Clarion call for moderation

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 14 Dec 2014

Interview with a representative of a group of prominent malays calling for moderation in Malaysia, former ambassador Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin

Sunday Star speaks to a representative of the group of 25 prominent Malays who are raising their voice for rationality and peaceful dialogue.

“DOES he want to end up in jail with me?”

A law academic, who is on trial for sedition for stating his expert opinion on a legal issue, had purportedly made that joke when he heard that his relative was one of the “25 prominent Malays” who sent an open letter to the people of Malaysia last Monday calling for an open debate and discourse on Islamic law in the country.

But as outrageous as the joke was, it is perhaps not too far from the general sentiment in the country.

That’s the trouble now, says former ambassador Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, who sent the open letter out on behalf of the signatories.

“The authorities have been liberally using the Sedition Act to silence anyone with a contrary opinion and scaring people from speaking out. But it’s not seditious to call for a peaceful dialogue and discourse for the benefit of all Malaysians. It is definitely not seditious to call for moderation.”

And the call is timely, judging from the rumble it is creating in both the mainstream media and on the social networks.

They are most excited to hear from the young Malaysians, Noor Farida shares. “On Facebook it went viral instantly. So many young Malaysians were welcoming of this because they didn’t know if there were any moderate Malays left in the country.”

The 19-paragraph statement was signed by the former who’s who of Malaysian administration, including former secretary-general of Home Affairs Ministry Tan Sri Datuk Abdul Rahim Haji Din, former secretary-general of Foreign Affairs Ministry Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, former secretary-general of Finance Ministry Tan Sri Dr Aris Othman, former director-general of Health Ministry Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican, another former secretary-general of Finance Ministry Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim and past president of the Malaysian Bar Hendon Mohamad.

Noor Farida, who was director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Research, Treaties and International Law Department before she retired a few years ago, says they were prompted to write the open letter because they were concerned that if the actions of religious extremists were left unchecked, the country would suffer.

“We wanted to stand up and be counted and allay the fears of the non-Muslims and moderate Malays in the country.

“I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, we didn’t have supremacist groups, there was so much tolerance and mixing between the races. It is because we are patriots and we love this country that we are standing up to call for the return of moderation for the benefit of all Malaysians before it is too late.”

> How do you feel about the response to the open letter so far?

We are very gratified. It went viral on Facebook and we have been so gratified by so many expressions of support on social media, as well as the editorials and articles in the media. The whole response has been overwhelming. When we initiated this – and it was first initiated by Tan Sri Mohd Sherrif – I approached my colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, like my former boss Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil and former ambassador colleagues, and the response was just so incredible. Then Tan Sri Kamil approached Lt Gen (Rtd) Datuk Maulob Maamin and he approached many military generals. What was gratifying was that they had the same opinion as us. We are not talking about the general public here; we are talking about the establishment – former high-ranking government officials. There were a few who disagreed but, on the whole, the positive response was overwhelming from both Muslims and non-Muslims. But what we wanted to show was that there are moderate, rational-thinking Muslims in this country (that is why we did not include the non-Muslims). Isma and Perkasa do not speak for us. We wanted to make our voices heard. Unfortunately, because we set ourselves a deadline, we only managed to get 25 signatures.

> Why now? Why didn’t you stand up earlier when the Allah issue was at its height, for example?

The tipping point is that everything is happening ­together now, it’s cumulative and all the supremacist pronouncements are a cause for worry. Just look at the rhetoric at the recent Umno general assembly – as though the other races in the country do not count for anything.

And the thing is that we have our privileges – the special rights of the Malays and position of Bahasa Malaysia, for example – that are not challengeable, and yet we are greedy and we want to deny the other races their right. They are born and bred here too. We have to sink or swim together.

In whose interest is it if Isma and Perkasa were to provoke racial tension? If we have another May 13, who is going to lose? We are going to lose out together. Do we want the same situation in the Middle East to occur here?

You know, we have always been known for our moderation, and the irony is that the Prime Minister has started this global movement of moderates, and 1Malaysia. It’s in tatters now, isn’t it?

And all these vitriolic rhetoric from the two supremacist groups, no one has checked them. And we shouldn’t have Federal Ministers making inflammatory remarks in support of them either.

The crux of the matter is the politicisation of Islam.

Islam teaches us to be moderate. Islam teaches us to respect other religions. And yet we have this kind of rhetoric which does not benefit anyone. And the frightening thing to me is that at home and abroad, the Malays will be seen as politicising Islam – encouraging Islamic extremism for political benefits, for political reasons, in spite of the fact that abroad, we are trumpeting ourselves as the voice of moderation.

I don’t want to happen in this country what has already happened in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan – because of the rising religious extremism, the business people and professionals leave the country because they fear for their future and their children’s future.

We can’t let the country be Talibanised. The Talibans politicised Islam and look at the future of their daughters. This will be a creeping Talibanisation of Malaysia if we don’t watch it.

If the talents and intellectuals leave the country, they will take their money, skills and expertise with them, and this will affect our economy adversely and who will lose out?

Right now, most of the South-East Asian countries are overtaking us, even Vietnam and Cambodia.

What is this leading to and what is the end game?

Umno needs to be careful about appearing more Islamic than PAS. We know they feel they have to do all they can to win the support of the Malay rural heartland now, but if they are not careful, they will lose more support from the urban Malays and the educated Malays. This (politicisation of Islam) is what is happening now, but they are doing this at the expense of the political stability of the country. This is why we are all so worried.

All the intolerant statements, the vitriolic rhetoric but nobody in government says anything. And yet, a professor makes a comment in academic discussion and he gets arrested for sedition.

I am not in support of the Sedition Act but if they want to use the Sedition Act, please don’t have selective prosecution.

> Have you heard from the Prime Minister or PM’s office yet?

No, we are sending the letter to the PM and he is away at the moment (at the 25th Asean-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit in Busan, South Korea).

The letter has an annexe which contains an explanation of the position of Syariah laws under the Federal Constitution and the limits that the Constitution places on the Syariah laws enacted by the State legislatures. This is to rebut the erroneous statement by Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom that the Constitution does not limit Syariah laws.

Legally that is wrong. I am a lawyer, and I do know one thing or two about our Constitution. Under Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution, Islam is our official religion of the Federation (but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation).

There are constraints of the 9th Schedule under the Constitution.

Any legislation, whether civil or Syariah, if it violates any provisions of the Constitution, its validity can be challenged.

We are trying to do it in a positive way because we have noticed that many Cabinet ministers are not aware of the position of Syariah laws vis-a-vis the Constitution. They do not know the limits. They think Syariah law is supreme but under the Constitution it has limits, whether you like it or not. The way it has been framed, the Constitution is Malaysia’s supreme law. And let’s not forget, Syariah law is man-made.

It’s divine-inspired but man-made. That is why, as one of our recommendations, we are urging for a consultative process and to establish a consultative committee comprising Syariah experts, Constitutional Law experts and other experts. We urge them to relook the Syariah law, especially the Syariah criminal law enactments.

If our Syariah laws are divine-­inspired then they must be based on justice, equity and human rights, which are the fundamentals of Islam. So, they are held accountable to a higher standard and yet, sadly, our Islamic authorities are not even observing the rules of natural justice.

We are not equating Islam to other religions, we are just saying that we are a multicultural society and we need to respect the other religions in the country and give the other people their right and freedom to worship in their own religion.

> What response are you hoping from the PM?

We urgently need the leadership of the PM to find solutions to the areas of conflict that have led to the deterioration of race relations in this country. The authorities should not allow supremacist NGOs to worsen the situation and create further instability through their vile rhetoric and race baiting. The force of the law should be brought to bear on those who are bent on creating chaos.

> One of the criticisms Perkasa levelled at the group is that you didn’t do anything when you were in service. For instance, one can say that religious extremism has been creeping into Malaysian society since the early 1980s, why didn’t you do something to stop it then?

Because we were not an organised group at that time, but I believe we tried to do something individually. For me, I was active in the women’s rights movement and I was president of the Association of Women Lawyers (Malaysia). We spoke out against all this. This is not something that has just come out off the top of our head. We have consulted with highly respected Islamic scholars on the matter and what we are concerned with is that the implementation of Islamic law has led to so much injustice, especially Islamic criminal law.

For example, some of the khalwat raids have resulted in deaths, and there are allegations of sexual violence against the transgender women in the country, especially in the Negri Sembilan case. Some claimed they were asked for bribes and sexual favours.

And what about the unilateral conversion of minors to Islam, without the consent of both of the parents? This is one case of people abusing Islam and our religious authorities are allowing it.

> Many argue that Islamic Law is supreme and cannot be challenged.

Islam is supreme but the Syariah law is not. The Islamic laws of Malaysia are drafted by the Executive arm of government and enacted in the Legislative bodies by human beings. Their source may be divine, but the enacted laws are not divine. They are human made and therefore fallible, open to debate and challenge to ensure that justice is upheld.

And many of our Syariah laws and their implementation have weaknesses that can be addressed and injustices that can be corrected.

We also need to relook the Syariah legislation to see if it is in consonant with Islam. For example khalwat: a highly respected Islamic scholar from another country I met was surprised that we have a khalwat law. According to him, the root word “khalwa” means solitude, and many use it to describe spiritual retreat. He said he often goes to khalwa to reflect and be close to God, not to be in close proximity with someone of the opposite sex!

That is why we need to have this consultative committee and process to ensure that our Syariah laws are in consonant with Islam and meet the standards of justice.

> What do you think is the cause of this rising religious extremism?

To me, it’s because Islam is so politicised in this country. The conservative elements are taking advantage of this and so you have the rise of supremacist groups like Perkasa and Isma. It is not clear if they really want to promote Islam. If they do, this is definitely not the way of doing it. Even for PAS with their Hudud law, all they are concerned about is emphasising the punishment. I mean, where is the kind and compassionate face of Islam?

Look at the recent incidents. Last year, a Muslim woman who was a dog trainer was charged for insulting Islam for bathing her dogs (seen on video). She was charged, handcuffed and thrown in lock-up for three days.

The offence of insulting Islam is so vague, it constitutes the interpretation of the authorities. It is dangerous to have a vague law like this because it boils down to whoever is in charge and depends on the whims and fancies of the powers that be, be it Jakim or Jais.

Another case is the pulling-down of the surau in Mersing, Johor, just because a few Buddhists were allowed to meditate in it. Later, it turned out that they did not bring any idols in, all they did was sit on the mats and meditate.

These people need to read the history of the Prophet. When a Christian delegation visited Madinah, He allowed them to pray in the mosque. Why can’t we follow the Prophet?

Don’t get us wrong. We are not promoting some brand of liberal Islam here. We are just calling for people to go back to the basics, go back to the true Islam that is not about trying to suppress the rights of others. Islam is about respecting the rights of others, unless they are suppressing our rights. But our rights are not being suppressed or oppressed in any way.

> Many think that the Muslim moderates are the minority in Malaysia. Do you agree?

No, I don’t think so. It’s only because we don’t speak up, we are the silent majority while a handful of extremist Muslims are strident and shouting from the rooftops, and are getting all the attention in the press.

What surprised me was that when we started this exercise, when we approached establishment figures, high-ranking civil servants, corporate figures, military leaders and others, they were all in support of our efforts. They are all equally worried about the trend this country is taking - you know, the rise of religious extremism and they want it arrested and to bring back moderation in the country.

Sure, they can call us an expired bunch or whatever but all of us have contributed to the government and society. We are not destructive people. The letter is not meant to destroy. We are trying to mend the country which is facing destruction because of racial and religious extremism. Perkasa cannot ask us what we have contributed. We have contributed a lot to the development of the country and in promoting Malaysia to the rest of the world. As I said, we are establishment figures.

> Perkasa claims that a Merdeka Centre survey a few years ago showed that 70% of the Malays in Malaysia supported them. Are you confident that you are not the minority?

We don’t want to play the numbers game but if you talk to many, many, many Malays, most are not in favour of what is happening. They are scared that all this intolerance and all the vile rhetoric will cause instability in the country. If this leads to violence, it is the ordinary Malaysians who will lose.

> Are the Malay Muslims under siege, as the ultra-Malay NGOs claim?

No. What do we have to be scared of? It’s a perceived threat and is only in their imagination.

If you think Malays and Islam are under threat, please give us concrete examples and evidence. Don’t just hurl rhetoric.

The Malay privileges are not under threat. We are still getting the contracts, the scholarships, university places, government jobs, etcetera.

This is just a bogeyman that they are raising. It’s a bogeyman and there is no proof of Malays being under threat.

We have our rights and they are not under siege. They are unassailable.

If you think that the churches are proselytising to Muslims, we have the Penal Code to protect us. We don’t need to take the law in our own hands and burn Bibles. Make a police report and get the police to investigate.

People are judging Islam from the conduct of Muslims, and if Muslims are so vile, abusive, trampling on the rights of non-Muslims and being so intolerant of dissenting voices - every little thing is insulting Islam - then people are judging Islam from this. Is it what we want?

> What is the best way to deal with supremacist groups and individuals? Should they be charged under the Sedition Act?

We are calling for a rational dialogue and discourse. Let’s debate properly with facts and figures. Let’s not be emotional about this.

I am not in favour of the Sedition Act. There are a lot of weaknesses in it and I’m not sure that we even need it because we have other laws for security. But if you want to retain it, the implementation has to be fair. It should not be abused and we cannot have selective prosecution.

> What is the next step for the group?

We are a loose group but we have had requests from people who are interested in becoming signatories. We may expand and it may become a movement of moderate Muslims. We do want to encourage other Malay Muslims to speak up and let their voices be heard. You know, stand up and be counted.

> Why are you not inviting non-Muslim Malaysians to join in and make it a moderate Malaysian movement?

We are open to working with all Malaysians, but on this matter we want to show that there are moderate Malays and moderate Muslims. We may open it up later, but for the time being we want to focus on this and our recommendations to the PM for an open debate and discourse on Islamic law.

> Some cynics are questioning your intentions.

What is in this for us? We are not politicians. What do we want? We already have our pensions. We are genuinely concerned about what is happening. That is the problem - people think in terms of dollars and cents. We only want to do what is right for our beloved country. We are not some anti-government or rah-rah groups. We are a voice of reason and we are interested in engaging anybody in a rational dialogue but not with those who are interested only in name-calling and hurling personal insults. That is childish and counter productive.

> Are you not afraid of any repercussions from the open letter?

I’m retired. Anyway, what crime have we committed? Are we rabbel-rousing? Since when is it a crime to write to the newspaper or the PM?

It is not seditious to call for moderation.

Because we are patriots and we love this country, we want to rescue the country from the abyss that it is running headlong into before it is too late.

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