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Islamic vs liberal values

“MALAYSIAN society is faced with a collision of values,” says new Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) president Muhamad Razak Idris. “There are two elements in this conflict. First, the rise of commitment to living according to Islamic religious values. Second, the increasing influence of liberal ideas, due to globalisation.”

Razak, a lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)’s Islamic Studies faculty, believes that Abim’s role in Malaysia today is to be a mediator between these two sides. “We hope to begin a process of reconciliation between these two values,” he explains.

Abim was founded in UKM in 1971. Out of its ranks have come numerous Malaysian leaders, most famous of which is Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. While it isn’t the only significant Muslim organisation today — Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM) springs to mind — Abim is still in a position to affect the nation’s direction.

Before the 28 Aug 2009 cow-head protest by a group of Muslim men in Shah Alam, The Nut Graph sat down with Razak on 19 Aug to find out Abim’s stand on the bigger issues of Islam in a multi-cultural Malaysia. Razak also talks about why he’s in Abim and what he means by “moderate Islam”.

TNG: You have been involved with Islamic youth organisations for a while now; first, with Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM) when you were in university, and now with Abim. Why do you feel called to participate in Muslim and youth-oriented organisations?

Razak: I think that the place of Muslim youth in our nation is very important. Muslim youth are the majority in Malaysia. Today, this group is not only represented by Malay [Malaysians]. It also encompasses youth from Chinese and Indian [Malaysians], [and] the bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as the Orang Asli. That is the result of a long process of Islamic proselytising.

So [Muslim youths] are very influential. They are a pillar on which Malaysia’s future direction rests. They are our future leaders. If we can instil strength in this group, they will be able to contribute to society.

This is one of the factors why I’m so active. And Abim is the most suitable avenue for me, personally, to participate [in].

You are Abim’s new president. What role do you think it should play within Malaysia? What form of Islam would Abim represent?

Look at the history of Abim. It was founded on the effort to renew national systems in the framework of holistic Islam. We are moderates. Our roots are in the Al-Quran and Al-Sunnah, and our faith based on objective scholarship.

Abim believes that an understanding of Islam is capable of providing solutions to all aspects of life: society, the economy, politics. We don’t see Islam as a personal thing: going to the mosque, and back. For Abim, a complete Muslim is someone who is active not only in the religious rituals, but also in improving society.

Islam is inclusive. Faith is one thing — but Islamic values, which are universal values, can be shared by everyone, including non-Muslims. Just take, for example, Islamic finance. Its benefits are not limited to Muslims.

A big concern, when it comes to values, is how these values get enforced. What are your thoughts on moral policing? Is it justifiable for the state to force its citizens to share [the same] moral standards?

The issue of moral policing must be seen holistically. It is an example of the clash between Islamic values and liberal values.

In a secular society, morals are individual; how you behave is part of your human rights, and so on. This attitude is growing today. But, for Islam, moral aspects are not only individual. They are also society’s responsibility. Priority is given to “maslahah masyarakat” — social harmony. If there are any elements that can disturb this harmony, it is the responsibility of a society’s authorities to correct it.

This is because, while an individual has personal rights, when you participate in society, you are part of society — and you must follow the rules and regulations of that society.

Take unrestricted mixing between the sexes, to the point that they contravene social norms — like kissing in public, or consuming alcohol. The public cannot accept such acts that go against their values.

So far, we are talking about actions in the public sphere. What about things like drinking or intimacy in private?

If it is in a private place, then this is one’s personal right. However, even if that is the case, this doesn’t mean we encourage such acts. Muslims should try to live by Islamic teaching, and Muslims in this country are bound by Islamic law that governs their behaviour.

So you would agree with empowering religious authorities to carry out raids into private spaces?

There are provisions in the religion that allow for preventive measures to be taken. Moral policing should be seen as a form of prevention.

The collision between Islam and other faiths in Malaysia is undeniable. This is best exemplified in the unilateral conversion of minors, as was seen in the Indira Gandhi case. What is Abim’s stand on the issue?

Conversion is a legal matter that is quite convoluted. This problem has arisen because we inherited a legal system from colonial times. A way out has to be found.

As far as Abim is concerned, we are prepared to support any solution that is able to provide justice to all parties involved. That is the most important Islamic principle we need to fulfil.

You mention the legal aspects of Islam in Malaysia. We currently have two sets of laws: syariah law, under which Malaysian Muslims are bound, and civil law, which governs all Malaysians. Is this ideal?

It is time for one system of law. The source for this system should be syariah law, while still retaining the principles of civil law that do not conflict with syariah. The time has come, and there are signs that the process of harmonising the two has begun.

I want to emphasise that Abim believes that syariah law is inclusive, and capable of delivering justice to everyone, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

What are your plans for Abim, moving forward?

We will continue our efforts in educating and training youths in moderate Islam. We will also involve ourselves in efforts to reinforce fair democratic systems, and step up our political programmes to do this. One of our focuses is the development of Muslim women, to become a force to be reckoned with.

Most important is that we address the problems and social ills affecting youth at all levels. Drugs, crises of identity, a lack of direction in life. All these put them at risk.

Abim needs to provide them with alternatives. We want to focus on Muslim youth development, so that they can be citizens who are able to contribute to the country. 

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15 Responses to “Islamic vs liberal values”

  1. Arion Yeow says:

    He claims to be moderate, yet he insists on forcing Muslim values on non-Muslims. He also does not give straight answers to most of the questions.

  2. Vikraman says:

    A liberal society can contain Islamic elements, because everyone is free to do as they please, a key facet of a liberal society. However, an Islamic society cannot by definition have liberal elements because it engages in the removal of freedoms and liberties because it is guided by non-amendable laws that essentially block freedom in pursuit of “societal good”.

    It is for you to choose though, do you want a society that is inclusive? Or a society that is exclusive by definition if not in practice?

    Chin Huat’s Walls ( article comes to mind here.

  3. Reza says:

    I would really be interested to know what Abim’s stand is on apostasy, although from the tone of the interview, I can pretty much guess. If they are truly “moderate”, they should respect TOTAL freedom of religion, which includes the individual rights of Malay [Malaysians]/Muslims to leave Islam.

    I do not really condone moral policing but if the authorities must police then fine, as long as Muslims are allowed to apostate. They should only police those who truly want to be Muslims. Islam, and therefore moral policing, should not be forced on people just because they were born into a Malay [Malaysian] or Muslim family. Why should anyone be beholden to the religion of their parents or [ancestors]? The rights of the individual to choose their own spiritual path must be protected in ANY society. Unfortunately, Islam has had a pretty bad track record when it comes to respecting individual rights.

    I don’t see why syariah law needs to be the main legal framework. What’s wrong with the current civil law? What are Razak’s arguments as to why civil law is insufficient when compared to syariah? Anyone who advocates syariah law as the law of the land in a multicultural society cannot seriously be called a “moderate” Muslim.

  4. Karcy says:

    I like this interview. I’m glad that you’ve given space to let people air their views, whether the majority of your readers feel comfortable with it or not, and I think that the Abim president is quite welcoming in wanting to speak to an online news [site] known for [its] highly liberal readership.

    That said, he is at least in error if he says that Islamisation is not an equal product of globalisation as secularisation. The nature of Islam as it is in Malaysia today is not the same with the nature of Islam as it was practised 100 years ago. There has been an increasing movement towards conservatism, and this is partly due to the increase of scholarship rooted in the more conservative schools of thought of Islam in our local universities and religious institutions.

    There is a tendency for people to try to appeal to the conservative inclinations of Malaysian society by placing a false dichotomy of Islam being synonymous with “homegrown” Asian values and secularisation as a “foreign” concept. This is inaccurate. Both are foreign concepts; secularisation comes from Western humanism, and the kind of conservative Islam we have today is in part due to missionaries from Pakistan.

  5. leo says:

    This is moderate? Then I don’t want to see what extreme is.

  6. Ida Bakar says:

    ….I want to emphasise that Abim believes that syariah law is inclusive, and capable of delivering justice to everyone, whether Muslim or non-Muslim….

    Well, the syariah courts made a hash job of delivering justice so far – Kartika, Lina Joy, Indira etc (why are they all women?!).

    At the same time, they failed to utter a word against the mob kicking the cow’s head.

    Syariah justice Malaysian style, not tempting.

  7. 3am rant says:

    Give him a break, people. He’s trying to be moderate in the best way he knows. So long as our Abim president here wears a collar shirt and a nifty looking watch, Islamisation can’t go very far. It’s the hardcore ones who wear beards, traditional gear, and speak fluent Arabic that we have to worry about. For the extremist, the very thought of a tie repulses them. To them, your life is not worth bananas since you are bound for hell (only place where no membership required).

    Our friend here (though misguided) is trying to strike a balance. That can’t be said for the royalties and politicians who love their Italian suites and drive the European luxury cars sponsored by their corporate backers. If these leaders can’t drop such stuff, our colonial laws are not going to go just either. The modern economy is driven by liberalisation. Conservative cultures don’t need megamalls, F1 race courses, or Air Asia since it’s the afterlife that counts most.

    If you are still worried that we are going to be another Iran, well just remember that unless we are willing to sacrifice every technology we have, Malaysians are just going to have to keep pace with globalisation. Kids who come out from religious school can crash a plane, drive motorcycles and beat people with sticks but they definitely won’t be smart enough to fly drone planes and operate satelites that can shoot down nuclear missiles. Try telling a kid these days he can’t play PS3 because its made by foreign devils and he’ll look at you as if you are the monster.

    Anyways, the article is creating a false opposition between liberalism and Islam. Conservatism exists in many forms.

  8. Jason says:

    Every prophet/sage the world has ever seen has been radical liberals preaching about the liberation and equality of women, freedom of choice, breaking of barriers/walls, acceptance of the other (kafir/gentile) and the list goes on. The focus has never been about compulsion, moral policing or being a holier-than-thou conservative. These extremists, which exist in every religion, hijack the message and preach their nonsense and pollute the record. This goes on for a thousand or two years, and then they win out.

    Looking at Muhammad/Jesus/Buddha/any other radical, they all went against the Establishment. They preached against the Establishment’s authority/silly conservatism/laws; they claimed there is no other authority we should submit to but the One/Allah/God. Today the Establishment has taken over, and we’re back to square one.

  9. Azizi Khan says:

    Forcing religion and religious laws on Muslims and non-Muslims alike is not liberal thinking. Malaysia was never a nation without laws. We still have a legal system based on the English legal system. It may not be perfect but it makes everyone equal under one law. Syariah, however, cannot and will never be able to guarantee that.

    Heck, syariah law implementation differs between states in Malaysia. In one state you can be whipped for consuming alcohol, while in others you aren’t. While fundamentally syariah is God’s law, its implementation by [humans] reeks hypocrisy.

    Many, including Muslims, worry that nationwide and total implementation of syariah laws will be open to abuse.

    Even under current implementation for Muslims, syariah laws have been so lax (in cases of divorces, alimony, marriages) that the public would have gotten a “fairer” trial under federal laws.

    Not only that – there is a reason democratic countries have a separation between church and state. Religious officials have no business running the country – especially ones that stoop lows enough for moral policing.

    Let me ask the Abim president something. What should be a priority in a country – running the country efficiently, ensuring no corruption and ensuring that development of the country benefits the people OR unleashing snoop squads at every corner to terrorise citizens?

    Whom does moral policing benefit other than satisfying the sadomasochistic needs of a few religious officials? Remember the case of the Rela official who took photographs of the GRO in compromising positions? Well, if we have nationwide moral policing that’s exactly what will happen on every street corner.

    I can assure you that tourists will think twice about visiting Malaysia. If you want proof just look at Dubai. They spend billions of dollars on infrastructure but resort to snooping on tourists during intimate moments.

    Not only that, “Islamisation” of Malaysia has eroded Malay culture to make them “pretend” they are Arabs. So are we looking at, in fifty years, women having to ride in the boots of cars? Is this what syariah laws are all about?

    Let’s be realistic here. Federal constitution says Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. Federal constitution till today does not say syariah law is the law of the land. To do that, we will need to totally remove our federal constitution and replace it with an Islamic nation’s constitution.

    Islamic nation can and will infringe on the rights of many citizens. What about the homosexuals? Mixed marriages?

    The world has changed so much since Islamic laws were at their height and is very unsuitable for the current environment, unless we want to be like the President of Iran and say “There are no homosexuals in Malaysia”.

  10. Karcy says:

    To 3am rant:

    I know at least one deeply conservative Muslim — an American convert — who sports a full beard and does the whole Arabic garb thing. He is thoughtful, intelligent, patient, and returns harsh insult (“Islam is stupid and violent” etc) with love, and by no means thinks that others are deserving only of contempt because they are hell-bound.

    I trust him to be able to convey an intelligent perspective on the conflicting issues of secularism and Islam more than I trust people who claim to be moderate just because their definition of moderate is that they don’t strap a bomb to themselves. (I’m not saying that Muhammad Idris’s definition is that, of course.)

    “Kids who come out from religious school can crash a plane, drive motorcycles and beat people with sticks but they definitely won’t be smart enough to fly drone planes and operate satelites that can shoot down nuclear missiles.”

    Are you kidding me? Almost every Muslim terrorist has had a very high education level. The Malaysian guy who got detained in Gitmo was a suspect for engineering the Anthrax virus threat.

    “Try telling a kid these days he can’t play PS3 because its made by foreign devils and he’ll look at you as if you are the monster.”

    You are obviously not familiar with the kind of conservatism in rural or semi-urban (or even urban) parts of Malaysia. The number of young people who will willingly smash a PS3 in retaliation against foreign devilry is higher than you think.

    (I can say this with some authority because I was a fundamentalist zealot as a teenager myself, and a teenager or a child is more inclined to destroy something in the belief that it is evil than an adult — their sense of morality can be very black and white.)

  11. Farouq Omaro says:

    One system of law based on sharia! During the Malacca Sultanate, marriages between Chinese men and Malay women were common and these did not attract any punishment for apostasy. The descendants of these marriages are the Peranakan. There were also some Indians who inter-married with the Malays and their children were also known as Peranakan. Under Sharia laws, those who marry non-Muslims and convert out of Islam can be fined, jailed, undergo “rehabilitation” or killed!

  12. 10:20rant says:

    Hi Karcy,

    Heh, cool insights. Well, I never had a cute zealot phase nor do I personally know of any true blue fundamentalist Muslim or extremist ones. So maybe all my assumptions are way off; the moderates can’t be trusted, the fundamentalists (conservatives) are cool, and the extremists (ultra-conservatives) are actually pretty smart buggers. So what’s next?

    The liberals share a political platform with the conservatives? Wait…isn’t that PKR 😛

    Being a moderate is the most difficult position to be. You become a target from both sides so I posted because I wanted readers, and myself, to think about his definition of ‘moderation’ before dismissing him as a fake or conservative in disguise.

    But let’s go back to the science bit. Ok sure, you have a couple of terrorists who were highly educated but you also had that silly UK shoe bomber, fellas who wanted to motorcycle from Malaysia to Iraq, no major attacks since a few years, and Talibans who are still carrying nothing more than AKs and their goats.

    Given their technological superiority, American casualty was a drop of spit compared to the pool of Iraqi blood spilled. If they stay in Afghanistan, it’s probably because it’s more profitable to keep the war going. If Islam, Korea, or Iran was anything more than the actual treat the US claims they are, a couple of nuclear strikes and the problems are gone.

    Furthermore, extremists just don’t have any viable long term game plan. Religious and conservative societies are just not suitable for scientific and artistic development. Sooner or later, they crumble from within.

    If terrorists or any religious people were really so smart, we’ll be seeing major hacks into communication and banking networks. Instead, we have an occasional bomb here or a bomb there. So what? How are you going to hold on to an Islamic state without any WMDs or a large standing army? The Middle East is practically selling out its status as a spiritual holy land with all that is being done in Dubai. The rise of Islamic banking just shows that it won’t be able to make it without offering the kind of wheelin and dealin capitalistic interest-charging economies have.

    If Malaysia was a landlocked country I’ll be a bit worried of the fundies gaining ground and turning us into an Iran or a North Korea but we’re a peninsula and the straits of Malacca is just too valuable a trade route to let fall into any anti-American (twisted liberal) society.

    If ever we were in serious trouble, you can bet the CIA or Singapore is going to send in some covert [stuff] to mess with the extremists or bribe the politicians back into letting in beer drinking and concerts by second rate American bands.

    Well, I don’t know any CIA agents nor do I have a PS3 so meh…just shooting out some thoughts.

    Aiyeahh, all this occasional Lina Joys and lembu head stuff is for me just a way for a tribal culture to save face a bit, to show that you are not going to be modernized without struggling and fighting a bit but deep inside, you know that up there, is only space, and that’s the most beautiful kind of heaven that can exist.


  13. Matt says:

    This interview is interesting because it exposes the fundamental rift between secular democratic ideals rooted in the “power of individual” versus the more socialistic type of Islamic/religious ideals based on syariah or any other religious system.

    Unfortunately they is no way to bridge this gap, because it’s just too wide.

    This is why so many developed countries have opted for a separation of church and state. It’s important for Malaysians to understand that this “broken record” has been played many times before in the past history of many of the world’s most successful societies and they were not Muslim countries.

    Equally pertinent to this discussion is that our recent human history of the past 500 years provides us with a track record that we can look at for secular democratic societies versus other systems where the clergy dominated in the legislature.

    If you look at the record you will see that societies particularly countries run by Islamic law are some of the worst places to live in on this planet. Even Muslims will admit this. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would be absolutely nothing were it not for the oil under their land. Pakistan under President Zia ul Haq 30 years ago went from a secular to an Islamist government and the Pakistanis are still paying the price for that till today.

    Only Turkey stands as an example of a moderate successful majority Islamic country, and I think most people who agree that Turkey is a militantly strident country when it comes to maintaining its secular democratic system of government.

    Muslims frequently use labels like “western liberalism” and “western humanism” in a derisive manner as if these are foreign colonial values that originated from aliens.

    There is nothing “Western” or “Eastern” about the concept of wanting to live one’s life in peace, without being dictated to by another entity or person as to how one should dress, when and what they should eat/drink or fast, talk and what to believe in, or who and what to worship. These are not Western values…they’re simply human values that are applicable to everyone.

    Finally, I would like to add that if the moderate face of Islam in Malaysia is people like Mohamad Razak Idris; then my humble advice to Indian and Chinese and secular non-religious Malay Malaysians is – keep your passport up to date, and make sure you have some money stashed in some foreign bank!

  14. Wan Adli says:

    I think it is interesting to look further into the modern liberal understanding of God’s grace, where the rule of (God’s) law become relative to individual subjectivism. Even though the Final Judgement in The End is acknowledged, I think Malaysians have been too influenced by a puritan individualism in the form of Wahabism, that no established God’s (theological, legal, and ethical) way of life is accepted anymore. Within this, the questions of authority and hierarchy are irrelevant altogether.

    On the other hand, the modern rational mind’s apparent inability to grasp the reality-truth of traditional religious wisdom, could be a symptom of the same never-ending-identity-searching illness.

    On one side, there is a blanket rejection of anything Western / modern, and on the other of Islamic Shari‘ah / religious. Maybe both puritan Islamists’ and modern liberals’ aura of exclusivity are not the way forward and inward for a harmonious Malaysian individual. So, how about the way of wisdom of al-Ghazali […].

  15. Karcy says:

    (not sure if TNG will publish this)

    10:20 am rant:
    So what’s your point?

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