Happy 2017 Diwali to All People of Faith, Peace and Goodwill


October 18, 2017

Happy 2017 Diwali

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With the Inauguration of a new President in the United States some 9 months ago, we have entered a period of global uncertainty.  Democracy promoted by  The United States since the end of the Second World War, as we taught to know it, is now dysfunctional. The America Dr. Kamsiah and I knew and admired has become  a selfish and self- centered fading power.

It is no longer the exceptional and indispensable nation. Under President Trump, America has shown worrying signs of having lost its moral high ground to preach and hector other nations on democracy, justice and human rights. At home,  it  is ideologically, religiously and racially divided. A House Divided cannot stand, nor can it lead.

New centers of global power have emerged–China, India and resurgent Russia–to  fill the gap created by  “America First”. My favorite Republican Senator from Arizona and a Vietnam War Hero, John McCain , said it most eloquently  just a couple days ago:

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Senator John McCain and Mrs Cindy McCain

“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history. We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.”

It is an uncertain world ahead as Trump’s America looks inwards purportedly to develop its badly neglected infrastructure and the economy. The vacuum in global leadership  is waiting to be filled. The rest of us must now adapt to new players and learn to deal with an enigmatic Donald Trump. It is, therefore, appropriate for us to reflect on the challenges for humanity since these times threaten our common future. What better occasion than Diwali 2017 –The Festival of Lights.

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Dr Kamsiah Haider in Kuala Lumpur and I in Phnom Penh take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy Diwali 2017 with lots  of Peace and Happiness.

We thank you all for your friendship, support and kind cooperation. We have enjoyed engaging with you on FaceBook and this blog. We may have not agreed with you most of the time, but we pleased  that you were able to share your views and ideas with us.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican

Buddhist Philosophy–Its Value for Humanity


August 7, 2017

by Antonio Damaso

http://www.nytimes.com–Book Review

Anyone writing (or reading) about Buddhism faces a critical question. What is Buddhism, really? A religion, complete with supernatural deities and reincarnation? A secular philosophy of life? A therapeutic practice? An ideology? All of the above? Robert Wright sketches an answer early in “Why Buddhism Is True.” He settles on a credible blend that one might call Western Buddhism, a largely secular approach to life and its problems but not devoid of a spiritual dimension. The centerpiece of the approach is the practice of mindful meditation.

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The goal of “Why Buddhism Is True” is ambitious: to demonstrate “that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” It is reasonable to claim that Buddhism, with its focus on suffering, addresses critical aspects of the human predicament. It is also reasonable to suggest that the prescription it offers may be applicable and useful to resolve that predicament.

To produce his demonstrations and to support the idea that Buddhism is “true,” Wright relies on science, especially on evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience.

This is a sensible approach, and in relation to Buddhism it is almost mainstream. Over the years, in a number of encounters, I have found the Dalai Lama and those around him to be keenly interested in science. Wright is up to the task: He’s a Buddhist who has written about religion and morality from a scientific perspective — he is most famous for his 1994 book, “The Moral Animal.”

My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows. First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time.

It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.

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Wright’s book is provocative, informative and, in many respects, deeply rewarding. A good example is Wright’s description of his first full entry into the realm of mindfulness. Arriving at this new mental state generated in him an intense emotive response and a memorable feeling that Wright evokes with suggestive but spare prose. It rings true. This scene lets the reader glimpse the power of mindful meditation and be intrigued, even seduced, by the transformative potential of the practice. I found myself not just agreeing but applauding the author, on a number of passages. A case in point is his unflinching embrace of the notion of feeling, which he understands as the mental experiences of physiological states, states imbued with a valence ranging from positive and pleasant to negative and unpleasant. He is referring to phenomena in the mind, private to each specific human being and not inspectable by others. He does not confuse feelings with emotions, which are public and can be inspected by others. Surprisingly, this distinction between feeling and emotion is often glossed over not just in popular accounts but also in the scientific literature. And yet, it is fundamental for the understanding of how living organisms with nervous systems can behave, develop conscious experiences and construct individual minds, sociality and cultures.

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Wright is not as persuasive when he attempts to establish the truth of Buddhism by considering the circumstances in which feelings arise. He readily admits the value of feelings as basic guides to the way we run our lives. For example, feelings can express states of our physiology by letting us experience thirst and hunger and satiety and pain and well-being. He designates such feelings as “true” because their experience is congruent with the organism’s state of need or lack thereof. But when, in modern life, emotions such as fear and anger are incorrectly and unnecessarily engaged — for example, road rage — Wright calls the respective feelings “false” or “illusory.” Such feelings, however, are no less true than the thirst, hunger or pain that Wright accepts and welcomes. When we feel road rage, the feeling faithfully depicts the disturbed state of our physiology brought about by anger. That feeling is just as true as the feeling of pain after we suffer a wound. Practical inadequacy is the issue, not lack of truth.

More often than not, we gain from subjecting the recommendations of any feelings to the scrutiny of reason. With some exceptions — situations of panic being an example — emotions and the feelings they engender need to be judged by reason, in the light of knowledge, before we let them guide our behavior. Even “good” feelings such as empathy, compassion and gratitude benefit from distance and discernment.

We can agree that mindful meditation promotes a distancing effect and thus may increase our chances of combining affect and reason advantageously. Meditation can help us glean the especially flawed and dislocated status of humans in modern societies, and help us see how social and political conflicts appear to provoke resentment and anger so easily. Over and above the personal benefits of meditation one can imagine that populations engaged in such practices would expand their awareness of the inadequacy and futility of some of our affective responses. In turn, that would contribute to creating healthier and less conflicted societies, one person at a time.

But there are important questions to be raised here. How does one scale up, from many single individuals to populations, in time to prevent the social catastrophes that seem to be looming? I also wonder if, for some individuals, the successful practice of meditation and the actual reduction of the anxieties of daily life is not more likely to induce equanimity regarding social crises than the desire to resolve those crises with inventive cultural solutions. Individual therapy and the salvation of society are not incompatible, of course, but I suspect they can be easily uncoupled.

Wright correctly defends the view that the self as director of operations and decider of one’s actions is an illusion. I could not agree more. But there is an important distinction to be made between the idea of self as mastermind and chief executive officer, and the process of subjectivity. The self appears fragmented, in daily life and in meditative states, but subjectivity does not break down. It never disappears, or we simply would be unable to observe the fragmentation in the first place.

I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?

Antonio Damasio directs the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. He is the author of a number of books, including “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.”

The Paradoxes of Power–On Being Brutally Frank


June 7, 2017

The Paradoxes of Power–On Being Brutally Frank

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

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Having struggled against what Winston Churchill famously deplored as the ‘black dog’ of depression through most of my life, I’d kind of hoped to have it trained or even totally tamed by now.

But as I head into old age, I find it’s hounding me more relentlessly than ever. So relentlessly, in fact, as to threaten to rob me of the very weapon I’ve long relied on as my last-ditch defence against its deadly aggression, writing.

Thank goodness, however, the thought of being both mentally and verbally dumbstruck by depression paradoxically strikes me as just too depressingly disempowering for words.

Especially in light of my recent realisation in the course of university studies I’ve embarked on as an adjunct to writing in my counter-attack against terminal depression, that so much remains to be thought and written about power in its every manifestation from the multifarious and mostly still mysterious forces that drive and/or comprise the entire universe, to the combination of physical, mental and verbal powers that make us humans the most powerful of all currently-known animals.

Except, of course, for all those ‘lesser’ creatures with the power to either keep us alive, like the ‘good’ micro-organisms in our digestive systems do, or else, as in the cases of so many viruses and virtually countless other so called ‘germs’, to kill us off in great numbers.

In short, the human race is paradoxically both the most powerful living force on Earth, and powerless to exist without lots of apparently less-powerful animals, not to mention without continuing supplies of the planet’s vegetables, minerals,drinkable water and breathable air.

A situation that seems to me well within most people’s intellectual powers to appreciate and act on. But unfortunately the power of the human mind is paradoxical to such an extreme degree as to be little if anything short of pathological, as demonstrated by our numerous environmental, economic and political atrocities.

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Knowledge may well be power, as Francis Bacon declared, but the first false lesson that most of us learn, in our ignorant, impotent infancy, is that our very helplessness or total lack of power paradoxically makes us all-powerful in our demands on those around us.

And though life rudely disabuses us of this illusion by the time we’ve achieved the power to walk and talk, we’re so enraged by the realisation that we’re not, after all, all-powerful, that we throw tantrums characteristic of the stage commonly known as the ‘terrible twos’.

Next thing we know, the process called ‘education’ apparently imbuing us with the alleged power of knowledge, but at the same time disempowering us in our ability to distinguish mathematics-style fact from historical and other versions of opinion or outright fantasy like religion, all the while subjecting us to a regime of discipline designed to turn us into just-powerful- enough-to- be-useful citizens, or what French intellectual-academic Michel Foucault (1926-84) called ‘docile bodies’.

Docile bodies are, of course, precisely the kind of workers, consumers and subjects most desired by exploitative economic so-called elites and repressive, self-serving political regimes.

And thus, for those of us aspiring to sufficient power to live our lives to their full potential, it’s vital to be able to perceive the power dynamics of our society if we’re not to become passive victims of it.

For this reason I’m a great fan of Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), the renowned French sociologist, anthropologist and educationalist who investigated the possibility for people to grow outward and upward from their ‘habitus’ (environment of birth and upbringing) through the achievement of a share of not just economic, but also social, cultural and other forms of ‘capital’, a term he equated with power.

And even more helpful, at least to me, are the various forms or vectors of power that Proctor (2002), Cattaneo 2010) and others have identified as indicators of the dynamics of power in any given situation.

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In Malaysia, for example, it’s abundantly clear that the UMNO-BN regime perceives itself as having ‘power over’ rather than, as it piously pretends, ‘power with’ the people. In fact it plainly has ‘power for’ its own members, cronies and supporters.

And that it shamelessly employs its ‘historic power’ (which in UMNO-BN’s case includes the power to rewrite history in its favour), and not only its ‘role power’ (witness its obsession with grandiose titles and ‘honours’), but also its ‘religious power’.

Though frankly this last is a debatable blessing, as the persistent claims by current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his Deputy that they’ve been chosen by Allah could be interpreted as either chosen to lead the people or sent as a curse to mislead and bleed them.

But in any event, in their determination to cling to their ‘power over’ the people, they leave no stone unturned in their efforts to strictly limit Malaysians’ ‘freedom to’ oppose, criticize or achieve legal protection against or redress from them, and ‘freedom from’ repressive laws and constant surveillance.

All of which goes to explain that obviously one of the reasons I’m feeling more depressed than usual right now is that I’m still failing to help rid Malaysia of these crooks despite writing almost 500 columns over the past 11 years, or in other words doing everything within my power to do so.

And besides the disempowerment of disappointment, there’s also  the fact that advancing age is inevitably robbing me of muscle-power, staying-power and every other kind of power you can think of, except, I fondly if possibly mistakenly hope, brain-power.

Unlike the ancient Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who, though he still appears both mentally and physically hale and hearty, seems to have progressed, or rather regressed all the way through his second childhood back to his second bout of infancy, complete with its paradoxical illusion of omnipotence.

Meanwhile Mahathir’s and my relative junior, Najib, is still fighting hard to stave-off the ultimate power paradox proposed by G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), the so-called Master-Slave Dialectic.

In many peoples’ opinion, Najib turned from his own Master to Rosmah’s Slave long ago. And soon, if only the US Department of Justice would get its act together, we all look forward to his dialectic or even electoral transformation from high-flyer to felon.

The Torch Bearer of Compassion and Hope for The Struggling Malaysian


June 5, 2017

Comment: It is easy to forget what it is like to be on the way down into the dumps, especially when one is heading to, or already, reaching the top. Of course, staying  on and surviving the top of the totem pole is an even tougher one since it  involves political acrobatics in a Malaysian situation.

Arrogance gets in the way,  suddenly one feels that like Jesus Christ one can walk on the water and then gets hit by a point of inflexion when things begin to crumble and everything seems to go wrong. Your friends desert you and cheerleaders stop cheering. These are fair weather friends. Even politicians experience this sense of rejection when their political luck ditches them.

Two Fernandezs (Aegile (and her late sister) Irene are different because they lead simple lives, and are very much in touch with reality. They have witnessed human suffering, discrimination and humiliation and deprivation. Yet their dignity and integrity cannot be measured by money; their commitment to service is legendary and their sense of being compassionate Malaysian admirable. I do not know Aegile personally, but when it comes of Irene, I am privileged to know her by association with Anwar Ibrahim-lead PKR in 2007-2009. Irene was committed to her cause for justice and service to the unfortunate and the downtrodden. So in honoring Aegile, Annabelle Lee is remembering Irene who dared to be different by speaking the inconvenient truths.–Din Merican

The Torch Bearer of Compassion and Hope for The Struggling Malaysian

by Annabelle Lee

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Aegile Fernandez always wears the same thing.

On top of a black “Anti-human trafficking” T-shirt, she wears a blue denim shirt with a button badge with the words “I am not for sale” pinned to her left breast pocket.

People in shopping centres always ask her about that badge, and she uses these opportunities to explain what human trafficking is. The denim reminds her of her youth in the 1970s.

On both her slender wrists are stacks of colourful rubber bracelets with slogans like “Freedom”, “Stop Human Trafficking” and “Do Rescues”. A colourful scarf, “a symbol of Asian women”, completes her uniform.

“What I wear is part of my activism. It is my way of educating the public,” says Aegile, who is 68 this year.

She began doing social work as a 16-year-old, visiting the sick in the hospital in Sungai Petani, Kedah. She went on to work with prisoners, sex workers, drug addicts, HIV/AIDS patients, domestic abuse victims, refugees, human trafficking victims and abused children before becoming director at the migrant and workers’ rights NGO her late sister Irene founded – Tenaganita.

Sitting on the metal swing in the garden in the compound of Tenaganita’s headquarters in Petaling Jaya, Aegile shares about her 52 years in social service. This is her story in her own words:

MY PARENTS ALWAYS SAID put other people before yourself. We grew up in a rubber plantation in Sungai Petani, Kedah. My father was brought over by the British from Kerala, India as a migrant worker.

My mother, Margaret, always believed in equality and justice. She loved people. My mother had this thing where she would open the front gate at 6am, and women would drop by for a cup of Milo and biscuits before walking to work. Sometimes they would tell my mother their problems and she would advise them.

I remember even on weekends when I would sleep in, I would hear voices in the kitchen and wondered, “Why are these people in my house so early in the morning?”

We did not have much to offer, but my mother always made extra food because she said “somebody hungry might come by”.

She always reminded me, “remember you only need half of that plate of food. The other half must be given to someone who does not have food.”

She also taught me that my choice of work must not be to control somebody or to make lots of money. Rather it must be about serving other people’s needs.

I MOVED TO KUALA LUMPUR IN 1970 as a 21-year-old to work as a secretary in a big company, but after eight months I felt that it was not the job I wanted. There was something missing.

I thought about my mother’s words and decided to do the thing I love – working with people. That is when I decided to go into social work and activism. I started with organising workers.

IN ALL, I WORKED IN MORE THAN 22 JOBS. From being a waitress, a petrol pump attendant, a factory worker, to a door-to-door salesperson. You name it, I’ve done it. I deeply felt that if I was not there with the workers, I would not understand their issues and problems, or how to organise them.

I got kicked out so many times for trying to organise my co-workers. I would get kicked out from one hotel and go to work at another hotel, until I think it was at the sixth hotel when I found out I was blacklisted from all hotels in Kuala Lumpur.

When I moved on to the restaurant industry, I realised my co-workers in all these five-star restaurants were having money deducted from their salary every month for accidentally scratching or breaking wine glasses.

At the end of the month you would find them with no money left. I gave them RM5, RM10 so they would have something at least. By the end of the month, I would tell Irene “I have no money”. All my money went to sharing.

These experiences made me question arbitrary salary deductions and the low pay workers were getting. I began fighting for what workers should have been getting.

It also showed me how the Labour Department was just keeping quiet about all the broken rules. They only acted when someone walked into their office and complained. But all these workers are not going to come to you, I told them, because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

MY FRIEND CATHERINE AND I WERE PICKING UP ALL THESE BODIES AND BURYING PEOPLE of all races and religions while the authorities stood far away writing notes, telling us to wrap the bodies up in garbage bags. In the 1980s, no one wanted to help people on the streets who were drug dependent and had HIV/AIDS.

People used to ask me, “Are you not afraid of touching the bodies?” and I replied saying “I think God will bless us because we’re helping another human being, even though he or she is dead”. This was when people did not understand HIV/AIDS.

ON MY WAY TO WORK, I WOULD SEE ALL THESE YOUNG GIRLS WORKING AS SEX WORKERS along Petaling Street and wondered how could I help them.

So I went to sit in a coffee shop and got to know these girls when they came by the shop. I got to know about their life, their experiences and why are they were there. I became a friend and a sister to them.

With all the people I worked with, it was important for me to first sit down with them and be their friend. I wanted to understand all that surrounds them and why there were in those situations.

In the process I learned about the whole issue, like how drugs is not just about the person buying it but also about how they come into the country and how they get sold. I learned about these new worlds that few even knew existed.

THESE PEOPLE BECAME MY FAMILY. These people who were shunned by society were the first to offer to buy me food and take me to the hospital when I fell ill. It was much more than what my friends, who were busy with their lives, were willing to do.

WHEN IRENE ASKED ME to join Tenaganita in 1993, I was reluctant at first. In all my years of social work I never joined any organisations because I did not want to be limited by rules and regulations. But Irene had asked me to set up a migrant and human trafficking desk, and I had already been working with those communities since the 1980s.

“With all your experience, come open the desk and start this,” she told me. It was a continuation of the work I was already doing so I said I would give it a try.

THIS WAS A TIME WHEN NOBODY KNEW WHAT HUMAN TRAFFICKING WAS. I remember the police asking me once, “Why are you coming here and taking our jobs? Are you talking about traffic jams?”

This was a group of people, unseen by Malaysians, who were being brought here into the country and sold. Tenaganita became a platform, an umbrella in which to unite all my advocacy work especially when working with authorities.

In the 1990s was also when many women from rural areas were coming into the city to work in the free trade zones, in the electronic industry. Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers began coming into Malaysia. We had a lot of migrants coming in at this time and Tenaganita became a platform where these communities would seek help.

IRENE’S DEATH IN 2014 WAS SUCH A SHOCK. We always joked that I would be the one to go first. Running an organisation is not my cup of tea, I don’t like doing administrative work! My thing is to do be with communities. Like rescuing abused domestic workers.

We get people calling us saying their neighbour is abusing their domestic worker, asking us to come save her. Sometimes the community themselves helps to arrange for a way for the domestic worker to escape from the house.

Previously, we would never get such help because people did not want to get involved. People  are more aware now. More are talking about the rights of domestic workers have.I AM 68 THIS YEAR AND I WILL NOT STOP UNTIL I AM IN THE COFFIN or in the ground, I must say, because I don’t even know if I will have a coffin!

As long as I have a body that can work, I will continue. There is no such thing as retiring. There is still so much to do. So much to teach the young people to take over.


MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.

Stop Rampant Misogyny and take an honest look in the mirror


February 12, 2015

Message to Najib Razak and Hadi Awang and Malay Muslims-Stop Rampant Misogyny and take an honest look in the mirror

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by Nadia Jalil@www.themalaymailonline.com

“Misogyny, in combination with a repressive and perverse attitude towards sexuality, has contributed to Malays having the highest rates of incest, rape, and unwed pregnancies.”–Nadia Jalil

Malaysian Muslims should struggle against anything in Malaysian culture which does not protect dignity and equality of human being.” — Tariq Ramadan, Kuala Lumpur, January 2015

Looking at developments in the US, I think there are few Muslims who would be unmoved by the large-scale protests against the #MuslimBan there. I wonder, though, how many of us Malay Muslims who have felt touched and inspired by the sight of non-Muslims in a “non-Muslim country” defending Muslims against oppression, felt a twinge of guilt at the fact that we have been complicit in, if not active participants of, oppression in our own country.

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Barack Obama’s Moderate Muslim Najib Razak and Islamic Extremist Hadi Awang  with India’s disciple of Sayyid Qutb. They are exploiting  ISLAM for their political survival.

Quite apart from the “special position” of Islam in Malaysia, which has been used to exert a kind of dominion over members of other faiths—from the major, such as the illegal expropriation of Orang Asli lands in Kelantan and elsewhere, to regular microaggressions like calls to boycott businesses owned by non-Muslims—it has now become very obvious that we have a very sick society.

Malay culture has become one of judgment over mercy. We have abandoned the precepts of hikmah in da’wah and adab when we indulge in amar ma’ruf nahi munkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil). Indeed, more often than not, we relish in public undertakings of nahi munkar and barely enjoin good at all. Social media may not be a perfect yardstick, but given that Malaysians are one of the most active users of social media in the world, it’s a pretty reliable measure of social attitudes. Observe, for instance, the public shaming that occurs when a Malay Muslim is judged to have strayed from accepted mores, particularly in cases where women do not follow conventions in terms of dress.

This behaviour is tied to a development that goes unnoticed in our communities: rampant misogyny. Universities host “cover your aurat” week in which women who do not don the hijab are shamed and harassed, sometimes physically. While a lot of the conversations surrounding the return of a deported serial rapist have centred on safety concerns, another, more worrying, trend is Malay men indulging in victim-shaming—informing women that if they wish to be safe, they should police their dressing and their behaviour. At the extreme end some have wished that the serial rapist would rape women who do not police themselves. We have movies that turn rapists into heroes, and cases where rape survivors have been forced to marry their rapists, a ‘solution’ that is condoned by the community.

This misogyny seems to be founded on a culture of patriarchy that has been given an Islamist sheen. In official and unofficial sermons, women are constantly told that we must be subservient to men, that the one and only way to heaven is by serving the men in our lives, whether they are our husbands, our fathers or our brothers. Exposure to this male chauvinism starts from a young age: in mixed-gender schools, boys are encouraged to be leaders, girls their followers. By contrast, we don’t teach our boys that men, too, have duties and responsibilities to their wives, mothers, and sisters.

Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 3252 Narrated by Aisha ; Abdullah ibn Abbas Allah’s Messenger (saws) said, “The best of you is he who is best to his family, and I am the best among you to my family.” 

This attitude stands in stark contrast to the fact that Islam is a religion for which the last Messenger’s (pbuh) first wife was a successful businesswoman and his employer, while another is widely acknowledged as one of the major narrators of hadith, for whom it is said, “the implications of her actions for women’s participation in scholarship, political life, and the public sphere clashed with later conservative conceptions of the role of women”.[1] Indeed, Islam revolutionised the role of women in 7th century Arabia: where once women were thought of as nothing more than chattel and female infanticide common, Islam proclaimed that they were equal to men in God’s eyes.

Misogyny, in combination with a repressive and perverse attitude towards sexuality, has contributed to Malays having the highest rates of incest, rape, and unwed pregnancies. There has been no recognition that this is the direct result of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture that objectifies women, in addition to a refusal to educate children on sexual health and reproductive rights. Rather, proposed solutions again tend to focus on victim shaming and increasingly punitive measures.

We have now become a people who emphasise religiosity over spirituality, good deeds and good conduct; obsessed over the trivial and ritualistic. We are constantly preoccupied by perceived incursions into our ‘rights’ by non-Muslims, and this siege mentality permeates our interactions with them: a clearly non-Halal pork burger restaurant gives one of its dishes a traditionally Malay name, and we are up in arms, claiming it an insult to our religion.

Where, then, are similarly vociferous outcries in matters of grave injustice? We police outward shows of religiosity—what we eat and what we wear, and demand that our rights supersede those of others, always. As citizens of a multicultural country we ignore the rights of others and public interest (maslahah) in order to chase “religious points”. We stand quietly by as an Islamist State government destroys Temiar lands and punishes members of the tribe who are protecting their homes and trying to stop the environmental devastation that occurs through excessive logging.

We don’t question massive embezzlement of public funds, even when we know that those funds are used to finance people going for Haj and Umrah—which seems to me a very perverse way of “spiritual money laundering”. We allow for the fact that many of our mosques are not sanctuaries but places where the most vulnerable amongst us are turned away.

Our preoccupation with religiosity is aided and abetted by an institutionalised religious infrastructure that infantilises Muslims by claiming that only it can “defend the honour of our faith” and “protect Muslims from becoming confused”. We are constantly told that only the official way is religiously acceptable, even if some rulings rely on a narrow and highly literal interpretation of Scripture. Any form of questioning, however slight, or criticism, however valid, is automatically labelled deviant, and an attack on Islam. In addition, we have a moral police that has been known to harass suspects to the point of causing death—how is this following the precepts of ‘adab?

The fact that Islam in Malaysia is now represented by moral policing, religious bigotry and misogyny has contributed to resentment among non-Muslims, giving rise to Islamophobia. Many non-Muslims lauded Trump for his anti-Muslim views because they have been presented and oppressed by this narrow, intolerant and sometimes, absolutely distorted version of Islam their whole lives.

There are other challenges, but the final one I would like to put forth is the rise in violent extremism. According to IMAN Research, as at August 2016, 236 Malaysians have been arrested by the authorities for joining ISIS, including a 14-year-old girl.[2] This is not surprising, given the fetishising of violent jihad above all other types of jihad, not only in some Madrasahs, but in ‘mainstream’ environments as well. In addition to that, official efforts by the establishment to counter violent extremism contrasts jarringly with domestic bigotry that continuously otherises those in the minority.

I highly suspect that part of this behaviour is due to the heavily politicised nature of Islam in this country, where UMNO and PAS regularly try to “out-Islam” the other, and all other political parties have to play along with this narrative. Thus has our faith been hijacked by rank politics and conflated with the bigoted ideology of Malay supremacy.

Of course, it can be argued that these are generalisations, and “not all Muslims” subscribe to these behaviours and have these views. I emphasise again that these are norms, in the sense that we have become desensitised to them and, apart from the statements made by more temperate Muslim organisations and our own private protestations, they continue on, generally unremarked and tolerated, if not accepted.

I am not at all questioning the position of Islam as the official religion of this country. Instead, what I am calling for is the end of this distorted misrepresentation of our faith. As those who are privileged to be in the majority, we have a duty to end oppression committed in the name of Islam.

I fully realise that I am preaching to the choir in an amplified echo chamber. However, ours is a more dissonant than harmonised, whereas those promoting a narrow and intolerant Islam far removed from the vibrancy and openness of the Muslim civilisations which continue to be our inspirations—of the Abbasids, Umayyads and Cordoba—are concentrated and organised. We have let this go on for far too long. If you care for an Islam in Malaysia that is representative of our faith’s beauty, ideals of justice, and rahmah, I submit that we have to act now.

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Islam is also not conformity and compulsion, but reason and compassion

Firstly, we need to arm ourselves with knowledge. Of Islam, of other faiths, of socio-political and economic developments. Knowledge is, as always, power. If you choose to be devout, as Tariq Ramadhan, the Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, has exhorted, “(i)f you want to be good Muslims, instead of preventing people from believing, you become better believers. Don’t be scared of people who are not Muslim. Be scared, be afraid, be worried about our own lack of consistency.”[3] 

Secondly, we need to strengthen our own communities, and get organised. We need to overcome petty disagreements surrounding minute differences in opinion and support those organisations that are already working to promote a tolerant Islam that fights oppression. We need to form alliances, and yes, we need to go beyond the echo chamber.

Finally, we need to act against oppressions conducted in our name. Loudly speak out and strongly act against bigotry, fight for the vulnerable and marginalised, insist that our mosques are opened as sanctuaries, promote Islam as it truly is.

We need to get to work.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.


[1] ‘15 Most Important Muslim Women in History’, https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/15- important-muslim-women-in-history/ extracted on 10 February 2017.

[2] ‘The Allure of ISIS’, IMAN Research August 2016, https://issuu.com/theaffair/docs/newsletter- isis_1_aug2016 extracted on 10 February 2017.

[3] “Look in the mirror, Muslim don tells Malaysians critical of Western discrimination”, The Malay Mail Online, 1 February 2015, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/look-in-the-mirror-muslim-don-tells- malaysians-critical-of-western-discrimi#sthash.lwflqwTZ.dpuf