By Stanley Koh
October 22, 2011 | Free Malaysia Today
At a 2006 forum to discuss problems that non-Muslims face as Malaysian officialdom continues to assert the predominance of Islam in the country, a prominent scholar acknowledged – “with “sadness”, he said – that there was great confusion about the religion, especially among Muslims themselves.
Syed Ali Tawfik al-Attas, director-general of the Institute of Islamic Understanding (Ikim), said that Muslim administrators and Islamic activists generally had a poor understanding of the Islamic view of “knowledge” even as they examined the religion with a fine-tooth comb.
“That is the problem with the Muslim world,” he declared.
He explained that in Islamic scholarship, knowledge is generally separated into three types: interpretation of the meaning of what is perceived, revealed knowledge, and derived knowledge that is beneficial. This effectively means that non-beneficial knowledge is not construed as knowledge.
He stressed the importance of having the correct understanding of such terminologies as “freedom”, “democracy” and “Islamisation” and the equal importance of recognising that they were open to different conceptualisations.
Citing an example, he said the word the Arabs use for “democracy” could be translated as “preservation of the mind”, which implies a wealth of meanings.
“Yet, this preservation is today limited to halal-haram issues,” he said, adding that this was one symptom of “the truncation and tragedy of Islam”.
The forum that Syed Ali addressed, which was organised by a group of think-tanks, shed much light on issues raised during the 2001 forum that MCA held following Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s declaration that Malaysia was an Islamic state.
Many of those issues centred around the unhappiness of non-Muslims with the arrogance of the civil service in deciding on and implementing policies that affected the religious practices of non-Muslims.
Syed Ali’s presentation made it quite clear that such arrogance was born of ignorance.
The Moorthy controversy
Referring to the case of Everest climber Maniam Moorthy, who died in 2005 and was buried as a Muslim in the face of his family’s objections, Syed Ali said it would not have been such a big issue if the officials in charge had been more knowledgeable and less arrogant.
He explained that in Islam it does not matter where one is buried. He said the Moorthy controversy illustrated how it was the mind of Muslims, and not Islam itself, that was limited.
At the MCA forum, representatives from the Inter-Religious Council of Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism spoke of difficulties in getting approval for land on which to build places of worship and even for the renovation of those places.
Rev Wong Kheng Kong said civil servants carried out their work with a clear bias for Islam instead of sticking to the constitutional provisions on religious rights. He feared that Mahathir’s declaration would make matters worse.
“There is a need to have an absolute definition of the declaration,” Wong said. “Otherwise, things will be up to the whims and fancies of people in power. There will be problems. Civil servants are already interpreting the laws with an Islamic bias. For example, no other building can be taller than a mosque.”
He cited various other problems faced by non-Muslims, including their having to adhere to Islamic norms in attire and the preparation of food.
Hachenran Singh, who represented the Sikhs in the inter-religious council, lamented that non-Muslims under an Islamic state would be considered “protected persons” instead of “full citizens”.
A representative for the Hindus complained that non-Muslims were not allowed to practise Syariah law even if they had the qualification.
Shad Saleem Faruqi of Universiti Teknologi Mara advised non-Muslims to seek judicial reviews if they felt they had been victimised by overzealous civil servants.
“Civil servants must give reasons for their decisions,” he said. “If the reasons are frivolous, I think a judicial review is possible.”
Abdul Hamid Othman of the Prime Minister’s Department said the government was aware that some administrators suffered from an excess of zeal. He claimed that there had been occasions when the Prime Minister stepped in personally to ensure the release of funds allocated for non-Muslim houses of worship.
“When we talk about the Islamic state, the most important thing is administration of the lives of citizens,” he said. Essentially, he explained, an Islamic government has a duty towards God to ensure that it administers with justice for everyone.
Several speakers at the MCA forum described Mahathir’s declaration as an example of the exploitation of religion for political ends.
“If you tell us that this declaration is a joke and that the PM has made a joke because he wants just the Malay votes, then, in two months the topic will be closed,” said a speaker from the inter-religious council.
“But if the government is serious in making the declaration, then I think there is a big problem.
“How come our non-Malay leaders do not have the courage – and maybe the dignity, I don’t know, I hope not, but with a sense of dignity at least – to stand up and say to the PM, ‘There is something wrong with the declaration’?”
Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam said there was a need for “younger voices” among Muslims to question and challenge misinterpretations of religious beliefs and practices.
Is labelling more important than ensuring a fair and equitable governance, which is what Islam espouses? Should Mahathir‘s declaration remind us of these words of Alice in Wonderland: “How can you make your words mean different things?”
It seems that to the MCA leadership the answer should sound like this: “Yes, you can. It depends on who is in charge.”