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“Difference in Islam is healthy”

Susan Carland smiling
Susan Carland

“IF you publish this, and I get kicked out of the country, I know who to thank,” says Susan Carland towards to the end of our interview. There is a reason for Australian Carland, who was recently in Malaysia, to be cautious. Speaking up as an outsider about Islam in Malaysia has its risks.

But it was not for nothing that Carland was named this year in 2009 as one of several Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow by the UN Alliance of Civilisations. In 2004, she also received the Australian Woman of the Year award.

Carland lectures at Monash University’s Melbourne campus on gender studies, politics and sociology. She is also the co-creator of comedy panel and sketch programme Salam Cafe, which airs on Australian national TV.

In mid-June, Carland visited Malaysia with the support of the Australian government to conduct talks and hold meetings with Malaysians. In a candid interview with The Nut Graph in Kuala Lumpur on 11 June 2009, Carland talks about being a Muslim woman, the hijjab and apostasy.

TNG: What is being a Muslim in Australia like, nowadays?

One of the good things that came out of 11 September was that Muslims were put in the spotlight. We could either have been cross about the whole situation, or take advantage of it. A lot of Muslims in Australia chose the latter. They used the tension of the time to their advantage, in terms of trying to change negative perceptions of Islam. Through media and through community work, for example.

There’s been eight years of engagement between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, now. A lot of the fear we had for each other has been allayed. I walk around in my hijjab, and it’s really not a big deal.

We have to ask: how have Malaysians been reacting to seeing you, a Caucasian woman, in a headscarf?

My husband and I first came here for our honeymoon. I had only been a Muslim for three years, by then. I became Muslim just before 11 September. So as soon as I converted, we were really in the spotlight — there was a lot of animosity. I thought: “When I come to KL, I’m finally going to belong, and no one’s going to look at me funny.”

When I came here, I found more people staring at me than they were back home. They were practically falling off their motorbikes.

During our honeymoon, we went to one of the main masjids to pray. When we got to the door, they let my husband in, but they looked at me and said: “No, no, only Islam.” I was seen as something of an anomaly, I suppose.

There has been less staring this time around, though.

At PAS’s 55th muktamar, some party delegates took the press to task because some women journalists didn’t cover their heads. This is just one example of the ongoing debate over whether women — not necessarily just Muslim women — should cover their heads. What’s with this fixation about headscarves?

The whole world, Muslims and non-Muslims, is obsessed with the headscarf. We cannot get past this one issue.


The hijjab is seen as the defining characteristic of the Muslim woman. I get really upset with the way men — and other women, too — try to control women by the way they dress. When you reduce a woman to a piece of material that is, or isn’t, on her head, it’s so belittling of the woman — and our religious tradition.

Look at how many times Allah talks about the way a woman should dress, in the Quran: two or three times. How many times does [Allah] talk about speaking the truth: many, many times more. In the broad scheme of things, there are so many things that are more important for a Muslim woman — or a Muslim man — than how he [or she] dresses.

I would really like to see a time when we can just get past the hijjab, and stop viewing women through that one-dimensional prism. If we could never have another discussion about the hijjab ever, I think that would be very fruitful.

The headscarf is only one out of a whole slew of issues that Muslim women face, today. What do you think is the main problem, when it comes to discussing Islam as it pertains to gender?

In Australia, a lot of people seem quite eager to speak on Muslim women’s behalf — but very rarely are Muslim women given the chance to speak, themselves.

The hijjab is politicised
(pic courtesy of Susan Carland)

You want to know about how we feel about wearing the hijjab, how about you ask us? Instead of talking to this imam, who says it’s a must; or that second-wave feminist, who sees it as absolute oppression. These, and everyone in between, are all talking about Muslim women: about what we want, and what we need, and how we feel.

Similarly with other women’s rights issues, like polygamy. Ask us about how we feel about it. Just let us speak for ourselves.

There are some really great Muslim women’s organisations that are doing some really positive, good things in Australia. But it can be a real uphill battle. They’re sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, like women everywhere, we experience sexism within the Muslim community. We try to deal with that, the way we see best. But the problem is that, if we speak out about it, it feels like we are betraying our community, and helping to exacerbate an already negative perception of Islam in Australia. So there’s a sort of double-blind — of sexism versus racism — that Australian Muslim women are constantly dealing with.

Sisters in Islam (SIS) recently came under fire from PAS, which declared that the Malaysian Muslim women’s group should be investigated and declared “haram” if it is found to be anti-Islam, saying that “SIS’s liberal views caused confusion and were a threat to Muslims’ faith”.


When I became Muslim, one of the things that appealed to me the most about Islam was its rich tradition of robust debate about what Islam actually was. There have been differences of opinion right from the time of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. His companions differed on what the Prophet meant, when he said certain things.

Right from the beginning we’ve had differences in opinion, and this was never seen as a bad thing — in fact, I think it’s healthy. Healthy debate about what the religion teaches is how the religion remains dynamic. And I think our scholarly tradition never had a problem with that.

What’s really un-Islamic, I think, is a lack of differences in opinion. I worry about the future of our religion, if we try to make everyone to fit into a certain mould. The reality is that none of us know the mind of God. We are all human beings, reading the Quran and Hadith, and reading them through our own prisms. I cannot say with certainty that my interpretation of the Quran is right, and yours is wrong.

I cannot know that. I think we need to be careful of placing ourselves as having the ultimate truth, because surely that would be syirik. Only God knows what the ultimate truth is.

PAS represents sections of Malaysian society that want to see Islamic precepts become law. What is your opinion on the idea of an Islamic state? Is it viable, or desirable?

The way that religious law was mandated at the time of the Prophet was from the inside out. By the time religious laws were implemented, people wanted to obey those laws for themselves.

My concern with what I see happening with Islamic states around the world today is that they seem to work from the outside in. We’ll beat you into doing this or that. We’ll make you cover your hair, and we’ll hit you if you don’t turn up for prayers.

But none of the internal work has been done. A number of people (in these countries) don’t have any desire to do this for themselves. But the whole point of all the religious laws we have is that they are meant to be ibadat to God.

If it is the state forcing you to obey, then there is no worship of God in that. That doesn’t sound like a healthy society, to me.

And it is often the vulnerable that seem to receive it the harshest: in a lot of the syariah states we see, the treatment of women is abhorrent, and the laws — some of them are completely horrendous. Like a woman punished for zina because she was raped — that’s a completely un-Islamic law, to me.

Maybe the way Islamic law is enacted in Malaysia could be awesome and perfect. I really hope that it would, and everyone would be happy, and it would be the ideal, utopian Islamic state…But, from what I see happening elsewhere, I don’t know.

A big part of considering Islamic law in a Malaysian context is its interaction with non-Muslim communities. While syariah laws ostensibly only pertain to Muslims, those outside the faith are already being affected. A case in point is the issue of conversion, in and out of Islam.

Apostasy has always been a very prickly issue for the Muslim community.


I guess the thing that reassures me is that there has been some very interesting scholarly debate on the topic. Some scholars like to think that this is an open and shut case: if you leave Islam, we should kill you. Other scholars think that this simply isn’t the case: if we look at the traditions of the Prophet, there were certainly times where people left Islam, and he said: “Just let them go.”

I have to say that I’m not a scholar. But the idea that keeping someone in a religion against their will is the ultimate good — that sits uneasily with me. It just seems to go against the whole purpose of Islam. If a Muslim is someone who submits to the will of God, and if someone genuinely believes in their heart, “I’m not Muslim, I don’t believe in this religion”, how can we keep them in the faith?

I have to be honest: I am an apostate, myself. I left the religion of my birth to convert to Islam. So, it feels hypocritical for me to then condemn the genuine faith journey of somebody else. How could I do that? Favicon

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11 Responses to ““Difference in Islam is healthy””

  1. Karcy says:

    The issue of dissension in Islam (or any religion) being healthy is ultimately pointless because the first thing a theocracy removes is room for dissension. When a group receives power through religious authority, then it only makes political sense for it to eliminate anything that would undermine its authority — in this case, religious dissension, especially religious dissension that is popular.

  2. Andrew says:

    While I do appreciate the effort taken to spell “hijab,” “hijjab” is not really an accurate transliteration. In the Arabic word, the “a” is a long vowel — so “hijaab” or “hijab” will suffice. The “j” is not doubled.

  3. I am so delighted reading this, the essence of it is just simply breathtaking.

  4. Main says:

    A view from a Muslim [a convert at that!] from almost half way round the globe. If a Malaysian talks like this, will anybody put their money in it or at least listen and ponder? My guess is, NONE and even if there are; it’ll be connected to certain groups, be it political or NGO. The point of the talk might never catch the thought.

  5. Azeem says:

    I hope everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, reads this.

  6. sanginoni says:

    She said :-

    “if we look at the traditions of the Prophet, there were certainly times where people left Islam, and He said: “Just let them go.”.

    – I really hope she can provide an evidence or source for the above statement.

  7. Nora says:

    Susan Carland said :-“if we look at the traditions of the Prophet, there were certainly times where people left Islam, and He said: “Just let them go.”.

    sanginoni said- I really hope she can provide an evidence or source for the above statement.

    I will provide you with the source of the above statement sanginoni :
    1. The Qur’an says, “Let there be no compulsion in the religion: Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path.” Al Baqarah, 2:256.

    “Those who believe, then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve, and then increase in their disbelief – Allah will never forgive them nor guide them to the path.” Surah An-Nisa’, 4:137. For example, the Qur’an says: “Let him who wishes to believe, do so; and let him who wishes to disbelieve, do so.” (Al-Kahf: 29)

    In another verse, Allah Almighty says: “Yours is only the duty to convey the message; you are not a guardian over them.” (Al-Ghashiyah: 21- 22)

    Then again in some other parts of the Qu’ran it reads :
    “if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them”(Qur’an 4:89)

    Narrated Ikrima:
    Ali burnt some people [hypocrites] and this news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ “(Bukhari 4.260)

    If you look at the statement, the Quran says both to kill and not to kill. Death is prescribed by sharia law. And for centuries the Muslims [for those for and against apostasy] have been using the Quran to justify their argument. The point is apostates are being hanged – you see it in Iran; you see it in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. Such gross act sof injustice to humanity in the name of freedom are being committed. Why?

    Yes! It’s a human mistake … all comes to the interpretation of the Quran. The same when they kill thousands of wise women and branded them as “witches” and burnt them at the stake. It took many centuries later for the Pope to admit they made a mistake and to say sorry – for what? Just imagine the innocent lives being killed because of human ignorance. The same will happen in the Muslim world, where injustice is done to the apostates and enlightened Muslims choose not to do anything about it.

  8. DrAhmadBayu says:

    …and He said: “Just let them go.” Hmmmmmm…

    Please go back to the history of apostasy.

    Apostasy only became a big issue after the death of Muhammad (pbuh) when several Arab tribes tried to return to their old religions/beliefs. I can’t remember hearing or reading any case of “leaving Islam” before The Prophet’s death (hypocrites are different from apostates). So, I dont know where Susan got the above so-called Prophet’s saying (hadith).

    Please refer to Bukhari or Muslim for genuine/sahih hadiths. I quote a few of them regarding this issue:

    Bukhari (84:57) – “[In the words of] Allah’s Apostle, ‘Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'”

    Bukhari (52:260) – “…The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ ”

    Forcing someone to embrace Islam AND embracing Islam voluntarily are two different things altogether.

    For [someone who is already a] Muslim, religion must be treated as a serious matter. Otherwise, why embrace Islam? Why become a doctor when you know you can’t commit to performing such heavy tasks as a doctor? Can anyone laugh at this?

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  9. Nadia says:

    I find this comment very interesting: “Why become a doctor when you know you can’t commit to performing such heavy tasks as a doctor?”

    Well, I personally know people who do not really want to become doctors, but are forced into the profession. Like this one friend of mine, who comes from a family of doctors and right after he was born, it was already decided that he would become one, too. And there are cases where people choose to join the medical profession because it seems so awesome, glamorous and easy (especially on TV), but later discover that it’s not any of that.

    My point is, unlike Muslims, these people will always have a choice, most importantly they don’t have to fear for their lives if they ever decide to quit and join Akademi Fantasia, for example.

    So please, stop using these analogies to support your arguments or patronise people. Issues like apostasy are not something that can easily be explained like it’s either black or white.

    Great interview, by the way.

  10. Nora says:

    DrAhmadBayu remarked: For [someone who is already a] Muslim, religion must be treated as a serious matter.”

    I do agree with you on this. It is a serious matter. All beliefs, whether religious or otherwise, are serious matters because they deal with the spiritual aspect. Spiritualism is something that is very deep. It’s more like the DNA of your personality. But again if you read genetics, our DNA changes all the time. We are not the same as we were 10 years ago. Our DNA samples will not be the same as our [ancestors]. Why? Because we are exposed to changes in the environment. As the environment that we live in changes, we too change accordingly as part and parcel of survival.

    Darwin explains it beautifully in his theory of natural selection. The same with spiritualism… it’s never constant. As you mature with age, your spiritual mode changes accordingly. But for some, somehow it didn’t because they choose not to. If you follow Darwin’s theory, species that do not change eventually become extinct.

    Like many young Muslim women, I take my religious upbringing seriously. I perform all the obligations as expected of me. Until one fatelful evening, as I sat in a mosque listening to the religous discourse (if you want to know, nobody sent me to these religious discourse. I went there personally because I want to be a good Muslim and because of my thirst for knowledge). But something stirred in me as I listened to the words of hatred being uttered against kafir and idol worshippers. It made me want to think again. I do not like the feelings these people are trying to invoke in me. I do not like the hatred and the violence. Do you know what I did? I walked out from the mosque and have never gone back there again. No regrets. I feel I’ve made the right move. I was only 25 then.

    Another fellow apostate asked: Such words are not supposed to appear as words of hatred because they are meant to mentally condition our mind. Why then do we [listen to these words]?

    When I read DrAhmadBayu’s remark, he reminded me of communist leaders. In communist countries before, citizens were not allowed to leave. Once you become a communist party member, you have to be in there for the rest of your life and must serve the party. If you leave, it’s a sign of betrayal. What were the punishments for betrayal? Labour camps and death sentence.

    The Berlin Wall that separated East and West German are filled with stories of how the border guards from East Germany were instructed to shoot on sight anybody trying to flee from the communist regime. Now look what happened to the wall?

    DrAhmadBayu’s other message with regards to the killing of apostates. He has now confirmed it all: The Quran is indeed a violent book……telling and encouraging the faithful to kill? But that is his interpretation.

    In another group, I [know] several young Muslim men from the UK denying such words [were] ever mentioned in the Quran. Ibrahim B Syed, PhD, president of the Islamic Research Foundation International, in one of his messages remarked: ”A number of Islamic scholars from past centuries, Ibrahim al-Naka’I, Sufyan al-Thawri, Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, Abul Walid al-Baji and Ibn Taymiyyah, have all held that apostasy is a serious sin, but not one that requires the death penalty. In modern times, Mahmud Shaltut, Sheikh of al-Azhar, and Dr Mohammed Sayed Tantawi have concurred. In conclusion, we must never confuse the issue of killing a murtad with the freedom of conscience guaranteed in the glorious Qur’an. For a detailed discussion, one should read (1) Dr Yusuf Al- Qaradawi’s book on this issue: Jareemat ar-riddah wal murtadd (The Crime of Apostasy and Apostate) – published by Ar-Risalah foundation. (2) Apostasy doesn’t carry death penalty in Islam (Book: Tabdili-e-Mazhab aur Islam) by Maulana Inayatullah Asad Subhani; published by Idara Ihya-e-Deen, Bilariya Ganj, Azamgarh (UP, India); page 108.”

    Now you understand why I chose to move away… because I do not want to be part of this violent culture. I do not need a book to tell me to be compassionate to another human being. We are given a brain to think rationally. Sad part is most often, people get stuck with the book and are not able to move ahead.

    DrAhmadBayu remarked: Why become a doctor when you know you can’t commit to performing such heavy tasks as a doctor?

    For someone like me… we have no choice. We are born a Muslim by default. Does that mean I must remain a Muslim for the rest of my life when I have no faith in the faith anymore. If I am born with a cleft palate or a physical defect, does that mean I must remain in that physical condition all my life? Is it wrong if I have a doctor who is able to correct this defect and make me a whole person again?

    It’s human nature that sometimes [we] make wrong choices…. experience is the most valuable learning process. A child will learn and retain better if they learn through experience. So if I realised that I have made a wrong choice, should I not be able to rectify it?

  11. blong says:

    What’s with the capital letter “He” for Muhammad? He’s not God, unlike Jesus in Christianity. Please do the necessary correction.

    [Editor’s note: Good point. Will make the change but let it also be pointed out that Jesus isn’t God to all religions or all peoples either. Historically, he was a man, so he, too, would only enjoy a lower case “h”.


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