The radicalisation of Islam in Malaysia

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 28 Aug 2016

Spreading: Numerous books offering different views on Islam are widely available. — AZMAN GHANI/The Star

UNIVERSITI Sains Malaysia political scientist Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid is ringing the alarm bell.

Having studied political Islam for years, he says it is time to alert the authorities that Muslims here are “surely but slowly becoming radicalised”.

“Before the situation deteriorates further to what we see in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is better that we take the necessary precautions and do whatever we need to do – whether it is a revamp of the school curriculum – to correct the situation,’’ he says.

He says the essence of Islam as a loving, compassionate and tolerant faith is as good as destroyed in those countries and he does not want to see that happen here.

For Dr Fauzi, extremism and radicalisation in Malaysia did not happen over a short five- to 10-year period but actually germinated over more than a generation.

He says since the 1990s, the traditional Islamic theology taught in Government schools has gradually shifted to a view of theology derived from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. What this does, he says, is that it moulds a certain kind of mindset, one that is exclusivist, supremacist, with less respect for others, so minorities and dissenting voices are viewed “in a certain way”.

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution sparked an increased interest in Islam all over the world, including in Malaysia. Iran follows the Syiah tradition of Islam. So oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which follows the Sunni tradition and wanted to counter Iran’s influence, tapped into this global interest in Islam by offering many student scholarships and donating money to numerous institutions and charities in the developing Muslim world.

This helped them stamp their strand of ultra conservative Islam – commonly referred to as Wahhabism or Salafism – all over the world, including in Malaysia.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many Malaysians went overseas for their higher education. Due to the interest in Islam, many headed to the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular – thanks to those generous scholarships – to study religion and were exposed to the Wahhabi/Salafist way of thinking.

When they returned, Dr Fauzi says, they brought back the Wahhabi/Salafist way of thinking – and that way of thinking makes it easier to radicalise someone because it is intolerant and exclusivist.

He says some of the students who returned became religious teachers and ustaz, so they went on to instil this way of thinking within the younger generation.

And over a span of 30 years or so, he says, the students who grew up imbibing the Wahhabi/Salafist-oriented curriculum in schools are now in the work force. Some are in the civil service, some have become influential bureaucrats, scholars, academics, lawyers, others hold positions of power while some have joined politics. So they hold the levers in administration that allows them to make decisions.

“People don’t realise it but this way of thinking has now become mainstream,’’ says Dr Fauzi who recently published a research paper on “The Extensive Salafization of Malaysian Islam’’.

Shaped by history

Dr Chandra Muzzafar explains that Wahhabism is a puritanical notion of trying to restore a “pure and unadulterated” Islam.

One thing that he finds “very dangerous’’ about Wahhabism is the “takfiri” attitude.

Concerned: Dr Chandra feels people here are ‘very comfortable in their ignorance’.
Concerned: Dr Chandra feels people here are ‘very comfortable in their ignorance’.

Takfiri is the labelling and accusing of a Muslim of apostasy or being impure because that person does not adhere to the Wahhabi/Salafist way of practicing Islam.

“They think, ‘We are the only ones who are pure and the only ones who represent Islam’. Takfiri is dangerous because it allows Muslims to take very extreme positions. It actually legitimises killing. They might think spilling this person’s blood is halal (permissible) because he is not really a Muslim or because his wife doesn’t use a hijab (head scarf) or because he does all these things (that Wahhabis/Salafis disallow),” says Dr Chandra, who is a political scientist and the president of the International Movement for a Just World.

Dr Chandra says one interesting fact to note about the founder of Wahhabism/Salafism, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, is how his thinking was shaped by what he saw in Istanbul during the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which spanned 600 years, ending only in 1922.

“The Ottoman empire was actually the most important political entity within the Muslim world at that time but when Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab went to Istanbul and saw the lifestyle there, he was revolted. He saw it as the Ottoman’s corruption of Islam.’’

This led him to propagate “his version of ‘pure and unadulterated’ Islam”.

Dr Fauzi believes that what Malaysia is experiencing right now with troubled interfaith relations is the result of this exclusivist Wahhabi/Salafist thinking that has crept into the education curriculum and mindset.

He says this explains why incidents in which members of other faiths are treated insensitively keep cropping up, like Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s use of slides demeaning Hindus in one of its courses, or school principals making Hindu students watch the slaughtering of cows (which Hindus consider sacred) in the school compound for Hari Raya Haji celebrations.

“It shows the exclusivist line of thinking. They can’t think along the lines that a particular action will aggrieve a part of the school population even though they are the minority.

“When the Holy Prophet practised justice, justice is most meaningful when it is practised on those who are not a majority,’’ he says.

Dr Fauzi also points out how the Holy Prophet engaged Christians in dialogue and this was done without agreeing with the Christian view of Jesus, which means there was tolerance during the Holy Prophet’s time.

He also notes that during the Holy Prophet’s time, when it was time for a visiting delegation of Najran Christians to pray, they prayed in the mosque.

“The tolerance of the Holy Prophet is just amazing. Can you imagine the Saudis and the orthodox Muslims of this day agreeing to this?’’

Dr Fauzi says it is of concern too when there is also a closing off of Muslim discourse, debate and the mind.

Closing off: Dr Ahmad is concerned about the lack of debate and closing of minds.
Closing off: Dr Ahmad is concerned about the lack of debate and closing of minds.

He says some respected international Muslim scholars are labelled “secular” or “liberal’’ to keep the Muslim masses from hearing them out; others who are deemed to be not toeing the establishment line are banned or find it hard to book venues in which they can speak.

All this means that only one way of thinking is allowed to perpetuate. And that, says Dr Fauzi emphatically, is not healthy.

He was disappointed when the debate on religion between Perlis Mufti Datuk Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin and Home Ministry religious officer Dr Zamihan Mat Zin in February was cancelled. He says allowing such exchanges and differences of thought to come out should trigger more research, more thinking and a flourishing of ideas – but, unfortunately, this is not happening currently in Malaysia.

He also questions why when fatwas (religious edicts) are issued, no one offers an explanation and rationale for them so that people can intellectualise, argue and understand or accept.

“The religious establishment gets very irritated when they are criticised,’’ he adds.

The genie’s out already

Dr Chandra knows all about the lack of debate in Malaysia.

In 2010, he organised an international conference in Malaysia and managed to get the attendance of the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, “who is 100% Sunni’’, and one of the world’s leading experts on Imam Syafie (whose Sunni school of jurisprudence Malaysia follows).

According to Dr Chandra, Sheikh Ahmad has been described as the “Mufti of Humanity” and is very much against hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Since Dr Chandra thought it would be good for all the muftis here to meet with the Syrian Grand mufti, he arranged a meeting but no one turned up.

“They didn’t want to meet him. I think it’s a classic case of ‘katak di bawah tempurung’ (frog under a coconut shell, an idiom meaning to live a sheltered life).

“They are very comfortable in their ignorance. They don’t want anyone to tell them, ‘Look maybe you are not right’. They don’t want dialogue.”

Dr Fauzi adds that because of this closed mode of thinking, many Wahabis/Salafists have joined Umno including 40 ulama muda in 2010.

And, he says, they are already influencing the party.

Although Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has given the assurance that Umno will not turn into an extremist party, Dr Fauzi feels there are no guarantees it will not happen some time in the future when Najib is no longer in office.

“It is like taking a genie out of the bottle. You can’t put it back in,’’ he says.

Dr Fauzi also cautions against closing the gates on discourse because this might have adverse effects.

“In this age of social media where there is easy access to all sorts of information, when you repress and people are not able to release their intellectual curiosity and youthful energy, they may gravitate towards IS and radical movements online.

“They want religion. They want Islam but they don’t want something that is identified with the establishment. Youths get fed up and this could be another cause of radicalisation.’’

Dr Chandra simply wishes people would engage.

“I hope there will be discussions of things like this rather than allowing one particular stream of thought to establish a monopoly and say that everyone else should keep quiet.’’

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