“You Are Not Qualified To Talk My Religion”: How to Respond to Attempts to Close the Public Domain- Part 2

By Farish A. Noor

If I were to tell someone that I don’t like Satay, loathe batik shirts and cant stand keroncong music, does it follow from that that I hate Malay culture in toto? Now one would have to be deliberately and consciously paralysingly stupid to believe that, by assuming that the rejection of some aspects of normative culture amounts to a total rejection of an entire culture as well. If that is the case with culture, then why cant we see that the same rule applies to talk of religion as well?

I raise this point because it has become ever so trendy in Malaysia these days to assume that any rejection, critical questioning or even debate over some normative aspects of religious epiphenomena amounts to a total rejection of the religion per se. This arises because of the unscrupulous manner in which some religiously-conservative individuals have erroneously equated the normative aspect of religiosity with the dogmatic aspect of religion in general. The two spheres, however, are distinct and should remain so.

This explains in part why groups such as Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam have been in the limelight for so many years, and why this group of Muslim feminists have been attacked again and again, and accused of being anti-Islamic. The fact however is that Sisters in Islam (SIS) has never raised any questions or doubts about Islamic orthodoxy, but rather have questioned the application of Islamic law and the praxis of Muslim norms in the country that go against the spirit of Islamic orthodoxy itself.

Now we are faced with several questions that include: Do lay Muslims and non-Muslims have the right to speak, debate and question Muslim religio-cultural praxis? Does the questioning of religio-cultural praxis amount to a criticism of religion in general? And can one even comment on the religio-cultural praxis of other faith communities?

Let me try to address these questions by way of an analogy or two:

Not too long ago during the bad ol’ days of Apartheid we will remember that the practice of racial discrimination in South Africa was justified on both political as well as religious grounds. Conservative Christian fundamentalists sought religious justification for the practice of racial discrimination by selectively quoting Biblical scripture and the old Testament to find sources that would explain, rationalise and justify racial differences. This reminds us of the point argued by the scholar Ebrahim Moosa who once noted that ‘the danger with religious elites is that they can make religious texts say whatever they want because they have read them and know how to manipulate them.’

Likewise in North America there still remain Christian fundamentalist sects that equally fall back on religious scripture to justify their perceptions and understanding of racial difference. For some of these fundamentalists, Africans are not even human beings and classified as sub-human, according to old Testament accounts of the African race.

Now in both these instances we see the practice of discursive manipulation at its most blatant and abusive. The scripture of the Bible is taken out of context, selectively appropriated to justify everything from Apartheid to racial profiling. Is this a Christian virtue? Can we say that this is the kernel of Christian humanism and universalism? Obviously not.

Anyone with even the most shallow understanding of Christian scripture will tell you that such abuse of religious scripture is political in nature, and reveals the truly rotten state of Apartheid and religiously-inspired racist politics. I do not have to be a practicing Christian to see that, and I certainly do not have to be a Christian to point that out. Does a critical rejection of such skewered religiously-inspired racist politics amount to an attack or rejection of Christianity? Certainly not. Nobody is arguing about Christian orthodoxy here, but rather the socio-religious and political praxis of Christians in their daily lives.

On a point of comparison we can note the same rejection of the abusive cultural practices of the Taliban in Afghanistan, whose abuse of human rights was justified in the name of Islam. The criticism that was levelled against the Taliban then – by both non-Muslims and Muslim scholars like Sheikh al-Qaradawi, et al – was not directed towards Islam, but rather towards the abusive practices of the Taliban themselves. One instance was when Sheikh al-Qaradawi condemned the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban, which he noted went totally against the Islamic injunction against the destruction of all religious sites. So was Sheikh al-Qaradawi attacking Islam when he issued his statement? Were we being anti-Islamic when we condemned the Taliban’s abusive treatment of women and religious minorities in the country?

Dealing with the standard admonition “You do not have the right to speak about my religion” therefore entails having the courage and consistency to insist that when we reject, criticise and condemn certain cultural practices we are not engaged in religious hate-mongering. We cannot allow conservative fundamentalists from any religious community to equate religio-cultural norms and behaviour with the religion itself, for the two are distinct and may even contradict each other. Just because someone is born a Muslim doesn’t mean that he or she is an immediate expert on Islam; and the same applies to those who are born Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.

If all these religions wish to entertain the notion that they contain universal truths applicable to humanity, then they have to demonstrate their worth and relevance to humanity as a whole as well. So let us not fall into the trap of cultural and religious essentialism, and let us not tolerate the abuse of human rights whenever it comes under the cloak of religiosity. Christian fundamentalists who justified Apartheid and the Taliban who justified the destruction of Buddhist temples may have felt that they were doing God’s work on earth, but it takes a sensible and courageous soul to turn the mirror to these extremists and expose them for the hypocrites they were and are.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Thursday, 18 June 2009 - 4:22 pm

    Why is there no need for the formation of Sisters in Catholicism, Sisters in Protestantism, Sisters in Buddhism, Sisters in Hinduism, ect to protect their adherents from those religions?

  2. #2 by OrangRojak on Thursday, 18 June 2009 - 4:27 pm

    And can one even comment
    Can. Though life might emulate LKS’ blog: you may be held, awaiting moderation.

  3. #3 by OrangRojak on Thursday, 18 June 2009 - 4:54 pm

    k1980 Says: Why is there no need for
    I asked something like this about fax machines when I first came to Malaysia. They were becoming rare in the UK some years ago when I moved here. It’s not because white people don’t use fax machines, or christians don’t use fax machines, or it’s too far West for fax machines. They were very popular ten years ago. Email became pervasive and reliable enough in the UK that fax machines became less popular. Faxes are more common here because, well, the conditions just aren’t right yet to make the move.

    I went to an infant school run by nuns (Sisters of Mercy) – a woman’s only option to be a ‘Catholic official’ back in those days. Becoming a female priest is still a controversial matter. Not so for some of the Protestant churches, who have had women ministers for a while. One of my last visits to a church was in Germany a few years ago for a friend’s wedding. The Lutheran minister was not only a woman, but on removing her robes to reveal a black velvet cocktail dress for the Reception, was also hawt. Apologies to all my sisters out there, but well, some of you are. I also respect your other attributes, obviously.

    Feminists often present history as ‘His Story’, because it was largely a man’s world if you go back a few generations. That we see some egalitarian religious organisations now is not because they always were, but because groups like SIS brought about change in those other religions long enough ago that we think it has always been like that.

  4. #4 by monsterball on Thursday, 18 June 2009 - 6:23 pm

    In actual fact .so many thousands UMNO Malays do not know what religions are all about.
    And the smart UMNO political leaders…… uses religion to control minds…..same all over the world.
    Millions of non Muslims…study and know what Islamic religion is ……but do Muslims know what Christianity and Buddhism is all about? Do they rally know Jesus and Buddha?
    They will tell you…not important…as Allah is Almighty and his words are words of God…this and that stuffs.
    Who is not qualified to talk about Islamic religion?
    One who memorize and stay faithful to be a good Muslim…or one who studied all religions and talk comparative religion stuffs?
    One who is so narrow minded or one who is open minded….who is not qualified?
    In actual fact..the leaders of Islamic religio0n is afraid Muslims get more open minded….just like 100 years ago…Christianity so call holy teachers keep frightening followers..they will go to hell…if they love other saints or holy people from other faiths.
    Islamic religion maybe the largest and most popular in the world right now..but it also have the most narrow minded and less educated followers of any religions in the world today.

  5. #5 by donplaypuks on Thursday, 18 June 2009 - 7:08 pm

    A recent commenter in a blog posted as follows:

    “See now, you may be bashing UMNO and the UMNO leaders but as far as I am concerned, because of the “M” in there standing for Malay, I will regard whatever sling you take at UMNO to be a sling at my race. Don’t bring in things like “eh Pas oso malay maa..” because they are on a different level than you.”

    With this kind of rabid racist mentality, it’s not surprising that these cyber terrorists will say you are not qualified to talk about my religion, especially since there is no objective standards by which anyone can really be qualified other than their own. So convenient!!

  6. #6 by Bossa Roo on Thursday, 18 June 2009 - 9:31 pm

    Monsterball, I think you are making too many sweeping generalisations about a sensitive subject like religion which may or may not be true. In the case of the latter you will be in trouble. I’m not quite sure what you say about thousands of UMNO Malays don’t know what religion about is right. If there’s anything that will make UMNO instigate Malays to hate Chinese and exploit religion it is unsubstantiated remarks like you make above monsterball. To say Islam has the most narrow minded and less educated followers than other religions in the world will surely land you in trouble with Muslims monsterball.

  7. #7 by TomThumb on Friday, 19 June 2009 - 12:00 am

    “This explains in part why groups such as Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam have been in the limelight for so many years, and why this group of Muslim feminists have been attacked again and again, and accused of being anti-Islamic.”

    the real reason why male fundamentalists among PAS call for the banning of SIS is they cannot stand the sight or rather the sound of their women being so vocal. period. there is no need to go to the extent the writer does to rationalize.

    in churches you find christian women organizing themselves into groups. but the difference here is that christian women are today not fighting for their rights as women but only to share their views as christians. that makes SIS part of a feminist movement. who can blame PAS?

  8. #8 by limkamput on Friday, 19 June 2009 - 12:06 am

    in churches you find christian women organizing themselves into groups. but the difference here is that christian women are today not fighting for their rights as women but only to share their views as christians. that makes SIS part of a feminist movement. who can blame PAS? by tom dumb dumb

    Now who can understand this other than the dumb itself (not himself or herself)

  9. #9 by monsterball on Friday, 19 June 2009 - 6:47 am

    Bossa Roo…..Thanks for your warning and sincere advises.
    I write what I see and feel are truths and if that’s get me into trouble…so be it.
    Do not be taken by the few millions you see on TV….how great and well educated Muslims you see..praying in Mecca.
    That certainly is pointing it is the greatest religion on Earth….no race…no culture….all as one…so humble….so sincere.
    Then look at who are Middle East people at large. Are they well educated?
    Now look at Malaysia….look at all the political gangsterism and behind these leaders….who are making terrible noises…university students?
    Go to all the government Depts and just pick few to have a conversation. See how much brain they have…..all UMNO devoted members.
    I say…UMNO in Malaysia have made thousand to be half past sixes Muslims and in the world….million muslims are like cattles…just a I saw Christians were… 60 years ago…in Malacca…like idiots.simply follow and afraid to go to hell.
    And if for the love of humankind..my way..gets me into trouble..so be it.
    In Blogging…I a the most insulted and troublesome to UMNO and MCA guys. You think .that’s for nothing?
    Thanks again..bless you.

  10. #10 by frankyapp on Friday, 19 June 2009 - 2:18 pm

    Monsterball,your great and I agreed with most of your comments about Islam and christianity.You are truly sincere in your opinion.Frankly should you not say it here in this blog,I certianly would have said quite similar thing. Most educated people know that UMNO leaders and their cronies are either islamic fanantics or are purposely using islam and malays as a shield to protect their power and interests.

  11. #11 by alhafar on Friday, 19 June 2009 - 3:44 pm

    If you are a truly spiritual person you do not need to advertise it. Religion and politics are on opposite ends of the scale. Anyone using religion as his political platform is a hypocrite because he is taking something that is inward – the quest for spiritual enlightenment – into something that is a tool for his political gain. No amount of legistlation can make someone a good muslim or good christian or whatever. These are merely ploys to make the person look more upright than they really are. As the malay proverb goes, tin kosong. We have many here. PAS is obviously manipulating Islam for its political survival. How islamic can that be? There is a big difference between a politician who observes all the tenets of his religion as a private person and in practice, and one who advertises it out there for all the voters to see as someone you should vote for to lead your country.

  12. #12 by Bossa Roo on Saturday, 20 June 2009 - 9:29 pm

    Mr Lim Kit Siang,

    I am appalled that you allow monsterball to make such highly insensitive comments about religion in your blog, comments which can certainly get you into trouble if some UMNO agent provocateurs copied his message and f/w it to the authorities. I remember not too long ago, someone posted an insensitive comment on religion in Jeff Ooi’s blog and he was instantly reported, and action was taken against him. I am equally surprized at the cavaliar way monsterball dismisses this warning, very much like his other numerous comments which most people would take with a pinch of salt. I hope in your moderatiion you should delete such sensitive comments on Islam and the Malays, especially from a Chinese like monsterball which the UMNO types would gladly use as an excuse to sabotage your blog. Thank you.

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