Zairil Khir Johari
The Malaysian Insider
25 January 2016
Central to the idea of liberalism, be it political, economic or social in context, is human agency – the capacity for individual human beings, acting rationally, to make choices deemed to be in their best interest.
However, freedom of choice and conscience alone is insufficient if it is not complemented by the necessary space, both in the personal sphere and the public realm, to act upon those choices without discrimination or victimisation.
Conversely, illiberalism refers to the lack of such fundamental freedoms. An illiberal polity is, therefore, one where diversity is not tolerated, and where being different invites persecution, whether by society or the state.
It is one where conformity is not only approved of, but even coercively imposed. In Islamic terms, it is where ijtihad (independent reasoning) is suppressed and taqlid (to follow blindly) is expected.
In an illiberal state, speech and expression are censored and dissent is suppressed. In most cases, citizens are kept in check through the fear of an existential threat – often through the construction of an “other”.
Such states also exhibit authoritarian tendencies, where rule of law means rule of the regime. In such conditions, corruption, rent-seeking and abuse of power usually thrive.
To sum it up, as American public intellectual Kim R. Holmes puts it, illiberalism “is not just about government denying people the right of free expression and equality before the law. It is also about controlling how people think and behave.”
Applying the criteria above, it is extremely difficult to deny that Malaysia is anything but an illiberal state.
While often hailed as a leading moderate Muslim nation, in truth the Malaysian state has fastened a leash around the neck of its citizens. Occasionally tugged at but generally loose enough to make it fairly unnoticeable, the last two decades, however, has seen a gradual tightening of the leash.
Thus, being a Muslim in Malaysia today means that one has to adhere to a certain denomination approved by the state.
Anything else and one would run the risk of being labelled a deviant. And if telling people what they are allowed to believe in is bad enough, Muslims in Malaysia are even prevented from reading a whole list of publications, ranging from Ultraman to Charles Darwin, because, according to the wisdom of Jakim (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia), these writings may compromise their faith.
Banning and censorship does not apply exclusively to Muslims, however, as non-Muslims in Malaysia are restricted from using gazetted words, such as “Allah”, “masjid” and “ulama”.
It is also in supposedly moderate Malaysia that you hear often cases of body snatching by religious authorities and where private spaces are regularly infringed upon by badge-carrying moral police.
The state’s attempt to exert control over the religion has become so dogmatically extreme that it even expended great resources into prosecuting – and then appealing after losing at the High Court – a Muslim woman, Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, whose only crime was to be working in a bookshop selling a banned publication, even when the raid had occurred before the said book had been officially banned.
The leash has been tightened so hard that oxygen flow to the brain appears to be affected, at least judging by the extent of popular discourse on Islam in the country these days.
Instead of great philosophical debates, religious forums typically revolve around the mundane and the inane – “what is the hukum (permissibility) on sending a text message to my boyfriend?” as an example.
But perhaps more sinister is the increasing lines of division that are being drawn between Muslims and the “others”.
To say that the state is going overboard is an understatement when we have the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism recently announcing that the government intends to introduce grocery apartheid through the segregation of halal and non-halal trolleys. Perhaps even the air that we breathe would be segregated in the future.
Even worse is when creeping Islamisation makes its way into the realm of non-Muslims, such as in the case of M. Indira Gandhi, a mother who has been separated for close to seven years from her daughter, following her ex-husband’s unilateral conversion of their daughter, then an infant, to Islam.
Despite obtaining a High Court judgment granting full custody to the mother, the police refused to act on grounds that there was a Shariah Court order that gave the father custody.
When citizens of a country are divided and discriminated against on the basis of their racial or religious identity, a state is not only illiberal, but can be said to be dysfunctional.
Even worse, on a more philosophical level, the illiberal Islamic experience in Malaysia only serves to condemn the religion.
Instead of being the promised rahmatul-lil-alameen (mercy for all), the faith of liberation and advancement, Islam is increasingly portrayed as a doctrine of enslavement and intolerance. Is this not antithetical to the goal of dakwah, which is to attract people to Islam, and not repel them?
The truth is that Muslims are indeed under threat. However, the enemy is not the Christians, or the Jews, or the West, or orientalism, or neo-imperialism.
The real threat to Islam is the rise of illiberalism within. As much as we like to lay the blame on colonial legacies and foreign conspiracies, the reality is that illiberal visions of Islam, such as that which is being propagated by the state in Malaysia, do the most harm to the faith. – January 25, 2016.