September 30, 2014
A Tyranny of Ideas
by Zaid Ibrahim@www.zaid.my
Last Friday, our Prime Minister spoke at the United Nations General Assembly about the urgent need to combat the extremist ideas pervading the Islamic world. Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said it is not enough just to bomb the Islamic State’s bases in Iraq and Syria—it is equally important to confront the ideas that give rise to such extremism. Like all Muslim leaders speaking on an international platform, Najib said Islam is a religion of peace that is based on the Quran and the Sunnah, and that finding the right ideas about Islam is essential.
Once again US President Barack Obama sang his praises, but the challenge of rising above rhetoric is as great as ever. Those advocating Islamic systems of governance like the Caliphate in the Middle East, which has been described as “extremist”, read the same Quran and follow the same Sunnah as our Prime Minister; as JAKIM and the ulamak in Malaysia; and as the mullahs in Pakistan and Yemen. Despite sharing the same source, they have managed to come up with very different ideas about what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim.
If our Prime Minister genuinely wants to see the growth of new and peaceful ideas about Islam, then he must be willing to let the religion and its institutions become a subject of constructive discourse and critical analysis by its adherents. If Malaysia wants to protect itself from extremism, he must allow for different interpretations of the faith and reasoning to flourish in the country.
He must put a stop to what is happening now, which is allowing the ulamaks to unilaterally define what Islam is, what is permissible under the faith and what is not. In fact, based on the fact that we allow Islam to be defined solely by those in power, Malaysia is no different from the IS in the Middle East.
For example, anyone in Malaysia who takes their cue from the Quran’s Surah Al-Baqarah (which says there is no compulsion in religion) and declares that mankind is allowed freedom of religion can be charged for insulting Islam. They can also face an apostasy charge and will probably end up in jail. On a matter such as this, where there is explicit support in the Quran, such a viewpoint should be allowed to be discussed freely.
Malaysia, the so-called cradle of peaceful Islam, must remove all laws that inhibit thinking and reasoning. How will we be able to establish Islam as a religion of peace if we are fearful of other ideas and resort to tyranny of thought instead? Where can we hope to end up if we will only subscribe to thinking that has been sanctioned by the state? Malaysia must not be a country that is run by tyrants in Brioni suits. This makes our leaders no different from IS leaders, except for their choice of wardrobe. But is our Prime Minister ready for such a transformation?
Look at what is happening to writer and Islamic scholar Kassim Ahmad (pic left). All he ever said was that the primary source of Islam is the Quran, so there is no need to look to other sources when the subject is covered in the Quran and is clear and incontrovertible. The ulamaks of Malaysia, of course, do not share this view, and because of this Kassim has been charged in the Wilayah Shariah Court.
I urge our Prime Minister to speak to the ulamaks and all relevant religious authorities involved in the administration of Islamic matters in the country, and give them copies of the speech he made in New York last Friday. He should tell them to withdraw the charge against Kassim. If he is unable or unwilling to do so, then the speech was clearly just for show, another sad example of how Muslim leaders are afraid of exposing their people to productive, progressive and peaceful ideas.
This is the tragedy of the Muslim community. Their leaders know what the problem is but they are afraid of the ulamaks. That’s why in many Muslim-majority countries, political leaders do not incur the wrath of the ulamaks or the mullahs. Najib is no different. He was brave in New York because the ulamak do not rule there—Wall Street does.