By Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas
May 20, 2019
Remember the Thirty Years’ War? From 1618 to 1648, Catholic and Protestant states under the Holy Roman Empire were embroiled in one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.
As it evolved, though, the war became less about religion and more about which group would ultimately govern Europe. It changed the geopolitical face of Europe, and ended with the Peace of Westphalia.
The treaty allowed the minority religion to be practised freely. It also established important political precedents for state sovereignty, interstate diplomacy, and the balance of power in Europe.
Essentially, the nation state was born with the Treaty of Westphalia.
Fast forward to the 21st century. The Muslim world is experiencing more intrastate wars rather than interstate ones.
But the debate on the backwardness of Muslims should not be approached in a lopsided manner. It is counterproductive to focus only on the “evil” West, “supremacist” whites and “ruthless” Israelis. These are not the only reasons Muslims feel persecuted.
It is time Malaysians knew the reality about intra-Muslim conflicts around the world. In the process, it should dawn on us how these conflicts have affected other Muslims under relatively peaceful conditions.
The Islamic State (IS) is the main religious extremist group. Other extreme and backward ideologies are Salafism and Wahhabism.
IS is said to have emerged around 2003, with a vision to establish a universal Sunni caliphate. Shias, to them, are deviant and must be annihilated. It is an extremist, destructive, sectarian movement.
It is no secret that big power interests have interfered and fuelled the Sunni-Shia conflicts in a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. The entire religious and geopolitical development has done a massive disservice to Islam and Muslims in other parts of the world where a majority of Muslims live in relative peace.
Extremist, fanatical ideology has seeped into the psyche of pockets of Malay society. As a result, we are now living in a post-GE14 era of sublime conflict.
By this, I mean a more invasive form of conflict “among” the Malays has surfaced. It is conflict resulting from the suppression of rationality, directed more at each other rather than at fellow non-Muslim and non-Malay Malaysians.
I see this as the main reason why Malaysia is stuck in an unproductive, backward narrative of race and religion. ICERD, the Rome Statute, the Red Shirts movement, burning Bibles, the Seafield temple fracas and the “cross on building” episodes seem to be protests against insulting Islam, Muslims and Malays.
But the verbal attacks can be seen as directed against secular-minded, reform-oriented, progressive Malaysian Muslims. The fear is that these rational and practising Muslims have found a way out of backwardness, and are able to join the ranks of an inclusive socio-economic existence.
The fear of being “left behind” is really not directed at the Chinese or Indians, or “others”.
Most demonstrations in Malaysia are led by a small fraction of the Malay population who actually know the cause for which they are demonstrating.
The majority do not have a clue what they are doing in the blazing sun or torrential rain. They are there for gotong-royong, pocket money, a T-shirt and some tidbits to satisfy their gastronomical urges.
They listen to ceramah on make-shift stages and boisterously cheer. When the press interviews a few of them, they grin, shrug shyly and stumble to explain the reasons they are there.
The handful who do know the cause have latched onto a fanatical and irrational narrative – the same narrative espoused by our fellow Muslims of IS fame.
For instance, cliches such as Islam has to be defended or protected are rampant in daily discourse. Protection is synonymous with defence, shielding, shelter, preservation, conservation, safe keeping, security and immunity.
What in Malaysian Islam needs protection or shielding? The way I see it, a majority of Muslims in Malaysia feel they have to shield Islam from progressive Muslim ideas, rather than from the Buddhists, Christians or Hindus.
Moral and religious policing during Ramadan, humiliating men and women for the way they dress and a warped understanding of rape, are serious transgressions in Islam. The irony is that these transgressions have pitted fanatics against progressives within the Malay community. The other races are spectators in this tragic (or comedic?) theatrical play.
Last month, a religious teacher delivered a lecture as part of a marriage course conducted by the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department. He said that women who do not cover up deserve to be sexually violated. The man did not realise that he had insulted his fellow Muslim Malay women by saying that rape is their fault.
How is he protecting Islam and Muslims, or even Malays in this manner?
Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan, a well-known American feminist of the 1960s, wrote of depression, frustration, emptiness, guilt and dishonesty. She was analysing the way psychiatrists, women’s magazines, marketers, educators and social scientists routinely lied to women about their need for feminine glamour.
It seems the Jawi man needed to impose his idea of modesty on women. His patriarchal concept of demure and good behaviour is grossly deviant. Even in Islam.
He lied to them to make them feel guilty and responsible should they be sexually violated. In Islam (or any religion), lying is a grave sin.
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner and feminist, Shirin Ebadi, says in Iran, sexual abuse against women goes largely unreported and officially, it is unrecognised.
The situation is similar in Malaysia. A majority of Muslim women who are are physically or sexually abused in marriages suffer in silence. This is due to our false sense of shame. It is also the result of religious conditioning by the likes of the Jawi ustaz who fail to understand the concept of social justice in Islam.
Many women experience ridicule by law enforcers (mainly men) when they do make a police report. Many are also told to go back and “think about it, be patient, try to work it out because the sanctity of marriage in Islam is worth the patience”.
The extremist ideology espoused by militant Muslim groups has infiltrated the Malay mind. I am not implying that a majority of Malays/Muslims in Malaysia have become imbued with militant views to blow themselves up.
Rather, there is a more sublime and invasive ideology of prejudice that is holding back reform.
This has proven more devastating and resistant to a Westphalian-like solution, unless drastic steps are taken to revamp this mentality.
Currently an academic at the National University of Malaysia, Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas has a doctorate from Columbia University (Political Science, Sociology & History). She writes extensively on the sociology of politics and religion in Malaysia and the larger South and Southeast Asian region.
Source: Free Malaysia Today