By Dr Farhan Ahmad Nizami
29 May 2014
THE ideal of government as service cannot be realised without tackling corruption. Ultimately, this depends on personal integrity. However, much can be achieved by strict implementation of accountability procedures.
People's everyday transactions -- like getting a passport, a telephone connection, a licence to start a business or being free to travel -- can be needlessly complicated by discriminatory application of regulations, or by having to pay bribes.
As part of the commitment to justice and fairness, it is essential that Muslim identity is detached from crude forms of tribal and sectarian politics.
The Quran censures those among the Israelites who claimed salvation on the basis of tribal belonging. A central feature of Islamic civilisation was its understanding that values -- like knowledge and skill and virtue -- are by no means a monopoly of the Muslims.
Islam was a learning and teaching civilisation, and for that reason, a force for good. Between communities, there is need for both fences and bridges. Muslims must recover their talent for managing the shared and separate spaces.
If they do not, their sectarian and ethnic divisions will always be vulnerable to cynical exploitation.
The Quran describes the Muslim community as Ummatan Wasatan: the middle or moderate community, the anti-extreme or mainstream.
The community of Muslims must not cut itself off; it must be inclusive and assimilative, go east and west, learning as well as teaching. That is an ideal worthy of presentation to all the peoples of the world.
In the end, people must have good reasons to prefer life in societies identified as Muslim, if they are to give their hearts to making those societies successful. Therefore, among the general objectives we pursue, some are bound to be specific to Muslims. Others may see the sense in them or they may not. But Muslims have a commitment to them from faith.
Human beings must expect to be questioned about the ends they pursue and the means they engage to realise them. For Muslims, there are issues of haram and Halal in both means and ends.
With that in mind, Muslims should strive for a resetting of the international financial system and its regulation. They can draw upon their wealth of past and recent experience with Islamic financing.
A 100 per cent reserve ratio may be an impossible target, but significantly raising it is not impossible. Muslims can also demand much stricter regulation and more transparency in the relations between banks and regulators.
Islamic banking must practise what it preaches. To promote research and analysis in the general field of Islamic finance, a small positive step is the annual roundtable jointly organised by the Securities Commission of Malaysia and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.
Muslims can and should intervene, more strongly than they do, to limit dependence on commercial and industrial processes that are life-threatening.
Harm that happens far away is called an "external cost of business. This is morally repugnant and, sooner or later, self-destructive.
Muslims can make common cause with non-Muslims to build the will to sacrifice present comfort for future wellbeing. Muslim states have contiguous borders, large populations and considerable financial weight. There is no reason why they cannot lead efforts to preserve natural resources and environments.
In many Muslim societies, the lives of women are diminished by ingrained social and economic injustices. Men and women have aspirations and duties for which they have equal capacity and equal need. Therefore, they have an equal right to be prepared for those duties. This means education and the freedom to test that education in appropriate occupations.
Any policy oriented to human values, if not expressed in local cultural idioms, will not have local buy-in. Granted that Muslims have much to learn from the West, their first and last responsibility as Muslims is to embody the teaching of God and His Messenger. It is not permissible for them, where they have a choice, not to discharge that responsibility.
Within the debate among Muslims about political and human rights, there is broad agreement on the need for reform of attitudes and institutions. But political models imposed from above will not lead to open, accountable government sensitive to human rights. Such models, in practice, exclude the society they are claiming to serve.
Effective, stable representative government can only evolve from the collective will of the whole society. It will realise broad and enduring legitimacy only when it adapts the full resources of the society's history and culture.
That is a good reason for beginning with reflection on past achievements. We do that to identify the general objectives that are desirable now. But we also need to identify actual, present commitment to those objectives, and to recognise and celebrate the progress that has been made. In this respect, Malaysia is the right place to be doing that.
Malaysia is an example of the political wisdom of which Muslims in the modern world are capable. It has demonstrated that, where social and historical circumstances permit and outside influences do not prevent, Muslims can build a stable society alongside non-Muslims.
Malaysia is a thriving nation whose Muslims remain, through their embrace of modernity, true to what is universal in their cultural and religious values.
I know there are tensions. But ways have been learnt to contain the tensions, and they are ways of peace. Differences intelligently managed have been converted into the advantages of diversity and moderation.
It is appropriate that the call for a Global Movement of Moderates has come from Malaysia. Since it is active in various international forums, and is the next chair of the Asean, it can project that message to many others.
The message is listened to because it is supported by a lived, achieved example.
Within the struggle for political independence, there had also been a struggle for Malay/Muslim rights and identity.
But that struggle did not, despite imbalances in educational opportunity and economic leverage, decay into sustained ethnic conflict.
Such conflict was viewed as an aberration from the norm, and Malaysia's different communities learnt to co-exist and cooperate for the benefit of all.
Some of the reasons for this success are local, peculiar to the situation in this country. But the deeper reasons have to do with an Islamic tradition of tolerance and neighbourliness with peoples of different religion and ethnicity.
I would argue that, even in circumstances that differ markedly from the situation in Malaysia, the most promising basis for initiating and sustaining such a political settlement is religious conviction. It is a responsibility of those who believe in and value their faith to engage religious conviction as a means of promoting tolerance and peace within and between nation-states.
Malaysia's political stability has been accompanied by equally impressive economic development. Malaysia took the lead in setting up the World Islamic Economic Forum.
This initiative carries forward years of effort to improve economic cooperation between Muslim countries.
I mentioned earlier the lack of cultural contact among Muslim countries. Again, Malaysia is at the forefront of putting this right. It attracted some 73,000 visitors last year from Saudi Arabia alone. Its universities offer high-quality advanced education and training to students from the developing world. Many Muslims are taking up the opportunity.
Malaysia's policy makers have identified a long-term need and committed resources to scholarship programmes that will encourage students of all backgrounds to take part.
Perhaps consideration could be given to the establishment of a National Endowment for the Humanities in Malaysia. Aside from the enrichment in perspectives, this policy will also, over time, contribute to reducing the flow of cultural product from the West into the Islamic world.
Muslims in the past, when confident of their religion and of themselves, were not intimidated by the ancient prestige of the learned traditions of the Greeks, Persians and Indians.
They were sure that Islam could absorb them, since whatever is truly of value to human life is, ultimately, compatible with the compassion and beneficence embodied in the teachings of the Quran and God's Messenger. Muslims have a responsibility to contribute to the mainstream of world civilisation. There are several areas in which Muslim history and experience have something to teach:
The Muslims' experience of pluralist societies could enrich contemporary constitutional debates which express individual rights but have no language for community rights. Their experience of the tension between scientific and religious thinking could shape a philosophy of science to reconcile belief in a Creator with rigorous scientific study.
Their experience of economics is relevant to ethical business, the balance between market freedom and state intervention, between private profit and public welfare, the cost of money. All these topics require the commitment of resources long term.
That commitment must come alongside a confidence in the ability of Muslims to find answers to the concerns that preoccupy all of us: the fight against the expulsion of religious authority from the public domain, and its growing irrelevance in the domain of individual lifestyles; the fight against consumerism and the widening gulf between those who have and those who do not have buying power; the fight against scales and patterns of economic activity which are pitilessly indifferent to their consequences for human lives and the natural systems we depend on; the fight against a near-autonomous technology answerable only to the economic interests that finance it; the fight against injustices, some located in particular persons or regimes, others anonymous and inaccessible behind the visible structures of power.
Alongside this fight against, there is a fight for -- for the recovery of habits of worship (Ibadat) and religious reflection; for the self-discipline which enables disinterested service of others; for the alleviation of poverty through healthcare and education; for effective conservation and environmental protection; for the preservation of family life which, however imperfectly, is still the most tested way to raise adults capable of moral autonomy.
Ultimately, the quality of commitment to a goal is dependent upon the quality of human resources carrying it. It is in the domain of education which builds human resources that Muslims need to work the most.
They need to learn how to organise and manage effective faith-based schools (pondok). They need to relearn how to devise and balance curricula to equip students for an effective life as believers in the contemporary world.
They need to teach students not only the externals of their faith, but also how to understand and carry their faith within themselves and translate it into self-transcending service of others.
This Muslims cannot do until and unless they appreciate that other traditions of learning have also achieved worthwhile progress in advancing human knowledge and know-how, and challenged received wisdom with sound arguments from human reason, observation and experience.
Muslims need to inculcate that mental and moral discipline which stops believers from bringing into the zone of the sacrosanct narrow issues of custom and practice that pertain, not to belief as such, but to local identities and local manners.
It is not an easy discipline; if practised properly and sustained, its fruit is tolerance and peaceful co-existence with others of the same and other faiths.
All of that can be summed up as an effort to teach values that are authentically derived from religious commitment. I have explained that this effort needs to be, for Muslims, commensurate with the legacy of their past. It needs to be forward-looking and outward-looking. It needs to be comfortably multi-cultural, willing to learn, to go abroad. And it has to be confidently Islamic.