June 7, 2016
Zakir Naik and Abdullahi An-Na’im–Between Hududism and Moderation
by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
The message espoused by Abdullahi An-Na’im is a more humanistic and intellectually more rational and defensible Islam in keeping with the country’s traditionally moderate Islamic values and mores. One would have expected a more enthusiastic response to it as compared with the more radical and hard line version propagated by Zakir Naik.
Recently we had two distinguished Muslim visitors to our shores. The first, Zakir Naik, is a preacher and founder of the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) who gives talks on Islam and compares it with other world religions to show case its merits, relevance and answer to all the problems of society.
His forte appears to lie in his photographic memory of the Quran and Hadith literature, and his espousal of the superiority of Islam over other religions as well as his critical anti-western views which has made him popular with Muslims all round the world. On his second tour of the country in April this year, he apparently received a rapturous reception in his public lectures.
Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister had meetings with him. Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Minister of Home Affairs and responsible for the country’s security, defended or chose to ignore the preacher’s controversial views – which included a call made during a 2006 lecture for “every Muslim to be a terrorist” – and described him as a “very wise man”.
The second visitor, Abdullahi An-Na’im, is a Professor of Law from Emory University, Georgia, USA, and internationally recognised as a scholar of Islam and advocate of human rights. He is the author of ‘Islam and the Secular State’ which has been translated into various languages.
Media coverage of his talks gives the impression that this, more academically qualified and more distinguished, scholar was only able to attract a small audience. His smaller following among Malaysian Muslims – and the failure of any prominent member of the Government to meet with him – indicates that both the country’s Muslim community and the Government have little time for him or his reformist views.
As an example of his position on contentious issues, the distinguished professor has argued that Muslims have no religious obligation to support hudud law as it was not mentioned in the Quran. He has also pointed out that more than 40 member countries of the United Nations with predominantly Muslim majority population do not implement hudud in their legal system.
“Where is the hudud among all these Muslims? Why is it a priority in this country (Malaysia) when it has not been a priority in the vast Muslim majority countries?” he has asked.
In contrast, Zakir who has been labelled as “perhaps the most influential Salafi ideologue in India” is more extreme and conservative in his views on Islam, its stance on human rights, religious freedom, the secular state and a host of other issues. He has also been very vocal on what he would like to see for the political development of Malaysia.
According to him, a coalition government of UMNO and PAS will be better for Malaysia as it will propel the country forward and strengthen Islam.
“I’m not saying that both parties (UMNO and PAS) should make it as one party, but if they can make it, Alhamdulillah…(if not) you can keep your party, you can keep your identity, but when you have a coalition government, it should be a coalition of the Muslims.”
Putrajaya and Muslim masses’ response
What explains the difference in Putrajaya’s treatment of the two visitors is obvious. Together with other recent measures aimed at appealing to its Malay voters base, UMNO is clearly stretching the boundaries of previous political acceptability and tolerance arising from its dominance within the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, by using religion to shore up its political position.
But this alone does not explain the response of the larger Muslim community to the two visitors and the messages that they are articulating. The message espoused by Abdullahi An-Na’im is a more humanistic and intellectually more rational and defensible Islam in keeping with the country’s traditionally moderate Islamic values and mores. One would have expected a more enthusiastic response to it as compared with the more radical and hard line version propagated by Zakir Naik.
Why is it that these two visitors and their messages are resonating differently with the Malay Muslim masses is a crucial question to ask. A later article will attempt to answer this question. For now, it will be useful to reproduce the concerns of Dr Azhar Ibrahim, in the conclusion of his article, “Secularism as Imagined in the Malay-Indonesian World: Resistance and its Muted Counter Responses in the Discursive and Public Realms”, published just a few days ago.
Most importantly, the timidity to scrutinise the very idea of secularism as commonly perceived, at both elite and public level, would mean that important concepts and ideas are considered outside the realm of discourse for Muslims to engage, grapple and contest. A critical and confident progressive Muslim discourse in scrutinising and engaging the Islamists’ anti-secularism rhetoric is therefore imperative. To remain silent and ambivalent about this issue will be naïve; if not tragic.
It is therefore not too far-fetched to say that anti-secularism sentiments are disruptive to a healthy development of democracy, human rights and civil liberties. It is not simply Muslims’ responses against the effects of modernity – deemed as secular – but an exclusivists’ response that insist on their supposedly authentic Islamic model, be it in the realms of politics, culture, education, social and economy.
Loaded and justified with religious sanctions, often made in absolute terms, there will be hardly any space for other paradigms or models to be appropriated. In such a situation only the Islamists position stands. The very attack on the imagined secularism eventually will have deep consequences on democracy, human and legal rights, civil liberties, plurality and the like.