Heretics and liberals: what Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets wrong

May 11, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Heretics and liberals: what Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets wrong

The question of the relationship between Islam and violence is on the table again. You might argue that it was never off. In recent years, public debate about this controversial issue, fed by Islamist brutalities and celebrity atheists, has become an almost monthly ritual.

A corollary to this discussion is the reluctance of Western liberals and leftists to take a firm stand against Islam, or Islamism, or Islamic terrorism (three frequently conflated terms) on the one hand; and for secularism (one often ill-defined term) on the other. A new round of this well-worn debate has begun with the publication of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

Ayaan HirisiAccording to extracts published by Huffington Post, the Somali-born ex-Muslim and campaigner for the rights of women and girls argues that the violence of organisations like ISIS cannot be “divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them.” “Instead,” she writes, “we must acknowledge that they are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contained in the hadith.”

Furthermore, Ali is exasperated by what she sees as the reluctance of some liberals and leftists to get behind her. She says that she is seen as a heretic, “not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such “insensitive” pronouncements.”

This is not a new argument. There are many who see Islam as an inherently flawed religion, prone to fanaticism and violence and in desperate need of an overhaul. In recent months the neo-atheist double-act of Sam Harris and Bill Maher have promoted the notion that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas,” and have called for liberals to recognise this fact.

A contributing editor at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood, has also argued that ISIS’s ideology is inseparable from Islam and that Obama must acknowledge this and start referring to ‘Islamic terrorism’. We can trace this argument further back to the 1990s when Samuel Huntington (who Ali admiringly quotes) coined the phrase the “clash of civilisations,” and claimed that “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Animating these arguments is a commitment to a strict form of philosophical idealism which presumes that historical phenomena are caused by ideas unmediated by any material factors. Adherents to this world view see violent actions being carried out in the name of religion and presume that it is the religion itself that is the root cause of the violence.

This has a certain intuitive logic to it. At first glance, the motivating factor of gunmen who murder cartoonists while claiming to be defending the honour of the Prophet Muhammad would appear to be Islam, pure and simple. But surface appearances frequently hide more complex realities. The relationship between ideology and action, or more specifically, religion and violence, is a complicated one and requires unpacking.

The key word here is interpretation. Religion is always an act of interpretation and this is always carried out within a particular context. Islam, like all religions, is not a clearly defined monolith that has existed unchanged since its birth. From the 7th to the 21st century and from Cairo to Jakarta, it has been interpreted, reinterpreted and practiced in a variety of different ways according to time and place.

There are, of course, core texts, principles and traditions. But how these are read and understood is shaped by the context within which the reader is operating. The Islam of a Saudi oil baron is very different to that of a British street cleaner of Pakistani descent which, in turn, differs radically from that of a member of China’s Uighur minority, even when they are all reading the same book.

This more nuanced approach to understanding the relationship between Islam and violence is rejected by Ali, Harris, Maher et al. Islam is, for them, a static set of beliefs that exists apart from the social context within which it is practiced. Ali is quite explicit on this point: “Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic, or political conditions—or even in theological error—but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself.” The problem is the religion—period.

This is not simply a philosophical issue. The rise of Islamist organisations over the last 40 years—from the ‘moderate’ neo-Islamists of Turkey’s AK Party to the extremist thugs of IS and Boko Haram—cannot be explained in terms of a homogenous ‘Islam’ that has been abstracted from all context.

Similarly, we cannot understand the prevalence of socially conservative attitudes to gender relations, LGBTQ people and religious minorities merely by quoting the “foundational texts of Islam.” These texts are read and interpreted within concrete historical conditions, so the ideologies that are cobbled together out of them can only be understood when placed in the very “social, economic, or political conditions” that Ali deems irrelevant.

Idealism—the strict focus on ideas at the expense of their material context—leads to bad politics. In an interview with Huffington Post, Ali defended Egyptian dictator Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, explaining that “he wants to engage intellectually and he also wants to engage with what it is about the religion that is wrong.” She has also been an advocate for the so-called “War on Terror” (or the “War on Islam” as she prefers to characterise it).

A more historical and materialist understanding of the relationship between religion and violence might have led Ali, and many others, to conclude that full-scale western interventions and support for “secular” dictators have been major contributing factors to the emergence of Islamism. More of the same would be counter-productive, not to mention immoral in its own right.

This is why many liberals and leftists are reluctant to support Ali and other so-called “critics of Islam.” It is not simply the case that they are too busy wringing their hands and worrying about offending Muslim sensibilities. It is about the inadequacies of the analysis.

Religion, like all ideologies, must be submitted to critique. Pious protestations about Islam being “a religion of peace” or defensive accusations of “Islamophobia” do nothing to further our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and violence. But for a critique to hold any water it must take into consideration the multiple factors that shape the interpretation and practice of religion. This is the all-important difference between a critique, and ideologically motivated criticism.

Democracy at work in the United Kingdom

May 11, 2015

 Phnom Penh by The Mekong

COMMENT:  Public duty? Yes, in the United Kingdom, the cradle of democracy. Why? Because politiciansDin Merican lastest there treat politics as a call to public service. Men and women  who enter politics are individuals with outstanding credentials and generally clean record of service to Britons. They are part of the system that is open, transparent and accountable. The 2015 British Elections is shining example of true democracy at work. It was conducted peacefully and there is no talk of rigging and cheating. Clean and fair elections  was the order of the day.

In Malaysia, politics in recent years has become an opportunity for politicians to further their self interest. We no longer have leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Siew Sin, Tun Sambanthan and Tun Hussein Onn, who gave their lives in the service of the country. Today, our politicians are thieves of state, to whom the idea of public duty and national service is not their ethos.

Tunku, Razak, IsmailWe started out as a democracy with a  strong constitution which treats all citizens as equals under the law, guarantees freedom of  assembly, expression and speech, freedom of religion,  and clear separation of power between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. The British left us with an outstanding civil service , an education system which was second to none, a judiciary system that we all can be proud of , and a dedicated Police Force. But the British were no angels. They also left with draconian laws like the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act.  But democratic politics was their legacy.

After nearly 58 years of UMNO-Barisan, our democratic system of governance has broken down and is in need of urgent reform. Over the last 6 years, we have seen our fundamental freedoms taken away from us. Our Parliament is a rubber stamp; our judiciary is compromised; our civil service is mediocre and incompetent led by a bunch of apple polishers;  our Police Force  which is headed by an Inspector General of Police treats us like enemies of state, not as taxpayers and citizens who should be protected from criminals; our fiscal management is in a total mess because we have a Finance Minister who regards our national coffers as if it were his own and mismanages our economy.  We  have rampant corruption and abuses of power.

As a result, we are far being a democracy as originally envisioned  by our founding fathers. In stead, we have become a nation divided by class, race and religion with a Prime Minister who answers to no one and who acts with impunity and in defiance of what you and I think of him and his Cabinet of incompetent, inept, mute and self serving Ministers. In short, we have become a racist and theocratic state led by men and women who no longer uphold the traditions of public duty–Din Merican

Democracy at work in the United Kingdom

by Mike Tan @www. the
The UK elections are over, and the Conservatives, under David Cameron, won an overwhelming 331 seats, its first such victory since 1992.
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, David Farage

While David Cameron takes his time to select his Cabinet, his rivals lost no time in taking responsibility for their parties’ poor showing in the elections. Three UK political party leaders – Ed Miliband of the Labour Party, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage of the UK Independent Party (picture above) – all resigned after their parties suffered big losses in the election.

All four men may have different political perspectives and ambitions, but they share one thing in common – the wisdom of knowing when to step down when their time is up. They neither hesitated nor shied from their final act of duty as leaders of a political party, announcing their resignations the day after the results were known.

They leave with the knowledge that their parties will continue with the political struggle, that there will be others who will take their place and helm the respective parties in the future. Their parties are full of ambitious and knowledgeable politicians, not mere sycophants and yes-men. This is why democracy is alive and well in UK.

Contrast that with MCA president Liow Tiong Lai, who recently announced that MCA will work hard to reform the party. “MCA needs to work harder in the future. We need to effectively show the party’s role as part of the government to gain more support from the Chinese community,” he said.

It is no secret that support for MCA is at an all-time low, with the once-mighty party now only having seven parliamentary seats and 11 state assemblymen. MCA had suffered consecutive defeats in the previous two general elections, and is close to becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the Malaysian public.

To be fair, MCA was helmed by Dr Chua Soi Lek at that time, who had declared that MCA should not accept any government posts following its worst electoral defeat ever. In doing so, Chua did something no Malaysian political leader had ever done before.

Perhaps Malaysian politicians feel they have earned the right to ministerial positions in other ways than a good showing in elections, unlike their counterparts in the UK.

Chua ultimately made way for Liow in December 2013.Liow quickly reversed Chua’s decision, taking the much-coveted Transport Minister’s post for himself. Chua’s son, Chua Tee Yong, became deputy finance minister as well. Yet MCA remains as it always has been – doing the same thing, or rather, not doing anything at all, if you listen to its critics.

Liow has yet to lead MCA as president into a general election, and thus he remains untested. His track record thus far, however, has not been good.Under his leadership, MCA avoided contesting the Bukit Gelugor by-election and lost the Kajang by-election, both held in 2014. In all honestly, MCA had little if no chance of winning, so it made the right move to avoid contesting against DAP, but had to put up a fight in Kajang, where it predictably lost.

Liow would argue that he and MCA have not been given a chance to prove themselves in a general election. He might even claim that his call for reform will be the first step to a drastic change in MCA and ultimately lead to Chinese voters supporting the party once again.

It’s true, Liow hasn’t proven himself yet. But rest assured, nothing will stop him from taking a ministerial position after the next general election, unless he is forced to step down, like his predecessor.

In UK, political party leaders lead their parties to victory before becoming ministers. In Malaysia, they become ministers before leading their party into elections, and even if their parties suffer humiliating defeats.

That is the difference between the democracy practised there and what goes on here in our country. And in a way, this somewhat explains why Malaysia will never ever be great like Great Britain. – The Ant Daily

Karen Armstrong: My Charter for Compassion

May 7, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Karen Armstrong: My Charter for Compassion

Well, this is such an honor. And it’s wonderful to be in the presence of an organization that is really making a difference in the world. And I’m intensely grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today.

And I’m also rather surprised, because when I look back on my life the last thing I ever wanted to do was write, or be in any way involved in religion. After I left my convent, I’d finished with religion, frankly. I thought that was it. And for 13 years I kept clear of it. I wanted to be an English literature professor. And I certainly didn’t even want to be a writer, particularly. But then I suffered a series of career catastrophes, one after the other, and finally found myself in television. (Laughter) I said that to Bill Moyers, and he said, “Oh, we take anybody.” (Laughter)

Karen ArmstrongAnd I was doing some rather controversial religious programs. This went down very well in the U.K., where religion is extremely unpopular. And so, for once, for the only time in my life, I was finally in the mainstream. But I got sent to Jerusalem to make a film about early Christianity. And there, for the first time, I encountered the other religious traditions: Judaism and Islam, the sister religions of Christianity. And while I found I knew nothing about these faiths at all — despite my own intensely religious background, I’d seen Judaism only as a kind of prelude to Christianity, and I knew nothing about Islam at all.

But in that city, that tortured city, where you see the three faiths jostling so uneasily together, you also become aware of the profound connection between them. And it has been the study of other religious traditions that brought me back to a sense of what religion can be, and actually enabled me to look at my own faith in a different light.

And I found some astonishing things in the course of my study that had never occurred to me. Frankly, in the days when I thought I’d had it with religion, I just found the whole thing absolutely incredible. These doctrines seemed unproven, abstract. And to my astonishment, when I began seriously studying other traditions, I began to realize that belief — which we make such a fuss about today — is only a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word “belief” itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus, for reasons that I’m exploring in a book I’m writing at the moment, to include — to mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, a credo. “I believe:” it did not mean, “I accept certain creedal articles of faith.” It meant: “I commit myself. I engage myself.” Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy. In the Quran, religious opinion — religious orthodoxy — is dismissed as “zanna:” self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian. (Laughter)

So if religion is not about believing things, what is it about? What I’ve found, across the board, is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something. You behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.

Now, pride of place in this practice is given to compassion. And it is an arresting fact that right across the board, in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion — the ability to feel with the other in the way we’ve been thinking about this evening — is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call “God” or the “Divine.” It is compassion, says the Buddha, which brings you to Nirvana. Why? Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we’re ready to see the Divine.

And in particular, every single one of the major world traditions has highlighted — has said — and put at the core of their tradition what’s become known as the Golden Rule. First propounded by Confucius five centuries before Christ: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” That, he said, was the central thread which ran through all his teaching and that his disciples should put into practice all day and every day. And it was — the Golden Rule would bring them to the transcendent value that he called “ren,” human-heartedness, which was a transcendent experience in itself.

And this is absolutely crucial to the monotheisms, too. There’s a famous story about the great rabbi, Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus. A pagan came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it.” (Laughter)

And “go and study it” was what he meant. He said, “In your exegesis, you must make it clear that every single verse of the Torah is a commentary, a gloss upon the Golden Rule.” The great Rabbi Meir said that any interpretation of Scripture which led to hatred and disdain, or contempt of other people — any people whatsoever — was illegitimate.

Saint Augustine made exactly the same point. Scripture, he says, “teaches nothing but charity, and we must not leave an interpretation of Scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.” And this struggle to find compassion in some of these rather rebarbative texts is a good dress rehearsal for doing the same in ordinary life. (Applause)

But now look at our world. And we are living in a world that is — where religion has been hijacked. Where terrorists cite Quranic verses to justify their atrocities. Where instead of taking Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies. Don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using Scripture as a way of arguing with other people, putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things.

So the traditions also insisted — and this is an important point, I think — that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group: your own nation, your own co-religionists, your own fellow countrymen. You must have what one of the Chinese sages called “jian ai”: concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. We formed you, says the Quran, into tribes and nations so that you may know one another.

And this, again — this universal outreach — is getting subdued in the strident use of religion — abuse of religion — for nefarious gains. Now, I’ve lost count of the number of taxi drivers who, when I say to them what I do for a living, inform me that religion has been the cause of all the major world wars in history. Wrong. The causes of our present woes are political.

But, make no mistake about it, religion is a kind of fault line, and when a conflict gets ingrained in a region, religion can get sucked in and become part of the problem. Our modernity has been exceedingly violent. Between 1914 and 1945, 70 million people died in Europe alone as a result of armed conflict. And so many of our institutions, even football, which used to be a pleasant pastime, now causes riots where people even die. And it’s not surprising that religion, too, has been affected by this violent ethos.

There’s also a great deal, I think, of religious illiteracy around. People seem to think, now equate religious faith with believing things. As though that — we call religious people often believers, as though that were the main thing that they do. And very often, secondary goals get pushed into the first place, in place of compassion and the Golden Rule. Because the Golden Rule is difficult. I sometimes — when I’m speaking to congregations about compassion, I sometimes see a mutinous expression crossing some of their faces because a lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate. (Laughter)

Now — but that’s not the whole story. Since September the 11th, when my work on Islam suddenly propelled me into public life, in a way that I’d never imagined, I’ve been able to sort of go all over the world, and finding, everywhere I go, a yearning for change. I’ve just come back from Pakistan, where literally thousands of people came to my lectures, because they were yearning, first of all, to hear a friendly Western voice. And especially the young people were coming. And were asking me — the young people were saying, “What can we do? What can we do to change things?” And my hosts in Pakistan said, “Look, don’t be too polite to us. Tell us where we’re going wrong. Let’s talk together about where religion is failing.”

Because it seems to me that with — our current situation is so serious at the moment that any ideology that doesn’t promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of the time. And religion, with its wide following … Here in the United States, people may be being religious in a different way, as a report has just shown — but they still want to be religious. It’s only Western Europe that has retained its secularism, which is now beginning to look rather endearingly old-fashioned.

But people want to be religious, and religion should be made to be a force for harmony in the world, which it can and should be — because of the Golden Rule. “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”: an ethos that should now be applied globally. We should not treat other nations as we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

And these — whatever our wretched beliefs — is a religious matter, it’s a spiritual matter. It’s a profound moral matter that engages and should engage us all. And as I say, there is a hunger for change out there. Here in the United States, I think you see it in this election campaign: a longing for change. And people in churches all over and mosques all over this continent after September the 11th, coming together locally to create networks of understanding. With the mosque, with the synagogue, saying, “We must start to speak to one another.” I think it’s time that we moved beyond the idea of toleration and move toward appreciation of the other.

I’d — there’s one story I’d just like to mention. This comes from “The Iliad.” But it tells you what this spirituality should be. You know the story of “The Iliad,” the 10-year war between Greece and Troy. In one incident, Achilles, the famous warrior of Greece, takes his troops out of the war, and the whole war effort suffers. And in the course of the ensuing muddle, his beloved friend, Patroclus, is killed — and killed in single combat by one of the Trojan princes, Hector. And Achilles goes mad with grief and rage and revenge, and he mutilates the body. He kills Hector, he mutilates his body and then he refuses to give the body back for burial to the family, which means that, in Greek ethos, Hector’s soul will wander eternally, lost. And then one night, Priam, king of Troy, an old man, comes into the Greek camp incognito, makes his way to Achilles’ tent to ask for the body of his son. And everybody is shocked when the old man takes off his head covering and shows himself. And Achilles looks at him and thinks of his father. And he starts to weep. And Priam looks at the man who has murdered so many of his sons, and he, too, starts to weep. And the sound of their weeping filled the house. The Greeks believed that weeping together created a bond between people. And then Achilles takes the body of Hector, he hands it very tenderly to the father, and the two men look at each other, and see each other as divine.

That is the ethos found, too, in all the religions. It’s what is meant by overcoming the horror that we feel when we are under threat of our enemies, and beginning to appreciate the other. It’s of great importance that the word for “holy” in Hebrew, applied to God, is “Kadosh”: separate, other. And it is often, perhaps, the very otherness of our enemies which can give us intimations of that utterly mysterious transcendence which is God.

And now, here’s my wish: I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule. We need to create a movement among all these people that I meet in my travels — you probably meet, too — who want to join up, in some way, and reclaim their faith, which they feel, as I say, has been hijacked. We need to empower people to remember the compassionate ethos, and to give guidelines. This Charter would not be a massive document. I’d like to see it — to give guidelines as to how to interpret the Scriptures, these texts that are being abused. Remember what the rabbis and what Augustine said about how Scripture should be governed by the principle of charity. Let’s get back to that. And the idea, too, of Jews, Christians and Muslims — these traditions now so often at loggerheads — working together to create a document which we hope will be signed by a thousand, at least, of major religious leaders from all the traditions of the world.

And you are the people. I’m just a solitary scholar. Despite the idea that I love a good time, which I was rather amazed to see coming up on me — I actually spend a great deal of time alone, studying, and I’m not very — you’re the people with media knowledge to explain to me how we can get this to everybody, everybody on the planet. I’ve had some preliminary talks, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, is very happy to give his name to this, as is Imam Feisal Rauf, the Imam in New York City. Also, I would be working with the Alliance of Civilizations at the United Nations. I was part of that United Nations initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations, which was asked by Kofi Annan to diagnose the causes of extremism, and to give practical guidelines to member states about how to avoid the escalation of further extremism.

And the Alliance has told me that they are very happy to work with it. The importance of this is that this is — I can see some of you starting to look worried, because you think it’s a slow and cumbersome body — but what the United Nations can do is give us some neutrality, so that this isn’t seen as a Western or a Christian initiative, but that it’s coming, as it were, from the United Nations, from the world — who would help with the sort of bureaucracy of this.

And so I do urge you to join me in making — in this charter — to building this charter, launching it and propagating it so that it becomes — I’d like to see it in every college, every church, every mosque, every synagogue in the world, so that people can look at their tradition, reclaim it, and make religion a source of peace in the world, which it can and should be. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Whose Islam, really? Which Islam?

May 3, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong


Kamsiah and Din 2015 CNYThe message from Zainah Anwar to our Muslim leaders and politicians, religious functionaries and teachers (Ulamas) is clear: Don’t be bigots and advocates of gender bias.

Men and women are equal partners in the journey of life. God intended it to be that way. That is my view and, I believe, that is the view of all confident and enlightened Muslim men.

Male centric interpretation of the injunctions of the Holy Quran and the Hadith is no longer relevant in a globalised world, where women are as good as, and in some instances better than their male counterparts. At the end of the day, I think, we men must recognise that both the father and mother rock the cradle today and together they will rule the world.

When I was a baby my late mother rocked my cradle, but she did not rule my world. Why? Because it was the tradition then (76 years ago) that the male specie is dominant. So my mother let me rule my world, although she had a major role in shaping my humanist worldview.

In the 21st century, the women are better educated; they have shown that they can be Presidents ( Dilma Rousseff) , Chancellors (Angela Merkal), Prime Ministers ( Benazir Bhutto, Maggie Thatcher, Julia Gilliard), Cabinet Ministers (Rafidah Aziz), CEOs and Board Directors, Top Civil Servants and Civil Society activists ( Zainah Anwar, Dato Ambiga).

The times have changed and we must change too. Our religious functionaries, ulamas and Muslim politicians must wake up to a new world.–Din Merican

Whose Islam, really? Which Islam?

by Zainah

It is possible to be Muslim and feminist, to be Muslim and a human rights activist, to be Muslim and a democrat, to be Muslim and questioning, challenging, and heck, to be Muslim and lead a joyful life.

Zainah AnwarTHERE are many verses in the Quran that speak about love and compassion, about men and women being each other’s friend and protector, about men and women being as close as each other’s garment.

These are wonderful Quranic values to guide the marital relationship between women and men. If we choose to lead our lives by these values, there is no place to treat one’s wife as if she is nothing more than a sex machine, duty bound to satisfy a man’s lust on demand.

And yet, we have many men of religion and men in politics who shamelessly pronounce the idea of taking your wife by force is Islamic. And, therefore, there is no such thing as marital rape in Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad married a woman 15 years older than him and stayed monogamous throughout his first marriage to his beloved Khadija. And yet, so many men choose to value his marriage to a young Aishah and other women after the death of Khadija as the model marriage to follow to justify child marriage and polygamy.

Why should such choices that cause harm to women and children in today’s world be used to represent marriage in Islam? And not only that, even imposed on the rest of the Muslim community to be the definition of what being a good Muslim means?

Why not make the Prophet’s marriage to Khadija as the model Muslim marriage? Why should those Muslims who promote monogamy and demand the minimum age of marriage be set at 18 for girls be accused of going against the teachings of Islam?

Whose Islam, really? Which Islam?

This is where values, ethics and principles come in. For there are many interpretations, juristic opinions, concepts and tools that exist in the Muslim legal tradition that Muslims can use to guide them to the right answers to do no harm to others, to serve the best interest of the community and society as a whole.

When men who live in cloud cuckoo land utter pronouncements on a husband’s right over his wife’s body, on a man’s right to marry a 10-year-old girl, on how loud a Muslim can laugh, then they should be willing for their supposed authority to be questioned and ridiculed.

In today’s age of boundless information and borderless communication, many voices are speaking out to challenge the dominant conservative and misogynistic voices that use and abuse the authority of God’s words for authoritarian purposes.

It is heartening to see in this current debate on marital rape that there are other men of religion and civil society groups that are speaking out, challenging the misogyny that is so out of step with today’s realities.

I am increasingly meeting many young men and women who were once Islamists and who today have changed their views, now embracing human rights, women’s rights, democracy and believing in diversity of opinions in Islam. Many are energised by their new knowledge and feel the many unanswered questions from their teenage years that they were too scared to ask are finally being answered. I meet young women who feel enlightened and empowered to speak out as they cannot continue to believe in the traditional misogynistic teachings that make no sense to the realities of their lives and what they feel in their hearts.

While those in authority seem to fear that this questioning and thirst for new knowledge would lead Muslims astray, the contrary is true. To lead a life with your faith, your heart and your reality all in sync actually strengthen your belief. To realise that your sense of justice and fairness is actually upheld by the teachings of your faith and the possibilities for change exist within your tradition is to feel like a huge dark cloud has been lifted from your muddled mind, so they tell me.

It is possible to be Muslim and feminist, to be Muslim and a human rights activist, to be Muslim and a democrat, to be Muslim and questioning, challenging, and heck, to be Muslim and lead a joyful life.

And what is bad about that?

Change is always difficult, unsettling and threatening to the comfort zones we have lived in for decades. But if there is anything that is consistent about this world, it is change.

Those in authority, be it in politics or in religion, who continue to think they know best, need all the courage and honesty they can summon to acknowledge that the experience and assumptions that had shaped their certainties are not and will not be what will shape the 21st century.

To continue to trot out pronouncements on chopping off hands and feet, stoning people to death, child marriage, having sex on the back of a camel, without engaging with the realities of changing times and values, can do nothing but more harm to the ummah and the religion they proclaim to defend.

While it might be convenient to rally the troops by pronouncing then that Islam or the Malays are under threat, they must know that this cannot possibly be the right answer to the challenges to their authority and dominance, let alone to solving the real problems on the ground that is keeping their community behind.

Our ability to live together and celebrate the enriching diversity in our midst, to make the right choices that would benefit the best interest of our society, to be kind and compassionate, to encourage continuous learning and doing that would improve the lives of everyone, to adapt and adjust in ethical and moral ways to the changes before us – is what God would want us all to focus on in this world.

seriously doubt if life’s priority in the 21st century is about having sex on a camel – should your husband demand it.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own

Religious diktats?

April 28, 2015

Religious diktats?

by Dr. KJ

I am one of the G40; and no apologies either. I signed to communicate to the nation that the Eminent 25 speak for all moderate Malaysians. What then is this creeping backdoor Islamization which we all warn against? Who are these ‘idiocratic religious zealots’ who force us to “live by the rule of religious diktats, where decrees of religious bureaucrats have legal and punitive effect?”

The above words, for me, encapsulate how very accurately but increasingly insidiously, and through the backdoor, profligates the spread of ‘so-called’ Islamic values which are not really common to the public spaces of our secular society. What do I mean?

One ordinary case story

When my oldest son was in Year Six; he was made a prefect and so Mum bought him three new pairs of blue shorts and white shirts for uniform for the new school year.  Of course he was growing taller, too.

But, one day he came back from school rather upset and told his mother that he has been told by his class teacher that he was not permitted to wear shorts any more.  He had to get long pants for school and to do his duties as a prefect.

Shocked at this new rule, I went into the school next morning to find out the logic of its appearance. The principal was not in and I met the deputy, a Chinese gentleman who wore a cowboy hat. He explained to me that they had a new ustaz in school and it was his ‘new ruling.’

I insisted that the deputy open a new complaints book and in it I wrote that my son would not be wearing any long pants for the whole year, as my wife had already bought the shorts for the current year! And let us not even try and guess who the education minister was then.

Limits of jurisdiction

Our G40 statement states: “As a rainbow nation of many peoples’ with diverse religions, we charted our destiny upon a civil and non-religious national legal order resting firmly on the twin principles of the supremacy of the constitution and rule of law.”

My question to the rising but unconstitutional squad of religious bureaucrats is – do they even understand the above statement of fact as a historical truth about life intended for the new Malaysia? If you they do not, then they do not understand the limits of their jurisdiction.

Pewaris That is why I call them, ‘idiocrats;’ which means idiotic bureaucrats who do not know the rule of law and instead live by their ‘own rule by law’. Of course, it Is their understanding and interpretation of their own rules; and, not the country’s laws or even their sacred books.

My teacher of Islamic Values for Life, Dr SH Nasr, used to say: A veil reveals as much as it hides. Generalising that principle, my problem with these religious bureaucrats is that they do not know the limits of their jurisdiction, and therefore they lose their integrity in the missteps of their over-zealousness.

In Malaysia, Islamic religion is a state and not a federal matter. That means, for example, as is the case in Sabah and Sarawak, the federal system cannot insist that Islamic religion be made compulsory religion in their school system.

Even though education is currently a federal matter, such does not give federal authorities jurisdiction of the substance and practice of Islamic religion in Sabah and Sarawak. This was explicitly their concerns stated in their 18 and 20 point demands.

In my mind and heart, the same also goes to the now so-called ‘Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) bureaucrats,’ as they are running wild with the views and their values about public spaces, and how every other Malaysian can conduct themselves in public. Excuse me, but you are out of your jurisdiction. “Tolong jangan jaga tepi kain orang lain.”

One Sunday Mail headline recently roared: ‘Uproar over Jakim’s Concert Rules’. Now, mine is therefore an even stronger legal and constitutional response to that same loud protest.

First, some foundational questions. Under what legal jurisdiction is JAKIM created as a department of the federal government? In my understanding, religion in Malaysia, is a state matter and comes directly under the jurisdiction of the sultans and the state religious authorities. Moreover, its jurisdiction only covers Muslim personal and family matters and theological issues.

So, can I know why and under what legal authority can JAKIM exist as a formal federal authority, and secondarily how can they dictate rules for good conduct and behaviour in the Malaysian federal public spaces; over which they have zero jurisdiction?

Malaysian public spaces are common federal spaces for all Malaysians to mix and mingle deploying common universal public values. To safeguard these modes of conduct, some guidelines are given and these are willingly and voluntarily adhered to within our civil spaces of moral life.

Can these now be “enforced by law, unless they are criminal in nature?” Can Islamic religious state enactments be criminal in nature? Can they therefore become criminal law only by the abdication of such spaces by the Article 121 (1A) amendments? If not, how else?

My constitutional and human rights

I have a God-ordained human right to live a life of dignity in this world and prepare myself therein for the hereafter. No human can deny me, or any other human, that right. Consequentially, I also have some other legally secured human rights of conscience, ethnicity, religious belief and citizenship.

In our families, we secure and apply all these human rights within the privacy of our homes. The more relevant question is what can we do when these rights are not followed by me and my family in our public spaces? For example, in our family home we do not drink liquor. Does that stop me from drinking outside the home as well? Therefore, if I still do not drink outside the home, is it not a personal value system, and as not one merely dictated by either my family or my religion?

Now, how can I go to the common spaces, for example in my Old Boy Association Building; which we all helped establish, and then dictate that only ginger beer and root beer be served? Is that not my denial of the right of others to choose any other brand of beer, whether I drink it or not? Is that not what true religion is about; not one dictated by outsiders?

True religion is one which is adhered to in one’s heart by the willing and voluntary compliance which comes from the desires of one’s heart and not by fears about the external environment and their religious diktats. May God Bless Malaysia with true religion.

KJ JOHN was in public service for 29 years. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of any institution he is involved with. Write to him at with any feedback or views.

‘Ignorance of world history breeds extremism’, says G-25 Member

April 25, 2015

‘Ignorance of world history breeds extremism’, says G-25 Member

by Koh Jun

Tan Sri M SheriffMalaysia needs to counter religious extremism with better history education, said former Treasury Secretary-General Tan Sri Sheriff Mohd Kassim.

He said while many youths have been indoctrinated to believe that divine law and an Islamic caliphate would be better for Malaysia than a secular system, history has proven this to be wrong. However, he said he has heard numerous complaints that history textbooks are overly nationalistic and Islamic, and this exaggerates the focus on small events at the expense of larger changes that had shaped the world.

Sheriff stressed there is nothing wrong in highlighting the contributions that Christians and Jews had made to the world, and that these contributions are not brought forth through superior intellect, but superior institutions that allow inventors and thinkers the freedom to innovate.

“If the young are taught the true history of the world, they would think twice before rejecting parliamentary rule and democracy as an old relic of the European people. They will begin to understand that with democracy and the power of the people, nations can improve themselves better than in the caliphates and theocracies,” he said.

He therefore urged educators to seriously reconsider the contents of the country’s history textbooks.

Stagnant when religious orthodoxy ruled

Sheriff pointed out that when religious orthodoxy dominated Europe some 600 years ago, Christian countries were socially, culturally, and economically stagnant until the Reformation movement and the Renaissance, which relegated religion to a lesser role in state affairs.

In addition, monarchs of the period had to rule with the Parliament’s approval instead of ruling by divine right, he said at a forum ‘Upholding the Principles of the Federal Constitution’ today.

The talk was organised by the group Peace, Conscience and Reason (Pcore) and was held at the Royal Selangor Club this morning. Sheriff is a member of the group of retired senior civil servants, also referred to as G25, who wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for respect for the Federal Constitution, and raised their concern for creeping Islamisation and desecularisation amidst an  increasingly polarised society.

He said democracies are able to withstand the test of time because they have the flexibility to carry out reforms to improve the system, and leaders incapable of ensuring the security and welfare would be replaced.

“This transformation of Europe from religious feudalism to parliamentary rule was what made the Christian world progress much faster than the Muslim world in all areas of human endeavour. With their superiority in the arts and sciences, they ruled the seas and became superpowers conquering half the world and throwing out the Ottoman Empire from their colonies in the Arab lands and in Eastern Europe,” Sheriff said.