Freedom to discuss, debate religious ideas and beliefs

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  • Sunday, 20 Dec 2015

A Muslim boy looks on as he holds a placard at a rally organised by a Muslim charitable trust in Mumbai, India. The event was held to denounce ISIS and to spread knowledge about Islam. Photo: Reuters

In May 2014, James McConnell, a Christian pastor in Northern Ireland, gave a hate-filled and anti-Islamic sermon that was streamed live over the Internet.

As a result, McConnell was charged under the UK Communications Act 2003 for sending “a message or other matter that was grossly offensive” over the Internet.

We have to face it: Islam has taken a beating for quite a while now. Currently, the word “Muslim” carries a similar negative connotation.

As a result, Muslim communities are taking great pains to differentiate and distance themselves from the terrorists. Most of the focus has been on discriminating against Daesh (the fundamentalist Muslims in Syria fighting for a caliphate, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), and to repeatedly emphasise that the enemy are not true Muslims.

At the recent Asean Summit, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had been explicit in assuring delegates that “we stand with you against this new evil that blasphemes against the name of Islam.” He added: “The perpetrators ... do not represent any race, religion or creed. They are terrorists.”

This re-emphasises what he said in September at the World Leaders Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism in New York. “We condemn their blatant misrepresentation of the Deen when they say that their sadistic brutality, torture and murder of innocent men, women and children – Muslims and non-Muslims – are justified in the name of a religion that is truly one of peace, justice, tolerance and compassion.”

These reassurances are part of the Government’s message that they do not, in principle, sympathise with those who support Daesh, including those in Malaysia. It may surprise you that there are at least 50,000 in the country, based on MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai’s recent statement.

I think this assurance by the Government is partly to assuage worries that as a Muslim country we may be seen to support Daesh.

But this sort of misunderstanding is going to be rife when the brush we use to paint the differences between us is too broad and coarse.

After all, despite the Government’s protestations, those who support Daesh probably label themselves as Muslims. But in a bit of circuitous logic, they are deemed unIslamic because they don’t conform with the Government’s interpretation of what Islam is.

A suggestion was already made by Datuk Shabudin Yahaya at the 2013 Umno General Assembly that the Federal Constitution should be amended to clarify that Muslims in Malaysia are those who adhere to the practice of the Sunnah Wal Jamaah (the Sunni sect). On Dec 7 2013, Umno president Najib said the party’s constitution would be amended to indicate that Islam in Malaysia is of Sunnah wal Jamaah.

And earlier this year, Umno Kuantan division chief Wan Adnan Wan Mamat said that the RM2.6bil was “an appreciation to Malaysia for championing Islam and for practising Sunni Islam,” as well as being in appreciation of Malaysia’s effort to combat ISIS.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that at times the Government gives the impression that it is the final word in defining who is Muslim in Malaysia.

Just last week, Tan Sri Abdullah Mat Zin, the religious adviser to Najib told a news conference that a group of retired government servants risked being declared as religious deviants because they were pushing their particular ideas of moderation in Islam.

A few days later, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of religious affairs Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom said that the group had misconceptions and the Government would clarify things to them.

But what if the group doesn’t accept the explanations?

Perhaps what should be the focus is whether religion is being used to commit crimes. To recognise that it’s usually not religion that is evil, but that some men interpret and utilise it to their own nefarious ends.

The assumption that people are dangerous just because they disagree with you is the root of many of humanity’s failings.

We (and by “we”, I mean “politicians”) so conveniently forget that there is usually more that we hold in common than sets us apart; and that solutions that unite us are stronger than those that divide us.

A final note in the story of James McConnell.

As the pastor awaits trial, he has found an unlikely ally: Muhammad al-Hussaini, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute.

Hussaini said: “Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is therefore a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs – restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.”

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of Muslim I would like to see more of in Malaysia.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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