law but is an offence for Muslims under state law.

Homosexuality is still a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to twenty years under federal law but  the same offence  also exists under state law, except that state law requires  four witnesses for the prosecution to succeed (this is not so under federal law). Theft is an offence under federal law: the punishment varies from fines to imprisonment yet under one  state law Islamic principles are applied for the same offence and the punishment would involve amputation of limbs.

In Malaysia, freedom of expression is guaranteed under the federal constitution but some state laws provide otherwise For example , Islam can only be taught or propagated by those who have the written permission of the religious authorities. The highest court has ruled that the sanctity of the religion requires such stringent control. So Muslims have been imprisoned or fined for expressing their views on their own religion, when those views were contrary to the views and the understanding of the religious authorities.  This ruling from the highest Court came in the face of a clear provision , in the  Constitution which  provides for freedom of speech and expression for all citizens, including Muslims.

Under the Penal Code (which is a federal law), you can be charged for having sex with a girl below the age of 16. Under another federal law, the age of majority is stipulated as 18 years. But these laws mean nothing to the Shariah Courts. They have given permission to girls as young as 12 and 14 years old to be married, because Islam permits such marriages. They do not, in my view, have the powers to sanction “child marriages”, but who will stop them?

In Malaysia, the pluralist legal system is breaking down. Unless the Federal Court reversed the trend;  and it is only a matter of time before the Shariah laws and Shariah courts will reign supreme.  For a long time, criminal laws were accepted to be within the purview of the civil (read: secular) courts, but now the Shariah courts are widening their powers.

My son is a book publisher who translated into Malay and published the book Allah, Liberty and Love by the Canadian writer Irshad Manji.  Until 2003, the authority to ban books and to limit freedom of expression could only be exercised on the grounds of violation of public order or morality. This power was in the hands of the federal government. Now, state laws have been enacted to prosecute those publishing and disseminating materials which are deemed to be prejudicial to, or against, religious laws (as defined by the authorities). These state laws are clearly unconstitutional as they violate the freedom of speech and expression under the Constitution. My son, against whom a prosecution has been brought, is not being charged for offences against public order or morality, as he should be if at all.  Instead, the Shariah courts have now devised their own laws, regardless of what the Constitution provides.

Human rights have taken a back seat in the face of relentless religious onslaughts. Many Malaysian school boys who have exhibited effeminate traits and tendencies are taken to what is known as a ‘gay camp’ to change their personality. These camps seek to make the boys more “masculine” and to remind them of the evils that befall those who are gays or lesbians. Effeminate personalities are considered a curse: people need to be reoriented and changed.  Our national theatre is now currently showing a musical which depicts gays and lesbians as people who are forever engaging in sex and drugs and who ultimately get punished when lightning strikes them down.

I am aware that in this day and age, there is a growing demand for pluralist legal systems as societies are no longer as homogenous as they were, say, 100 years ago. Those calling for change say that truth and fundamental rights have to be redefined. In Britain today, Islamic arbitration courts are accepted as part of the legal system, although I understand that these are enforceable only if they are not inconsistent with the provisions of the Arbitration Act.  Similarly, Jews in Britain have their own rabbinical courts whose settlements have gained recognition. Allowing for religious and customary laws to exist within the larger unitary legal system may not be problematic if that larger unitary system holds sway in cases of conflict.

The fundamental legal principles and rights that affect people in the most basic way must remain inviolable; otherwise, societies will break down. No cohesive community can exist if ethnic groups are allowed to preserve unchanged all the elements of their religious beliefs. Religious beliefs and laws by their nature do not permit discussion and compromise. In such a situation, how do we inculcate and nurture shared values for the wider society?

I am all in favour of being progressive and allowing for respect for the laws and traditions of all communities. In other words a limited form of pluralist legal systems is acceptable. This however must not be at the expense of stability and social cohesion . Human rights are important and sacrosanct, but only when they serve the common good of the community, not otherwise.

A former Chief Justice of Australia, Sir Francis Gerard Brennan, suggested that there is no room in Australia for Shariah law to operate in parallel with the existing legal system. He said: A parallel system would undermine the cohesiveness of Australia’s multicultural society. No court could apply and no government could administer two parallel systems of law; especially if they reflect, as they would inevitably reflect, different fundamental standards and values”.[4] Sir Gerard said that in a democracy, the majority determined a country’s legal structure. Minority practices that offended the fundamental moral standards of the majority had to be abandoned.

I agree completely with his observations, except for the part about the majority’s right to determine the legal structure.  It is not about doing what is required by the majority – it is about having a legal system that will do justice to mankind as a whole.  If the majority advocates the rights of child marriages then we as lawyers must oppose this, for it is cruel and unacceptable by the moral standards of most people.

Practices and beliefs based on a particular community, no matter how large, which offend the fundamental moral norms, have to be rejected. Where there are insurmountable differences in moral standards, we will not have a peaceful community. We will always be in conflict. If we value freedom and liberty, then laws must allow for society to operate consistently with those values.

Malaysia’s rich heritage as a tolerant, multicultural society is now under severe threat because some politicians want to create an Islamic state, one that has its own legal system that is at odds with the essential values of tolerance, freedom and mutual accommodation. Muslims already have sufficient laws and a court system that caters to their personal needs and beliefs. Yet this is not enough for some. The plural system we have now is being undermined, and that is why those who advocate an acceptance of a parallel legal system must think again and re-examine their position. It is time such people looked at Malaysia more closely.

Of course, customary and traditional rights have their place in our system and they should be protected and enforced, but only as long as such rights do not violate the moral values common to the people  in that country ; and at the same time do not violate rights of other citizens. Laws and precepts that offend common morality have no place in any legal system.


[1] The country was then merely the Federation of Malaya, but it became the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 with the accession of the former colonies of Sabah and Sarawak.

[2] Che Omar bin Che Soh v. Public Prosecutor [1988] 2 MLJ 55.

[3] Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan & 2 Ors [2005] 4 CLJ 666.

[4] See, ‘Brennan dismisses idea of plural legal system’, Lawyers’ Weekly, 24 Aug 2012, accessible here.,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=384&cntnt01origid=15&cntnt01returnid=80

Zaid Ib's Golf

Zaid Ibrahim’s latest book,Far & Sure; For Golf and Country, is a recommended read. It is about golf and more.

For Golf and Country is a view of our nation from the green, the quiet considerations of a man with Malaysia forever on his mind, irrespective of where he chooses to lay his clubs.

Jumping back and forth through his retirement, Zaid Ibrahim traverses the globe one golf course at a time, from Bukit Besi to Black Mountain, from Saujana to St. Andrews, in this collection of essays that are one part reflection, one part confession, and one part meditation.These 67 short vignettes make for quite the magnificent mishmash.

Whether he is contemplating the spiritual underpinnings of the sport or the complex relationship between mosque and state, Zaid Ibrahim brings his unique blend of irreverence, wit, and perceptive analysis to bear on the marvellous mania that is both golf and Malaysia.

Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s New Book

[ Programme Segment: Bookmark ] This week’s Bookmark sees Umapagan Ampikaipakan explore ‘Far & Sure: For Golf and Country Guests’ with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s on the latter’s new book. Copy & paste code to embed…

The Straight Path: A Conversation with Ronald A. Howard

April 23, 2013

The Straight Path

A Conversation with Ronald A. Howard


(Photo by PhillipC)

As I wrote in the introduction to Lying, Ronald A. Howard was one of my favorite professors in college, and his courses on ethics, social systems, and decision making did much to shape my views on these topics. Last week, he was kind enough to speak with me at length about the ethics of lying. The following post is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ronald A. Howard directs teaching and research in the Decision Analysis Program of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.  He is also the Director of the Department’s Decisions and Ethics Center, which examines the efficacy and ethics of social arrangements.  He defined the profession of decision analysis in 1964 and has since supervised several doctoral theses in decision analysis every year.  His experience includes dozens of decision analysis projects that range over virtually all fields of application, from investment planning to research strategy, and from hurricane seeding to nuclear waste isolation.  He was a founding Director and Chairman of Strategic Decisions Group and is President of the Decision Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing decision skills to youth.  He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of INFORMS and IEEE, and the 1986 Ramsey medalist of the Decision Analysis Society.  He is the author, with Clint Korver, of Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life.

*  *  *

Sam HarrisHarris: First, let me say that I greatly appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. As you may or may not know, your courses on ethics at Stanford were pivotal in my moral and intellectual development—as they have surely been for many others. So it’s an honor to be able to bring your voice to my readers.

Howard: My pleasure.

Harris: Let’s talk about lying. I think we might as well start with the hardest case for the truth-teller: The Nazis are at the door, and you’ve got Anne Frank hiding in the attic. How do you think about situations in which honesty seems to open the door—in this case literally—to moral catastrophe?

Howard: As you point out, these are very difficult situations to think Ronald A. Howardthrough, and one hopes that one would be able to transform them. In other words, if you were the Buddha or some other remarkable person, perhaps some version of the truth could still save the day. You probably remember the story of the Buddha encountering a murderer who had killed 1,000 people. Instead of avoiding him, he said, “I know you’re going to kill me, but would you first cut off the large branch on that tree?” The murderer does so, and then the Buddha says, “Thank you.  Now would you put it back on?”  And—the story goes—the murderer suddenly realized that he was playing the wrong game in life, became enlightened, and a monk.

It’s not inconceivable that one could transform even a terribly dire situation—and I think that doing so would constitute a kind of moral perfection. Of course, that’s pretty hard to imagine for most of us when confronted by Nazis at the door. But there are extreme cases in which, depending on the participants, it’s not clear that telling the truth will always lead to a bad outcome.

Harris: I agree. But it’s probably setting the bar too high for most of us, most of the time—and, more important, it is surely setting it too high for any randomly selected group of Nazis. It seems that there are situations in which one must admit at the outset that one is not in the presence of an ethical intelligence that can be reasoned with.

I take your point, however, that if one makes this determination—i.e. these are not Nazis I’m going to be able to enlighten—one has closed the door to certain kinds of moral breakthroughs. For instance, I remember hearing about a rabbi who was receiving threatening calls from a white supremacist. Rather than hang up or call the police, the rabbi patiently heard the man out, every time he called, whatever the hour. Eventually they started having a real conversation, and ultimately the rabbi broke through, and the white supremacist started telling him about all the troubles in his life. They even met and became friends. One certainly likes to believe that such breakthroughs are possible.

Nevertheless, in some situations the threat is so obvious, and the time in which one has to make a judgment so brief, that one must err on the side of treating an avowed enemy as a real enemy.

Howard: Of course. And some people deal with this by thinking in a kind of a hierarchy. They might say, “Well, I don’t want to kill people, but I’ll kill in self-defense. I don’t want to steal but I’d steal to keep someone alive. I wouldn’t ordinarily lie, but I’ll do it to save someone’s property or to save a life, and so forth. That’s another way to handle it.

Harris: That is the way I handled it in my book. Essentially, I view lying in these cases as an extension of the continuum of force one would use against a person who no longer appears to be capable of a rational conversation. If you would be willing to defensively shoot a person who had come to harm you or someone in your care, or you would be willing to punch him in the jaw, it seems ethical to use even less force—that is, mere speech—to deflect his bad intentions.

Howard: I think that’s a very practical kind of engineering solution. We are beginning to speak here about the part of one’s ethical code that one is willing to impose on other people, which I refer to by the maxim “Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.” It simplifies things to ask, “What if someone violates this maxim and, therefore, is not behaving in ways that I would like people to behave, leaving innocent people alone, and so forth?” Then, I reserve the right of self-defense. If someone is trying to kill me, I’m going to use the minimum effective force necessary to stop him. I read your article on this, and I agree with you completely.

The next level is stealing: Needless to say, if I could steal a weapon from someone who was about to kill me, that would be fine. And if I couldn’t transform the situation as some more enlightened person might—into a real circumstance of teaching—then I would lie. I would use the minimum distortion necessary to get the problem to go away.

At one end of the spectrum, you can be super-optimistic about people. But let’s face it, there are people who are up to no good in all kinds of ways. I’m not going to abet them in violating other people’s right to be left alone, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to avoid that.

Harris: Obviously, the Anne Frank case doesn’t often arise in the ordinary course of life, but there are many other troubling situations in which people find it tempting to lie. When I asked for feedback from readers on the first edition of Lying, I received many accounts in which people found themselves lying for reasons that they thought entirely noble. One case I’d like you to reflect on relates to a terminally ill child.

Your child doesn’t have long to live. Naturally, he has questions about when he will die and about what happens after death. Let’s say that, based on what your doctor has said, you think that your child has about two months to live. You also believe that everyone gets a dial tone after death and that you’ll never see each other again. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that giving a false but consoling response to his questions could make your child’s last two months of life happier than they would otherwise be.

Howard: Well, that’s a case where I would take a much stronger position. I’ve had people in my classes who regularly deal with the dying, and their advice is always the same: You should tell the truth as you believe it to be. The important thing to determine is, what is the truth?  So you ask the doctor, “Doctor, how long has he got?” and the truthful answer might be, “Well, you know some people surprise us, some people go quicker. We really can’t tell you exactly how long. Most people have two months but a few live longer, and so on.” Now, that’s the truth. If you say, “Oh, no, you’re going to recover,” when he’s probably going to die in a few months, you would deprive the person of the opportunity to do all those things that he or she might want to do in this limited time. In most cases, they know they’re dying. Let them go peacefully.

Once, a man in a group meeting shared that his young son was terminally ill. He said, “You know, it’s really sad: When he colors pictures, he uses only the black crayons.” Then, after one week, he spoke to the group again. He said, “You know what? I realized that I was holding myself back from my son because I was going to miss him so much after he dies.” He shared that truth with his son, telling him, “I love you so much, and I’m going to miss you.” And guess what?  He reported that the boy was now using all the colors.

My understanding from people who deal with kids who are dying is that they know. The parents are really grieving for all the experiences that they’re not going to have with their child. The child isn’t thinking, “I’m not going to get married.” That’s not in his knowing at that point, unless you dump it on him. He may not see his dog again, but that’s not the same thing as the parents’ grief over all that they’re anticipating losing over a lifetime.

Harris: So, the truth that exists to be told to the child is not the same as the parents’ anticipated loss, or their ideas about what the child himself will be losing.

Howard: Right. Telling the kid, “It’s really sad you’re dying because you’re not going to get married” misses the point. You might as well say, “You’re also not going to serve in the Army. You’re not going to kill people. You’re not going to experience the death of other people that you love.” You see? That’s life. It doesn’t all have a Hollywood ending. There are lots of pluses and minuses. Ultimately, we all die, and the only question is, what have you done between the time you’re born and the time you die? Did you make the most of this unique opportunity?

Harris: I agree with all that. But cases of this kind seem to suggest certain caveats to scrupulous truth-telling. There still seems to be a tension between honesty and our responsibility to protect children and other people whom we might judge to be not entirely competent to deal with the truth as we see it. So, let’s say you take all the time required to figure out what the truth really is, and yet you are in the presence of someone, whether a child or an adult, whom you think needs to be spared certain truths. Other examples of this have come to me from people who are caring for parents with dementia. Your mother wakes up every morning wondering where your father is, but your father has been dead for fifteen years. Every time you explain this, your mother has to relive the bereavement process all over again, only to wake up the next morning looking for her husband. Let’s assume that when you lie, saying something like “Oh, he’s away on a business trip,” your mother very quickly forgets about your father’s absence and her grief doesn’t get reactivated.

Howard: That’s an interesting one. I would be tempted to say something more like “Well, he’s where he usually is at this time of day.” Like, he is someplace, and it’s where he usually is. The fact that he’s buried in the ground somewhere doesn’t add anything to this person’s knowledge of what’s going on. As you point out, you would just be putting her through pain all over again. As you stated the case, why would you want to do that?

Harris: What you seem to be acknowledging here, however, is that it is okay to be somewhat evasive in situations of this kind. At the very least, it can take some skill to thread the needle and find a truth that is appropriate to the other person’s situation.

Howard: I’d call it “skillful truth-telling” as opposed to “evasion,” in the sense that if this person had looked at the whole conversation—let’s say they magically get better again and could say, “Oh, I had Alzheimer’s. How did you deal with me when I kept asking about Dad?” They would look at the transcript and say, “You know, that’s right. In my mind, he was someplace, and I just didn’t know where he was. What you said allowed me to get out of that loop.” That’s fine.

Harris: I’m just going to keep throwing difficult cases at you, Ron.

Howard: You go right ahead.

Harris: Let’s again invoke a deathbed scene, where the dying person asks, “Did you ever cheat on me in our marriage?” Let’s say it’s a wife asking her husband. The truthful answer is that he did cheat on her. However, the truth of their relationship—now—is that this is completely irrelevant. And yet it is also true that he took great pains to conceal this betrayal from her at one point, and he has kept quiet about it ever since. What good could come from telling the truth in that situation?

Howard: Well, this is really a two-part problem, and the first part is, why would this husband want to live a lie all his life?

Harris: I agree. But we have to put a frame around the relevant facts of the present, and if a person hasn’t been perfectly ethical up until yesterday, he has to figure out how to live with the legacy of his misbehavior. This thing is buried in the past. He hasn’t thought about it in forever, but the truth is that he did cheat on his wife, and now she’s asking about it. In his mind, he seems to have a choice between lying and having a perfectly loving last few days or weeks of his marriage, and breaking his wife’s heart for no good reason.

Howard: Well, this is one of those textbook situations that we sometimes get into in ethics class. The terrorists get aboard the plane and try to make you kill a little old lady, threatening that they’re going to shoot everybody else if you don’t. Life doesn’t really work like that. I know of very few marriages, for example, where the husband has cheated and the wife didn’t suspect it.

Harris: I can’t let you off that easily. I think there’s something realistic about a case like this. We can even grant that she did suspect it all those years, and she buried her suspicion. Now she’s on her deathbed, and she finally wants the truth, for whatever reason.

Howard: Then they’ve had a silent conspiracy to not talk about this thing their whole life. Now what? In other words, she bears the responsibility as much as he does. The question is, are they going to start living an open life now and be truthful to each other, or not? They could do it. He could say, “We’ve never talked about this. Is this something you really want to talk about today?” This may be the time, whatever their beliefs about what happens after death. Or he could say, “Look, we’ve got a very short time together, and whatever we’ve done in the past, if it doesn’t bring us joy now, let’s leave it behind.”

Harris: It’s interesting—there seems to be an odd intuition working in cases like this, which I only just noticed in myself: If we shorten the time horizon down to a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months, it seems to put pressure on the rationale for living truthfully.  Many people seem to feel that if we only have two weeks left together, it’s probably better to live a consoling lie, but if we have 20 years left, then we might want to put our house in order and live truthfully.

Howard: I look at it another way: No matter how much time I’ve got left, I want to live a life that I have no regrets about.

Harris: I agree. But I think that there might be a moral illusion creeping in here. When you dial the remainder of one’s life down to a very short span, people begin to wonder, what good could possibly come from telling the truth? In my view, one might as well apply that thinking to the whole of life.

Howard: Absolutely. This gets to the very foundation of what we’re talking about here, which is how you want to live your life and care for the people in it. My father used to talk about someone being a man of his word, and I guess maybe it’s sexist these days, but I never hear that anymore. Clint Korver, my doctoral student who has helped me teach my course and write our ethics book, was once introduced at a conference, quite correctly, as “the guy who always tells the truth.” I find it absolutely shocking that anyone would need to mention that. It’s like saying he doesn’t steal or murder people. Why not say, “and he breathes, too”? “He’s lived for many years, and he’s been breathing all this time.” Great. Glad to hear it.

Harris: It just indicates how commonplace lying is. It’s ubiquitous, and most people don’t even consider what life would be like without it.

Another difficult case comes to mind, also from a reader: You’re having sex with your wife or husband and fantasizing about someone else. Later, your spouse has the temerity to ask what you were thinking about when you were having sex. The honest answer is that you were thinking about someone else. But let’s say that you know your spouse will not do well with this information. He or she will view it as a real breach of trust, rather than just a natural consequence of having a human imagination.

Howard: Well, that’s another case in which, when you first suspect this, it’s probably time to have a conversation. Just what is okay? Is it “whatever turns you on”?—you know, “I could be the pirate and you could be the helpless maiden…” and so forth. Is that okay? Or is it “Oh, my god, you’re not seeing me as I really am.” People will obviously differ in this area, but couples just need to have an honest conversation about it. I think honesty really is all that matters. It just transforms the situation.

Why would you want to live a lie in your sex life? It just seems silly to live a life of pretense, and it’s okay to have fantasies. Why not say, “Look, if it turns you on to think that I’m Brad Pitt, it’s going to be more fun for me when you’re turned on, so go for it. Because that’s why I’m here in the first place, right? I love you, and I want to have the best life with you that we can have.”

Harris: I can feel our readers abandoning us in droves, but I agree with you. Let’s return to the case in which you are in the presence of someone who seems likely to act unethically. Can you say more about honesty in those situations?

Howard: Well, I’d make a distinction between the maxim-breakers—in other words, a person who is harming others or stealing—and those who are merely lying or otherwise speaking unethically. Lying is not a crime unless it’s part of a fraud. If someone asks for directions to Wal-Mart, and you know the way but you send them walking in the opposite direction—it’s not a nice thing to do, but it’s not a crime. Imagine if they came back with a policeman and said, “That’s the man who misdirected me.” You could say, “Yeah, I did. It just so happens that I like to watch people wandering in the wrong direction.” That’s not a crime.  It’s not nice behavior. It might be reason for someone to boycott your business, or to exclude you from certain groups, but it’s not going to land you in jail.

I make a careful distinction between what I call “maxim violations”—interfering with peaceful, honest people—and everything else.

Harris: Yes, I see. It breaks ethics into two different categories—one of which gets promoted to the legal system to protect people from various harms.

Howard: In fact, there are also two categories in the domain of lying. The first is where people acknowledge the problem—people obviously get hurt by lies—and then the other cases where more or less everyone tends to lie and feels good about it, or sees no alternative to it. That’s why your book is so important—because people think it’s a good thing to tell so-called “white” lies. Saying “Oh, you look terrific in that dress,” even when you believe it is unattractive, is a “white” lie justified by not hurting the person’s feelings.

The example that came up in class yesterday was, do you want that mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-who’s-the-fairest-of-them-all device, or do you want a mirror that shows you what you really look like? Or imagine buying a car that came with a special option that gave you information that you might prefer to the truth: When you wanted to go fast, it would indicate that you were going even faster than you were. When you passed a gas station, it would tell you that you didn’t need any gas. Of course, nobody wants that. Well, then, why would you want it in your life in general?

Harris: However, there are some arguments, from both an evolutionary and a psychological perspective, that suggest that having one’s beliefs ever-so-slightly out of register with reality can be adaptive and psychologically helpful. I’m sure you’re familiar with the research that shows that if you bring a person into a room full of strangers and have him give a brief speech, a depressed person will tend to accurately judge what sort of impression he has made, while a normal person will tend to overestimate how positively others saw him. It’s hard to know which is cause and which is effect here—but it does seem like an optimism bias could be psychologically advantageous.

Howard: It might have allowed people to survive a lot better in the past.

Harris: Yes. In fact, self-deception could have paid evolutionary dividends in other ways. Robert Trivers argues, for instance, that people who can believe their own lies turn out to be the best liars of all—and an ability to deceive rivals has obvious advantages in the state of nature. Now, obviously there are many things that may have been adaptive for our ancestors—such as tribal warfare, rape, xenophobia, etc.—that we now deem unethical and would never want to defend. But I’m wondering if you see any possibility that a social system that maximizes truth-telling could be one in which the wellbeing of all participants fails to be maximized. Is it possible that some measure of deception is good for us?

Howard: This gets back to distinctions I make between prudential, ethical, and legal principles. Is the statement “Honesty is the best policy” a prudential statement? In other words, is it merely in your interest to be honest? That’s different from saying, “I am ethically committed to being honest,” because you could probably find individual circumstances where dishonesty gives you an advantage.

I think that growth is encouraged by accurate feedback. Telling children they are always accomplishing wonderful things regardless of their actual accomplishments is not going to serve them when they face the world. Having a positive mental attitude toward life is prudential, but being overconfident in your abilities is not.

A student yesterday said that he had recently bid for something, and he told the guy that he didn’t have enough money to pay the full price. But this was a lie. He really had the money, but he said, “I only have X,” and the seller said, “Okay. I’ll give it to you for X, if that’s all the money you have.” So my student was feeling pretty good about this negotiation because, from his point of view, he saved money by telling an untruth. But it’s also possible the seller could have said, “Sorry. I’ve got other offers at the price X+1,” in which case my student would have been exposed in his lie if he really wanted the item and said, “Okay, I’ll pay X+1 too.” This all gets to the question of whether you have repeated relationships. Do you view your life in terms of relationships or transactions?

If you’re bidding on eBay, truth isn’t an issue. This is a completely transactional situation. If I’m dealing with my mechanic on an ongoing basis, it’s not a transaction. It’s a relationship, and he will make judgments about me and about my reliability as a person. And I will make these judgments about him, and these judgments will have long-term effects for both of us. This alters the prisoner’s dilemma: If you have a relationship with a person, you’re going to have different beliefs about the prospect of him selling you out than you would if he were just some guy the experimenters grabbed and put in the situation with you.

I don’t think you can get from “is” to “ought” in the coarse sense of saying that ethical people make more money, are always happier, etc. That would be to prove that it is always prudential to be ethical. Now, I personally believe it generally is, but I can’t prove that.

Harris: I agree. But you seem to have a very strong intuition, which I share, that we should consider honesty to be a nearly ironclad principle, because it is to everyone’s advantage so much of the time, and it allows us to live the kinds of lives and maintain the kinds of relationships we want to have.

Howard: And I believe it also extends to truths about oneself. Self-deception isn’t of any value either. For instance, I was never going to be a professional singer. If I didn’t understand this fact about myself, people could have said, “Oh, you’re a great singer. You ought to quit your job and start recording.” But that’s just bullshit. You’ve got to be honest about who you are—about what you know and don’t know and about what you can and can’t do—and still be willing to try things and experiment. To me, it’s pretty simple.

Harris: And, needless to say, it makes sense to want to be in touch with reality. Given that your every move in life will be constrained by whatever the facts are, both out in the world and in the minds of others, being guided by anything less than these facts will leave you perpetually vulnerable to embarrassment and disappointment. When your model of yourself in the world is at odds with how you actually are in the world, you are going to keep bumping into things.

I think where people get confused, psychologically and ethically, is when they consider that part of reality that exists in other people’s minds. The question is, do you really want to know what other people think about you—about your talents and prospects—or do you want to be deceived about all that?

Many people imagine that they want to be protected from the knowledge of what is really going on in the heads of other people, because they think their own performance in the world will be best served by this ignorance. I think they’re mistaken, but it’s interesting to consider cases where they might be right.

Howard: It is—and that gets down to the question of what your view is towards life as a whole. I tend to go back to something like the Buddha’s eightfold path. I remember hearing a Buddhist speaker once give a talk, and at question time a woman said, “I was raised as a Christian, where the idea of charity is built in, and yet you haven’t mentioned charity at all. So I’m having trouble understanding your ethics.”

And he said to her, “Well, when you were doing all these charitable things”—which she said she regularly did at church, helping people all over the world, sending them baskets and stuff—“did you really care about these people you were doing these things for?” The woman was silent for a moment and then she said, “No. I hadn’t really thought about that.” And the teacher said, “Well, when you care, you’ll know what to do.”

That’s so different from saying, “You’ve got to be charitable.” When you actually care about the experience of other people, you tend to know what to do. The conversation you and I are having now is kind of like writing a manual for unenlightened people like ourselves, so we all won’t make too many mistakes along the way.

I sometimes use a metaphor of the guy who never knew he had to put oil in his new car, because no one ever told him. He never read the manual, and now after three years the engine is burned out. He takes the car into the shop and the mechanic says, “Hey, you have to put oil in these things. Now your engine is ruined.” And the man says, “Oh, if only I’d known!” You see, he had no intention of creating this problem that he now has to solve. Well, in speaking about ethics, you and I are trying to raise everyone’s sensitivities, so that we all can live in a preemptive way, as opposed to saying, “Oh my god, what was I thinking?” later on.

Harris: That’s what I felt when I first took your course at Stanford. It was as if I had been given part of the user’s manual to a good life, and by following the simple principle of always telling the truth, I could bypass most of the needless misery I read about in literature and witnessed in the lives of other people. I remember leaving your course feeling that I had discovered a bomb at the very center of my life and had defused it before it could do any damage. It was a tremendous relief.

I’ve begun to wonder, however, at what level the ethical problems we see in the world can be best addressed. The level we tend to speak about, as we have here, is that of a person’s personal ethical code and his individual approach to life, moment to moment. But I suspect that the biggest returns come at the level of changing social norms and institutions—that is, in creating systems that align people’s priorities so that it becomes much easier for ordinary people to behave more ethically than they do when they are surrounded by perverse incentives. For instance, a person usually has to be a hero to be a whistle-blower, given that he will likely lose his job for telling the truth. But in a culture of honesty, it becomes much easier to be truthful. I’m interested in those changes we can make that will cause all boats to rise with the same tide.

Howard: Right. And in my own life I know that I don’t want to do business with people that I’m not on the same ethical wavelength with, so to speak. No matter how attractive the deal looks, if I don’t trust these people—in the sense that you and I are talking about—I don’t want to do business with them, no matter how profitable it might be.

But the problem is that a lot of our life today is transactional. I just bought something from, and there was nobody there, so to speak. It was just credit cards and button clicks.  If you go to the supermarket today,the laser system tells you what the price is and the checker bags it for you. In the old days it might be, “Oh you bought a lot of spaghetti. Do you have sauce for that?” There’s no feeling that the checker is a partner in this experience of buying something.

I have this example of what I call the hardware store hammer: A woman is in a hardware store and picks up a hammer. When she is checking out, the shop owner says, “What are you going to use this hammer for?” And she says, “My husband told me to buy a hammer. We’re putting up some pictures in the kitchen.” The owner might say, “Okay. But this is a professional carpenter’s hammer. For your purpose, that one over there would do just fine, and it’s a third the price.”  That’s the difference between a relationship and a transaction. If you have a concern for other people doing well for themselves, then I think you want this level of honesty. But our society might be losing that.

We have a great technological advantage, but it’s not like when my father ran a grocery store. If the kids didn’t arrive with enough money, he knew who was who, and it was not a problem.  They could just bring the money next time. You don’t see much of that today. Now, you’ve got your credit card, and the idea of extending that kind of trust and courtesy just doesn’t come up anymore. So certain kinds of relationships seem less possible.

Harris: Yes, a system-wide change can either facilitate our ethical connections to other people, or erode them. This brings me to a related question: Are there some things that are important to do—that is, ultimately ethical to do—but which require that the person doing them sacrifice his ethics? I brought this up briefly in my book where I talk about spying. The position I take in the book is that there are certain jobs that I know I would not want to do, and I suspect that they are intrinsically toxic for the person who has to do them, but I can’t say that I think these jobs are unnecessary. I’m thinking of things like espionage, or research on animals. I know that I don’t want to be the guy who saws the scalps off rats all day, but I’d be hard-pressed to say we shouldn’t be using rats in medical research. So, assuming you are going to grant that espionage is occasionally necessary, what do you think about the lifetime of lying entailed by working at the CIA?

Howard: You could also consider what it’s like to be an undercover Police officer.

Harris: Yes, that might be an even simpler case. Assuming the laws he is working to enforce are good ones. I know you and I agree on how harmful the war on drugs has been. If an undercover cop were deceiving people to enforce drug laws, I think we would both question the ethics of that line of work.

Howard: Exactly. I’d want to first make sure the cop is enforcing good laws. If it’s a serial rapist found, that’s fine. I’m happy to have police who are out there finding those people and bringing them to justice. We all pay a huge price for living in a world with people who are maxim-breakers. I wish we could live in a world where no one had to use passwords, for instance. But we have passwords and burglar alarms and keys… If you go out in the country, people say, “You mean you don’t leave your key in the car? And you lock your house?”

That’s why I want a very strong system to deter maxim-breakers that is based on restitution. In other words, some of these things that you do are imposing costs on everyone else. I’ve never been burglarized, but I’m paying the price for people who commit burglary, through insurance and other costs. If you engage in that sort of behavior, you ought to pay the criminal overhead for it. But that’s a longer story.

Harris: I completely agree with that as well.

Howard: The trouble is that we can’t separate these things when we get into the kind of discussion we’re having now—What kind of crimes are there in society, and how do you find the people who are perpetrating them? What kind of judgment do they get, and what are the penalties for having done these things? etc. This is a book all in itself, but it’s extremely important.

Harris: No doubt. Well, Ron, this has been great, and I think that readers will find your thoughts on all these topics very useful. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. And let me say again, in case I never fully expressed it, that the courses you taught at Stanford were probably the most important I ever took. It’s rare that one sees wisdom being directly imparted in an academic setting. But that is what you did, and have continued to do for decades. So I just want to say, “Thank you.”

Howard: You are very welcome. And it was great to have this conversation.

The Messenger and the Message

April 10, 2013

The Messenger and the Message

‘The First Muslim,’ by Lesley Hazleton

Hari Kunzruby Hari Kunzru (04-05-13)

In today’s febrile cultural and religious climate, what project could be more fraught than writing a biography of Muhammad? The worldwide protests at “The Innocence of Muslims,” 14 minutes of trashy provocation posted on YouTube, are a terrible reminder to the would-be biographer that the life story of the prophet of Islam is not material about which one is free to have a “take.”

Lesley HLesley Hazleton’s “First Muslim” is a book written by a white woman of dual American and British citizenship, published in America more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks. For many believers it is already — even before it is read, if it is read at all — an object of suspicion, something to be defended against, in case it should turn out to be yet another insult, another cruel parody of a story such an author has no business telling.

To others, of course, this book offers a welcome chance to read that life story in a more familiar and accessible form than the Islamic sources, a window into the parallel world where it is worth killing and dying to preserve the Prophet’s aura of holiness. Bigots looking to confirm their prejudices will, by and large, find “The First Muslim” a disappointment: Hazleton approaches her subject with scrupulous respect.

She blogs as “the Accidental Theologist,” where she describes herself as “a psychologist by training, a Middle East reporter by experience, an agnostic fascinated by the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion intersect.” In 2010, she gave a TED talk debunking some of the more egregious myths about the Koran, notably the salaciously Orientalist “72 virgins.” This is a writer who is working to dispel contradictions, not sharpen them.

Where does this leave the reviewer? Embroiled, unfortunately. A few days after I was assigned this book, the Darul Uloom in Deoband, a conservative Islamic seminary, called for me to be barred from speaking at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival. At last year’s event I read an excerpt from “The Satanic Verses,” still banned in India, to protest the death threat that had forced Salman Rushdie to cancel his scheduled appearance.

I was one of four authors who gave such readings. Lawyers and festival organizers advised us to leave town (and in my case India) immediately. Seven police complaints were subsequently brought against us under Indian laws protecting religious feelings from offense. Since I have, as another Muslim group put it in their own press statement, “hurt the sentiments of the community,” some people will find my judgment of this book a priori worthless, or at least suspect. Reader, beware.

The story of Muhammad is undoubtedly extraordinary. Orphaned in childhood in Mecca, an Arabian trading hub, he rose to be the trusted business agent and later husband of Khadija, a wealthy merchant woman. This respectable citizen took to climbing into the mountains overlooking the town, where he would spend nights in solitary meditation. Eventually he received a revelation, in the form of the voice of the angel Gabriel, who began to dictate the verses of the Koran.

As the messenger of this radical new form of monotheism, he disrupted the power structure and eventually led his followers out of Mecca to nearby Medina, where he took full political control and began military operations against the rulers of his birthplace. By the time of his death, Islam had been embraced throughout the Arabian Peninsula and was spreading farther afield.

“The First Muslim” tells this story with a sort of jaunty immediacy. Bardic The First Muslimcompetitions are “the sixth-century equivalent of poetry slams.” The section of the Koran known as the Sura of the Morning has “an almost environmentalist approach to the natural world.” Theological ideas and literary tropes are “memes” that can go “viral.” Readers irritated by such straining for a contemporary tone will find it offset by much useful and fascinating context on everything from the economics of the Meccan caravan trade to the pre-Islamic lineage of prophets called hanifs, who promoted monotheism and rejected idolatry.

In the terms it sets itself, “The First Muslim” succeeds. It makes its subject vivid and immediate. It deserves to find readers. However, its terms are those of the popular biography, and this creates a tension the book never quite resolves.

Though based on scholarship, it is not a scholarly work. Factual material from eighth- and ninth-century histories is freely mixed with speculation about Muhammad’s motives and emotions intended to allow the reader, in the quasi-therapeutic vocabulary that is the default register of so much mainstream contemporary writing, to “empathize” or better still, “identify with” him. Inevitably, a forest of conditionals surrounds such speculation, as Hazleton tries to intuit what Muhammad “must have felt” or “surely would have” done.

“For an adolescent trying to cement a life from the shards of loss and displacement,” we are told, “the monotheistic idea has to have been immensely powerful.” One might equally be justified in saying that animism would have made him feel less alone. Elsewhere we are invited to appreciate “the sheer humanness” of his terrified reaction to the Koranic revelation.

Occasionally a novelistic impulse takes over, as in a passage describing a flash flood where “you” “flail and fall” and try to pick yourself up because “the roar of it is on you now.” Has Hazleton been in such a flood? Is she paraphrasing someone else’s account? This is innocent enough as an exercise in style, but it makes one uncertain about the status of more substantial passages.

Muhammad’s transition from humble messenger to political leader, and from peaceful preacher to war leader, forms the substance of the story. The factional struggles, political assassinations, night flights and pitched battles that surround it are reminiscent of the experience of another prophet, the Mormon leader Joseph Smith, as is the role of revelation in exonerating sexual impropriety — in Muhammad’s case to allay suspicions of infidelity surrounding his third wife, Aisha.

Despite the orthodox Muslim insistence that Muhammad, while possessed of human failings, is irreproachable, some of his actions are deeply troubling. Even Hazleton finds it hard to put a positive spin on the mass beheading of up to 900 surrendered men of the Jewish Qurayza tribe, losers in one round of the factional battles for control of Medina.

However accurate her book, however laudable her intention to bridge the chasm between believers and unbelievers, Hazleton still has to confront the question of the authenticity of religious revelation. Respect is not the same as belief: her interpretation of “whatever happened up there on Mount Hira” is to stress Muhammad’s “experience” of revelation while sidestepping its objective existence. In various places, she hints that the Koran and the Hadith, like other holy books, have a textual history and that certain events in the life of Muhammad are best considered tropes.

A fuller examination of these points would have been fascinating, but it would have forced her to embrace the perilous notion that the Koran, instead of being the revealed word of God, might be a text like any other. In evading such material Hazleton clearly hopes to avoid giving offense, but try as she might, she cannot escape the fact that in our time even a well-meaning and fundamentally decent book such as this can never be innocent, because it cannot stand outside our violent recent history.

Hari Kunzru’s most recent novel is “Gods Without Men.”

A version of this review appeared in print on April 7, 2013, on page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Messenger and the Message.

The Lahad Datu Standoff: Another Point of View

February 27, 2013

The Lahad Datu Standoff: Another Point of View

by Lt Gen (Rtd) Datuk Seri Zaini Mohd Said  |

Sulu armyLIKE many happenings in the realm of national security, the ones often thought unlikely and even impossible to happen will. Old military hands had already learned this and will constantly remind themselves to expect the unexpected to occur, somehow.

Long ago, the United States experienced Pearl Harbour and then the 9/11 attack. We had among others, things like the Al Maunah arms heist at our military camps, the two-person samurai sword attack in Putrajaya and now the incursion and entrenchment in Sabah of armed soldiers of the Sultanate of Sulu on Feb 12. All of these were mostly unexpected.

Those in the business of defence and security are conscious of threats that can emanate from outside or from within the country. However, they can never predict and picture fully the actual and detailed form these threats can manifest themselves. These, therefore, can still surprise.

We were surprised by the incursion of the soldiers and their demand forHome Affairs Minister2 Sabah to be handed back to the Sultanate of Sulu or else they would fight — to the death if necessary. It was also some surprise to many as to the manner they made their demand, with more than 100 armed men, in Sabah, and, headed by a royal member from the sultanate.

Not unexpectedly, many are questioning why they were able to land in the first place and why it is taking so long to evict or apprehend them, forcibly if need be.

Understandable, questions from reasonable minds but since the operation and delicate process of urging them to leave is ongoing, it is best to let the authorities go about doing their job and wait for the complete answers to come once there is full closure of the matter.

In the meantime, there is little need for worry or cause for alarm. Indications are that the authorities and Police are on top of the situation and are prepared for any eventuality.

The Sulu soldiers are also reported to begin to lose their nerve and tiring fast. Even our military is close by and ready to come in if needed. It should not be too difficult for the security forces to end the standoff by use of force at all.

We should, however, pray that this will not be necessary. It would certainlyRajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram affect and jeopardise the effort and our role as the facilitator towards getting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Manila peace accord finalised and the establishment of the Bangsamoro state in southern Philippines.

If force were to result in many casualties on the Sulu side, then Malaysia’s plans and prospects of helping and participating in the development in the land of the Moros will diminish. It cannot be easy when there are to be vengeful and angry people from within the population there.

In any case, it is believed that they had not come intending to fight us or our security forces. That they came led and dressed in recognisable military uniforms with clear insignias is not to appear intimidating but to be identified as a bona fide and organised military body and not terrorists or common criminals.

map-sabah-intrudersA recognition that would entitle them to be regarded and treated under all the provisions of the international law on land warfare and the Geneva Convention as military combatants. A status they could nevertheless lose if they were to make monetary or other material demands over what has already been stated.

This must have been clear to our authorities and that probably explains the present strategy of urging them to leave peacefully and not giving in to any inappropriate demand, being the most appropriate option to pursue.

Avoid the shooting part at all costs for it will never ever end in that part of the world and not with the Moros.


Understanding the Chinese Mind

January 6, 2013

Understanding the Chinese Mind

by Andrew Sheng (01-05-23)@

Andrew ShengBROWSING through my library during the holidays, I came across a book on comparative Western and Chinese philosophy that had an old saying: “Every Chinese person is a Confucian when everything is going well; he is a Taoist when things are falling apart; and he is a Buddhist as he approaches death.”

Chinese culture is like ancient pyramids of different worldviews built over one another. The earliest was animism, where one believed different gods; the Book of Changes taught two sides to every story; Confucianism was about knowledge of self; Taoism about following the natural Way; Legalism about ruthless pragmatism and order; Buddhism about letting it go. In the 20th century, China imported Western influences from Marxism to science and technology.

It is commonly believed that the Chinese think very differently from Westerners. Western minds are considered logical and scientific, whereas the Chinese mind is supposed to be elliptical, contextual and therefore relational. One possible reason is the ideogramatic nature of the Chinese language, based on pictures rather than alphabets, which positions everything in relation to everything else.

The Chinese word for crisis is both risk and opportunity; for contradiction an impenetrable shield facing an unstoppable spear. Chinese thinking tends to sees things within systemic context and history, probably because the fount of Chinese philosophy is the I Ching or the Book of Changes, circa 1049 BC, which is essentially dialectic in tradition, seeing the world as emerging from the conflict, synthesis and evolution from contradictory opposites.

Western science and intellectual tradition stems primarily from Greek Aristotlean logic, which is reductionist and linear, reducing complex ideas into simple theories and principles that could deduce, explain and predict the future. Aristotlean logic prevailed in the West, until the German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) developed dialectics based upon the concept that everything is composed of contradictions, with gradual changes becoming crises. Karl Marx (1818-1883) built on Hegelian dialectics into historical change through class struggle and dialectic materialism, whereas Mao Zedong fused Marxism into Chinese agrarian reality to form a theory of revolutionary knowledge through practice.

In the 20th century, natural science, such as physics, mathematics and biology began to evolve away from the social sciences, particularly economics. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of linear, logical thinking continued to dominate in social science, through philosophers such as Karl Popper, who rejected the vagueness of dialectics. On the other hand, quantum physics, quantum mathematics, biology and information theory began to evolve into binary worldviews whereby change in nature evolved through the synthesis or erosion of opposites. This is much closer to ancient Chinese and Indian views that saw the world in constant change.

What has been missing so far has been a synthesis of the two divergent worldviews.In his Nassem Talebnew book Antifragility: How to live in a world we do not understand, Black Swan author Nassim Taleb introduced option theory as a general tool to bridge dialectic thinking with mainstream bell curve statistics. The normal “bell curve” distribution is a widely used statistical tool for decision making in mainstream social science. Social scientists look for statistical significance in the high probability (95%) or “robust” zone of the bell curve, tending to ignore low probability events (2.5% each) in the long tails,

By ignoring the long tail events that occur rarely but have large impact when they occur, mainstream thinking like the economic profession missed systemic events like that 2008 financial crisis. There are of course two long tails, one being the “bad” Black Swan events that create systemic damage when they occur.

The other is the upside or “good” long tail events. Nassim calls “anti-fragility” as good actions that compensate for “fragility”, the bad events.

Intuitively, Taleb has reframed Chinese philosophy in modern mathematics with a scientific explanation. What he calls the central Triad of exposures Fragile, Robustness and Antifragile has the analogy in the Chinese trinity of female (ying), Golden Mean and male (yang).

The Confucian concept of Golden Mean seeks to avoid extremes and take the safe middle path. But Taleb’s insight shows why the Golden Mean gets into trouble, because playing safe and mainstream ignores the uncertainty of Black Swan events that could eventually damage the system as a whole. Prudence and conservatism through adopting the Golden Mean prevents the practitioner from adopting “antifragile or (good) high risk-high payoff” strategies that would compensate for the uncertain unknown bad Black Swan events.

A Buddhist would immediately recognise the need to build up good deeds to compensate for the bad deeds that may befall oneself.

By not taking risks, Chinese dynasties that adopted Golden Mean strategies became closed societies that eventually imploded when disaster struck. On the other hand, in the run up to the Industrial Revolution, Western societies took large risks with high payoffs, in science, technology and even colonialism. Western society compensated for fragility by taking anti-fragile measures. No risk, no gain.

The easiest way to think about options and antifragile strategies is in stock market investment. Suppose you adopt a conservative strategy that follows what the market does on average (follow the index). If however the market suddenly drops by 30%, and your portfolio declines by 30%, you will never recover your capital if you continue to adopt market following Golden Mean strategy. To recover or do better, you have to take small bets on risky shares that are “anti-fragile”, meaning that if they win, they win big.

Antifragility loves volatility. Making small mistakes will avoid large mistakes. The more you try to be stable, the more unstable you become, which Keynesian disciple Hyman Minsky rediscovered as “stability creating instability.”。

Fung Global InstituteTaking non-linear options on high risk-high return ventures was exactly what Deng Xiaoping did in his opening up strategy. He knew that the risks of failure were high (and unknown) but taking options by opening up new development zones and new policies created new payoffs and growth areas that were not imagined by the critics.In 2013, Deng’s successors may be making new, anti-fragile options.

Andrew Sheng is President of the Fung Global Institute.

Happy Divali to Our Friends of the Hindu Faith and the Sikh Community

November 12, 2012

Happy Divali to Our Friends of the Hindu Faith and the Sikh Community in Malaysia and Around the World

My wife, Dr. Kamsiah and I wish our friends and associates of the Hindu Faith and the Sikh community in Malaysia and around the world a Happy, Peaceful and Prosperous Divali, which falls tomorrow, November 13, 2012.

We are grateful for your support and interest in what we bring to you on this blog. We wish to promote rational discourse and mutual understanding between people of different cultures, religions and political affiliations.

Since this blog appeared some 5 years ago, we have made a lot of friends and some formidable adversaries. We have our differences, but so far, we have been able to keep our exchanges at a very decent, positive and constructive level. We learned a lot from our interactions with you in cyberspace.

Day by day, it has become clear to Dr. Kamsiah and I that there are no correct answers or solutions to the  problems and challenges that confront us all. But with patience and mutual understanding, we shall prevail in our quest for peaceful co-existence, if we keep thinking, looking, listening and feeling.

We respect your Faith because it is one of the great religions known to humanity. Let us remind ourselves of the significance of Diwali as celebrated in India, Malaysia and elsewhere.–Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

The Significance of Diwali

Compiled by Annemarie

“The Diwali or Deepavali festival marks the victory of good over evil. The Sanskrit word “Deepavali” means “an array of lights” and signifies the victory of brightness over darkness. As the knowledge of Sanskrit diminished, the name was popularly modified to Diwali, especially in northern India.

On Diwali, the goddess Laxmi, a symbol of prosperity, is worshipped. People wear new clothes, share sweets and light firecrackers. The North Indian business community usually starts their financial new year on Diwali and new account books are opened on this day.

Hindus find cause to celebrate this festival for different reasons. In the North, Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama, King of Ayodhya, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana from a 14-year exile and a war in which he vanquished the demon king Ravana.

It is believed that the people lit oil lamps all along the way to light the royal family’s path in the darkness. In North India, the festival is held on “Amavasya” (or “moonless night”), the final day of the Vikram calendar. The following day marks the beginning of the North Indian New Year.

In South India, Diwali festival often commemorates the conquering of the Asura Naraka, a powerful king of Assam, who imprisoned tens of thousands of inhabitants. It was Krishna who finally subdued Naraka and freed the prisoners. It is celebrated in the Tamil month of aipasi (thula month) ‘naraka chaturdasi’ thithi, preceding amavasai.

The preparations begin the day before, when the oven is cleaned, smeared with lime, four or five kumkum dots are applied, and then it is filled with water for the next day’s oil bath. The house is washed and decorated with kolam (rangoli) patterns with kavi (red oxide). In the pooja room, betel leaves, betel nuts, plaintain fruits, flowers, sandal paste, kumkum, gingelly oil, turmeric powder, scented powder are kept. Crackers and new dresses are placed in a plate after smearing a little kumkum or sandal paste.

In the north, most communities observe the custom of lighting lamps. However, in the south, the custom of lighting baked earthen lamps is not so much part of this festival as it is of the Karthikai celebrations a fortnight later. The lights signify a welcome to prosperity in the form of Lakshmi, and the fireworks are supposed to scare away evil spirits.

Deepavali celebrations in south India begin early in the morning. The eldest family member applies sesame oil on the heads of all the family members. Then, it’s off for a bath, beginning with the youngest in the family. They emerge with new clothes and a look of anticipation at the thought of bursting crackers, which symbolizes the killing of the demon king Narakasur.

Lehiyan: But before that comes Lehiyan, the bitter concoction, to cleanse the system of its festive over-eating! Then to the crackers.

Murukku: A puja is performed for the family deities in the morning. Breakfast consists of murukku , a sweet dish and, of course, idli or dosa.

Wish fulfilment: Some communities believe that when Narakasur was to be killed, Lord Krishna asked him his last wish. Narakasura replied that he wanted to enjoy the last day of his life in a grand manner and Diwali was celebrated. That was the beginning and the practice continued.

In the evening, lamps are lighted and crackers are burst. As most of the cracker manufacturing units are in Tamil Nadu, there is no dearth of fireworks here.”


IRF makes its Stand on Religious Freedom

November 8, 2012

Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) makes its Stand on Religious Freedom

by Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa*@

COMMENT We at the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) condemn and lament the irresponsible mischaracterisation of Nurul Izzah Anwar’s statement on religious freedom.

She merely summarised the gist of the well-known Quranic verse in Surah al-Baqarah which clearly stressed that there is to be no compulsion in matters of faith, for truth and error has already been clearly stated.

Because of that she has been subjected to the crudest level of character assassination from those seeking to stoke controversy and gain political mileage for the upcoming elections.

Islam is not an ethnicity

In particular, the danger lies in the unmistakably ethnic nature of the sentiments that are motivating the on-going smear campaign against her. The erroneous assumption being encouraged is that Malays can only be Muslims.

This, to be sure, goes against the elementary confusion of an ethnicity with a religion. Here, we should pause to reflect on how that very confusion is also discernable in conservative Zionist thinking, which some Malay Muslims who are so enraged by Nurul Izzah’s statement are also supposed to oppose.

More importantly, the smear campaign is un-Islamic in how it particularly contravenes a clearly stated principle in the Quran which calls for the freedom of conscience: no human being is to be forced to believe in something he or she does not want to.

The evidence is plain for all to see. Consider another example in the following passage:

“And [thus it is] had thy Sustainer so willed, all those who live on earth would surely have attained to faith, all of them: dost thou, then, think that thou couldn’t compel people to believe.”[Qur'an,10:99]

In other words, the belief that Malays must be made to remain Muslim goes against the principle of reason and justice – the cornerstone of Islamic epistemology.

It thus makes no sense to believe that the principle of non-coercive assent is to be upheld only for non-Muslims and it would be null and void once a person converts to Islam. Those who believe that are mistaking Islam for Hotel California, where you can check in anytime you like, but can never leave.

More worryingly, that outlook all too easily assumes that Islam is morally inconsistent; never mind the problem that it would also require a strong Islamic state to force Muslims into conformity.

Freedom matters

Virtue is only virtuous – and not opportunistic, accidental, foolish or political – when it is done out of free will.

Thus, rather than to police and threaten others into good behaviour and belief, much time, effort, cost, conflict and ill will can be spared through compassionate and transparent communication whereby our convictions and the ethical choices we make, emerge from out of a clear grasp of the principles and values that colour our moral horizons.

This – seeing the straight path after the seriousness, honesty, patience, and labour of inner reflection – is enlightenment.

We believe it takes no moral, social or political cost at all to err on the side of charity and trust, and let every individual set on his or her journey to arrive to that very point of self-consciousness.

After all, no one forced Muhammad to the cave. All this, very sadly, is far from the minds of Muslims today. Muslims all too easily react in anger, without taking any time to consider the ethical ramifications of their demands.

They mistake self-righteousness for injustice; the suppression of freedom for happiness and in the process they cannot tell the difference between on one hand, the inner monologues of victimisation that has shaped their egos and on the other, their conscience.

In that frenzy of rage, the personal has been drowned by the political. There is no Muslim condition to speak of, just enraged mobs. The only “winners” to speak of in the meantime, are those seeking to exploit religion for ethnocentric ends.

The Islamic Renaissance Front calls upon all our friends and comrades who believe in the freedom of conscience to speak out against the rising tide of religious chauvinism and speak truth to power.

*DR.AHMAD FAROUK MUSA is Director of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF). The above statement is jointly issued by Islamic Renaissance Front IRF members: Ahmad Farouk, Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, Rizqi Mukhriz, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, Ehsan Shahwahid, Muhammad Anas Daniel and Shawn Syazwan.

Transcript of Nurul Izzah’s Q&A at forum


Last Saturday’s forum in Subang Jaya, on the topic ‘Islamic state: Which version? Whose responsibility?’, was jointly organised by the Oriental Hearts and Minds Study Institute and Islamic Renaissance Front.

At the forum, Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar had said that there was “no compulsion in religion” when responding to a question from a member of the audience on whether religious freedom also applied to Malays.

This was reported by Malaysiakini under the headline, ‘Nurul: There should be no compulsion in choosing faith.’Nurul Izzah had also said, in her reply to the question, that she was “tied to the prevailing views” in the country.

On Monday, Utusan Malaysia attacked Nurul Izzah for her comments at the forum in a report on its front page, and quoted the Malaysiakini report in the article headlined ‘Melayu perlu bebas pilih agama?’ (Should Malays be free to choose religion?).

Subsequently, Nurul Izzah was accused of advocating apostasy among Muslims – a claim she has vehemently denied and has threatened law suits against both Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian.

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who also stepped into the row through a Bernama report yesterday, questioned why the Lembah Pantai MP was suing the two dailies, but not Malaysiakini.

Here, Malaysiakini produces the transcript of the event, during the period Nurul Izzah responded to questions from the floor.

She took the questions ahead of other speakers because she had to leave early.

Question 1: It’s heartening to know that you just cannot coerce someone into believing your beliefs, right? On any matter.

Now, I do want to ask a very controversial question, so what then the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community) here or the sexual minority here?

I’d like your views on that because there are people who feel that just by being able to love the same sex goes against their religion or beliefs, but we don’t believe that.

Our own beliefs are such that we are answerable to God, yes, but let us be answerable to God. Thanks.

YB Nurul can you… all right, we’ll have one more, just one more question, then she’ll answer both then take leave. Yes.

Question 2: I’m very happy to hear YB Nurul speak about freedom of religion. Does she actually apply that to Malays as well in terms of freedom of religion? That is number one.

Number two, I think it is a fallacy to believe that Egypt now is (in) a better condition than it was before. Everybody knows that it is getting worse.

I have a friend in Egypt and she is really not happy about what is going on over there, so I do believe YB is trying to promote the idea of an Islamic state, like you know this which is completely not true.

But mainly my question is, when you speak of freedom of religion, are you actually applying to the Malays as well? Thanks.

Moderator: Well YB Nurul, that’s a good way to start the morning.

The audience laughs.

Moderator: You have two questions of great import at two ends of the spectrum. Could you try to answer that, please.

Nurul Izzah:
Thank you, Cyrus, I love too.

The audience laughs.

Nurul Izzah: Okay, so the first question. In terms of the sexual rights of LGBT, Tariq Ramadan addressed this question when IRF organised his programme, I think about three months back and I think, of course, you’re not just talking about Islam.

There are limitations and you know, implemented in Christianity with regards to people of – you know – LGBT, but one thing is important is you should not victimise anyone.

Hudud forum Nurul IzzahYou should not also implement and you know, ensure the laws of the land encroach into private… uh.. into public space.

I think that is the main underlying principle. But if you ask me whether, as a Muslim, I can accept, I think yes, you or whoever that, besides their particular sexual orientation.

Yes, in private you cannot enforce them certain regulation, etcetera. But as a Muslim, I also cannot accept and that is regulation of my faith and as well as my friends who are Catholic, etc.

I think here you want to make sure that they are not victimised, the current practise, whether how, through the Borders (bookstore) … sort of, err, how JAWI or JAKIM at that time went to the Borders, some books etcetera, so the way it is practised does not respect and does not give any meaning for the sanctity of Islam, or any religion for that matter.

You must always use hikmah, so yes, I will say here, we have limitation, but certainly it should not be encroached into public space.

The second question with regards (to) what you think I’m trying to promote, I would correct that assumption. Yes, Egypt is undergoing a tumultuous process. It has not been resolved, there are many challenges they face.

I am not saying they have achieved a Utopian ideal view of a state and how it should be governed but I always take the development of the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, from seen as a rather dogmatic Islamic movement come up with a political entity to meet the needs of the time and their relationship and collaboration with the Christian Coptic is something in particular that we have to observe and appreciate.

So if you say things are bad for Egypt, no. You, and we, must not be so judgmental and that is partly the society or the country that we have inherited that allows us to see things in black and white, whereas sometimes it is not as simple as that.

Sometimes in a stormy period, it is important for them to undergo and hopefully, because we wish for the best. We wish that they will have wisdom and finally manage the governance of the country itself.


The bell rings.

Nurul Izzah: Okay, one more minute.

The audience laughs.

Hudud forum IRF Ahmad Farouk MusaNurul Izzah: Yes, umm, but the idea itself, I think, goes back. And when you ask me, there is no compulsion in religion, even Dr (Ahmad) Farouk (Musa) quoted that verse in the Quran.

How can you ask me or anyone, how can anyone really say, ‘Sorry, this only apply to non-Malays.’ It has to apply equally.

The audience applauds.

Nurul Izzah: In the Quran, there is no specific terms for the Malays. This is how it should be done. So I am tied, of course, to the prevailing views but I would say that.

So what you want is of course in terms of quality. You believe so strongly in your faith, that even me, being schooled in Assunta with a huge cross in the hall and an active singing Catholic society will not deter you.

The bell rings and the moderator thanks the speaker.

The audience applauds.

“God is Not a Dictator”, says Prof. Mouhanad Khorchide

November 5, 2012

”God Is Not A Dictator”


The Koran has thus far been subjected to erroneous interpretation, says Mouhanad Khorchide, Professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster. Khorchide is calling for an emancipation of the faith.

Interview by Arnfrid Schenk and Martin Spiewak

Professor Khorchide, what was your reaction to the recent controversial Mohammed film on YouTube?

Khorchide: I thought it was tedious and tasteless. I didn’t recognise the Prophet Mohammed as he was portrayed in the film so I didn’t feel it was directed at me as a Muslim.

Many Muslims find it difficult to adopt this attitude, what is your advice to them?

Khorchide: Ignore it, don’t allow yourselves to be provoked. The film is a trap laid specifically to provoke, and Muslims repeatedly fall into this trap.

Why do Muslims react in this way to insults aimed at the Prophet? After all, unlike Jesus he doesn’t have divine status.

Khorchide: The problem lies elsewhere. On such occasions, Muslims vent their pent-up anger. The video itself isn’t the cause of the agitation, just the trigger. The Islamic collective memory is still etched by crusades, the colonial era and what is perceived as an unjust Middle East policy, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You have just written a new book in which you describe the Koran as a love letter from God to humanity. How did you arrive at this interpretation? The Koran would normally be described as a powerful book – and in the West also as a dangerous one.

Khorchide: The question is: which image of God are we talking about? Many Muslims assume that their God wants to be glorified, that he despatches orders and makes sure these orders are obeyed. Those who obey are rewarded, and those who don’t are punished. But this is a perception of God similar to that of a tribal leader who cannot be challenged. This is why many Muslims view the Koran as a rulebook.

And you don’t?

Khorchide: I have a different reading of the Koran. God is not an archaic tribal leader, he’s not a dictator. Of the book’s 114 suras, why do 113 of them begin with the phrase “In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful”? There has to be a reason for this. The Koranic God presents himself as a loving God. That’s why the relationship between God and man is a bond of love similar to the one between a mother and child. I would like Muslims to emancipate themselves from the image of an archaic God that’s being connoted in many mosques, in religious education or during courses of theological instruction.

Are you saying that for centuries, Islamic theology has provided a flawed instruction manual for the Koran?

Khorchide: Contemporary Islamic theology is at least unilateral. It is based on a master-servant relationship. Reformers who interpret the Koran differently, who say Islam is more than just a religion of rules and regulations, have so far not succeeded in asserting themselves.

Why not?

Khorchide: For political reasons, partly. Many rulers of Islamic kingdoms describe themselves as “shadows of God on earth”. This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God. In order to make sure that the populace remains compliant, they construct the image of a God for whom obedience is paramount. To this very day, this plays an important role in a dictatorial state such as Saudi Arabia, where any opposition is not only held up as a secular opposition, but also as a movement against God.

The concept of God’s mercy also existed in Christianity, but a different interpretation of the Bible was nevertheless accepted. Why has this not happened within Islam?

Khorchide: Many theologians have forged alliances with those in power, such as the Salafist scholars in Saudi Arabia, for example. After all, they also benefit from an Islam that serves as a regulatory legal framework. People defer to them when they have questions about what they should and should not do. Repressive structures intermingle as a result. Christianity has succeeded in overcoming this incapacitation of the faithful. That’s not quite been the case in Islam.

Do you see yourself as a source of enlightenment?

Khorchide: I wouldn’t put it like that. If you take terms out of their European context, people suspect that you’re trying to impose something alien upon Islam. Change can only come from within. We don’t need an enlightenment of the kind we know from European history, but perhaps a reform that focuses on the maturity and reason of humankind. The Koran does exactly this, incidentally.

There is much talk of hell in the Koran. How does this fit in with the concept of mercy?

Khorchide: Hell is nothing other than the confrontation with one’s own transgressions. It’s not a punishment that comes from without. As a famous mystic once said: “I’d like to extinguish the hellfire and set paradise alight, so that people don’t act out of fear of hell or hope for paradise.” We humans should strive for something higher, the closeness and companionship of God. However, traditional theology has taken a less metaphorical view of the images of paradise and hell, and instead literally described them as material spaces with material pleasures and punishments. But if you’re only doing something good because you fear punishment or hope for reward, then that’s not enough.

But this literal interpretation appears to be widespread, particularly among young Muslims in Germany.

Khorchide: Not just in Germany, and not just among youngsters, unfortunately. This is a highly simplified faith that presents God as nothing more than a bookkeeper or a judge, who calculates how often I’ve prayed. I can understand those who want to keep a kind of religious to-do list. But it’s a pity. This kind of approach doesn’t allow faith to move on from a highly elementary stage. It’s more difficult to say: I would like to do something good for the sake of goodness; or I strive for internal perfection that finds its expression in good character traits and actions.

But this obedient take on Islam, as preached by radical Salafists, really seems to resonate with young people in Germany right now. Why?

Khorchide: These youngsters feel rootless, sidelined. They are searching for an identity and, above all, for something that will distinguish them. Many young people aren’t hearing a “you belong”, but rather a “we Germans – you Muslims”. The Salafists provide them with the validation they seek. An identity that flies in the face of mainstream society. They pick out elements of Islam that accentuate the differences, such as a beard or clothing that’s exactly the same length as the Prophet’s. But this is an external identity without a core.

You train Islamic religious teachers. How do German Muslims react to your views?

Khorchide: The young ones say: that all sounds very nice, why did no one tell us about this before? I can identify more with this merciful God, they say. And even though there are also some reservations, my views have also met with appreciation from associations perceived as conservative – although they are actually quite heterogeneous. I try to provide theological explanations for everything, using Islam as my basis. I sustain my arguments with the Koran. The 220 pages of my book contain references to 400 passages of the Koran in order to show that this is not just my personal view.

And what about reactions to your work in the Arab world, is there some understanding there too?

Khorchide: In the summer, I went to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most important Sunni authority in Islam. After my lecture, the older scholars were reticent and didn’t say anything. But the undergraduates and doctorate students came up to me and asked if they could study in Munster or write their doctorates there. The young ones are looking for something new.

Will your book also be translated into Arabic?

Khorchide: Yes, but I’ll tailor it slightly to the Arab mentality.

Take the sting out of it a little?

Khorchide: I suppose you could put it like that. But the main message will be the same: that God is a God of mercy, that Islam is a religion of mercy. Any other interpretation of Islam is not Islam.

Why is it that most Muslims have a completely different understanding of Islam? They’re reading the same Koran, after all.

Khorchide: The Koran was written in the classical Arabic of the seventh century. It’s therefore very difficult for non-Arabs to understand. When Arabs read it, they perhaps understand 40 per cent as far as the language is concerned. But even greater difficulties arise in the theological reading of the verses. Most Muslims don’t concern themselves with the true essence of the Koran. That’s why we Muslims often base our faith on what we are told. We are harking back to statements made by theologians in the ninth and tenth centuries.

In your book you write that when viewed as a legal system, Sharia is a contradiction of Islam. Why?

Khorchide: For the very reason that it reduces Islam to a legal system. Some Muslims even go as far as to say that if you’re not in favour of physical punishment, then you’re not a Muslim. All the discussion surrounding Sharia means that it’s only about whether or not you follow rules.

Your parents are Palestinian, but you went to school in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and studied in Austria; what impact has this had on your religious socialisation?

Khorchide: Saudi scholars claim that their nation is pure, true Islam’s only home. But this Salafist mindset has reduced the faith to nothing more than a façade. A man is a sinner if he shaves off his beard; a woman is a sinner if she doesn’t wear a headscarf. In mosques, I saw how only those with the longest beards were allowed to serve as imams and lead the prayers. What’s the point of that? As a Palestinian in Saudi Arabia, I wasn’t allowed to study or get any medical insurance, but in Austria, a non-Islamic nation, none of this was a problem. I started asking questions, I wanted to get to the core of this religion.

You also criticise those who are described as liberal Muslims. Why? Are you not singing from the same song sheet?

Khorchide: They also reduce Islam in a similar way to the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists hollow it out, by focussing on the façade, on outward features. The liberals provide a radical response by dispensing with almost all outward features and rituals and limiting it to the shahada, the declaration of belief. That’s not enough. The shahada must find its expression in life.

So what needs to happen for your understanding of Islam is to find wider acceptance?

Khorchide: There must be a discourse, and a discourse needs institutions, it must be taught, students must perpetuate its message. I think Islamic theology here in Germany represents a good opportunity because we have much greater freedom of movement. But it will take one or two generations.

Arnfrid Schenk und Martin Spiewak

© DIE ZEIT 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan

Mouhanad Khorchide has been Professor of Islamic Religious Education at the University of Munster since July 2010. His new book Islam ist Barmherzigkeit – Grundzüge einer modernen Religion (Islam is Mercy – Essential Traits of a Modern Religion) was published by Herder in October.