By Zainah Anwar
April 06 2015
In the midst of the relentless savagery of Islamic State (IS) group and the descent into chaos in countries such as Yemen, Libya and Syria, Muslim leaders, yet again, have been talking about the need for radical reform of how Islam is understood, and taught in schools and universities.
The latest coming from no one more important to Sunni Islam than the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar himself, Ahmed al-Tayeb.
Speaking at an international conference on “Islam and the fight against terrorism” in Mecca in February, the Sheikh attributed the rise of Islamic extremism on “the historical accumulation of extremist tendencies... that grew out of corrupt interpretations of some texts in the Holy Quran and the practices of the Prophet”.
He called for the need to “tackle in our schools and universities this tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers” and for a conference of Muslim scholars to focus on common values that unite Muslims.
At the same conference, the new Saudi King was reported to have said: “Terrorism is a scourge which is the product of extremist ideology. It is a threat to our Muslim nation and to the entire world.”
So if the answer is to bring radical change to how Islam is understood and taught in schools and universities, what is urgently needed now is not more meetings and conferences and summits of Muslim leaders to tackle terrorism, violence and intolerance besetting much of the Muslim world.
It is the political will to act.
For a start, these leaders hold power, authority and influence to put an immediate stop to the toxic sermons and pronouncements from so many of their own religious figures and radical extremists who spew hatred and venom towards fellow Muslims and fellow citizens who think, behave, dress, and live differently.
They can start by respecting difference of opinion and building a culture of public debate on matters of religion, and how religion should be used as a source of law and public policy and practice in their own societies.
And this job is actually easy to do, and can be done right now. For there is already much scholarship, new and old, that is out there for the schools and universities to adopt if these Muslim leaders in positions of authority to make the difference is serious about their pronouncements of the dire straits of the Muslim world today and the threat this poses to fellow Muslims and the rest of the world.
Scholars and women’s rights activists engaged in bringing about an understanding of Islam that upholds justice and equality, that eschews violence and terrorism, and that respects diversity and differences of opinion have been working for over 20 years in bringing about change, both in terms of scholarship and activism on the ground.
Unfortunately, much of their scholarship and activism are ignored, at best, or demonised or banned, or at worst, the proponents of change are persecuted and imprisoned because their work towards a compassionate and just Islam do not serve the interest of the power elite and their desperation to remain in power or to gain power.
So can change really happen if those in authority tell the world there is a need for change, but on the ground they continue to persecute their citizens for actually taking action to bring about change?
Even if these leaders are yet not able to reconcile themselves to the rich and exciting scholarship that exists in the tradition and in contemporary thought and activism towards a more just and compassionate Islam, they could start by revisiting the Amman Message that they themselves signed in 2006, which denounced extremism, radicalism and fanaticism.
It contains many beautiful passages from the Quran about respecting diversity and differences, about calling others to the path of God with wisdom and beauty, about moderation, justice and not betraying the trust of the people, etc.
The Amman Message also included three basic points that specifically recognised the validity of all eight mazhabs (schools of law) of Sunni, Syiah and Ibadhi Islam; forbade takfir (declaring fellow Muslims as apostates) and set forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas, to put a stop to illegitimate fatwas.
Some 552 political and religious leaders from 84 countries endorsed the Amman message and its three points, including kings, presidents and prime ministers, top scholars from Sunni and Syiah Islam, and the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar.
From Malaysia, then prime minister Abdullah Badawi, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, current youth and sports minister Khairy Jamaluddin and former International Islamic University Malaysia rector Prof Dr Mohd Kamal Hassan were among those who signed on.
And yet we see today so many of the signatory countries, including Malaysia, embarked on demonising Syiahs as infidels and declaring fellow Muslims they disagree with as deviants, persecuting, imprisoning and flogging those considered a threat to their authority.
At the same time, these very same states wring their hands and twists themselves into knots about growing threats of violence and extremism that today they realise pose a threat to their hold on power.
Counter terrorism research shows that while not all extremism leads to terrorism, all terrorist acts are inspired by extremist narratives.
That ideas and ideologies that sow discord, hate and bigotry contribute to justifying acts of terror, and therefore cannot be left unchallenged in society.
It is a waste of time and money for political leaders to gather in Cairo, Mecca, London, Washington, waging war against terrorism, extremism and violence when those very same leaders are waging war against their own citizens who think differently from them.
The mindset that cannot recognise the legitimacy of differences of opinion on how a country should be governed cannot possibly provide an enabling environment where Islamic scholarship can grow and thrive independent of the interest of the ruling elite.
If it is “Haram”, “UnIslamic”, “anti-God”, “anti-Syariah” to question the pronouncements of a mufti or a chief minister on any Islamic matter, why should we expect those extremists in Syria and Iraq to disobey the commands of their self-appointed caliph?
The mindset brainwashed to believe that they have no right to question or to debate the orders and ideas of their religious leaders in Malaysia is the same mindset that obeys the call to behead, burn alive, and kill fellow Muslims and non-Muslims who think and live differently.
It is this demand for absolute certainty and absolute loyalty that breeds fanaticism that can lead to violence and terrorism.
It is this belief that those who speak in the name of Islam are accountable to no one that leads to despotism.
It is this belief that there is only one understanding of Islam that represents “true” Islam, and anyone with a different opinion is declared deviant and demonised, that breeds a toxic public culture of intolerance, hatred and bigotry.
The billion dollar question is not whether Islam is a just and peaceful religion.
For the scholarship already exists to bring about an understanding of Islam that promotes justice and equality, that embraces diversity and differences, that believes in peace, freedom, dignity, that argues for the possibility and necessity for reform to fulfil Muslim demands for democracy, human rights and social justice.
The billion dollar question is whether there is truly the will among the political and religious leaders of the Muslim world to bring about the radical change that is needed in the ways Islam is taught, understood, codified into law and reflected in everyday practices.
Stop wasting money and time on more conferences of presidents and prime ministers and religious leaders to deal with terrorism.
Spend those resources on reforming the education system, reviewing the discriminatory and unjust laws, changing culture and practices that discriminate against women and violate fundamental liberties in the name of religion.
Enough talk and hand wringing. Show us the beef.
And if the Malaysian authorities are serious about countering the threat posed by extremist Malaysians who have joined IS and other movements, then they should take immediate steps to reform how Islam is taught in the schools and universities of the country and what messages are being preached over radio, television, during Friday sermons and in those talks by populist preachers all over the country.
For a start, stop telling Muslims and non-Muslims that they have no right to speak about Islam or to question or criticise any Islamic law or debate the hudud law for to do so is to question God’s law.
It is a law drafted by mere mortal men, and passed by the Kelantan state assembly made up of men.
Stop pretending just because they speak in God’s name, that they are therefore infallible and beyond reproach.
The brazen cynicism with which the Hudud football is played between PAS and Umno in the face of harm this causes to Muslims and to the body politic of Malaysia shows the futility of expecting change to come from the top.
A member of the Kelantan Hudud technical committee, proudly declared PAS did an SMS survey of about 77,000 respondents in 29 state constituencies and 91.7 per cent said they supported the Hudud.
Well, someone else could do a similar survey and pose this question: Do you think the state government should concentrate on implementing the Hudud or on rebuilding the state and improving the lives of the people after the devastating floods, end poverty, eradicate corruption, create jobs, build affordable homes, improve healthcare?
I bet an overwhelming majority of Kelantanese will opt for the latter. What is un-Islamic about improving the standard of living of the people you govern?
In the end, the question is about Niat (intent). If your intent is to do good, to be just, to be kind and compassionate, to respect those who are different from you, then there is plenty in the teachings of Islam to support this.
But if you choose to pull wool over the people’s eyes for your own failures to deliver on the aspirations of the people, to silence debate and criticism, to pretend that your Islam is the only Islam that all should obey, then as the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar said there are many “corrupt interpretations” of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet to use and abuse to serve your political end.