Raise the standard of religious discourse

TODAY marks the start of the new year. A year in which Malaysians thought they could look forward to. Alas, it will take a longer period of time for “Wawasan 2020” to be fully realised.

There are a few indicators by which Vision 2020 must be achieved, some of which are environmental health and the way Malaysia deals with graft.

Then there is also the problem of what kind of religious discourse is not just being produced but imbibed in Malaysia.

Sound religious discourse is the responsibility not just of religious leaders but of the education sector when it educates youth on the ideals of religious harmony.

Ideals here refer both to the principles of religious harmony and individuals that disseminate such messages. Indian preacher Zakir Naik can hardly be seen to be an epitome of religious harmony. Yet, we enter 2020 with an exam question that more or less belittles Malaysians for not wanting to give Zakir a chance.

A lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Perlis posed this question in an exam: “Zakir Naik is one of the icons of the Islamic world, he is very active in spreading true Islam and following the Quran and Sunnah of Rasullah SAW.

He is able to reason and to answer every question that is asked of him. However, in Malaysia, he is no longer allowed to deliver speeches. In your opinion, as a Malaysian, why does this happen?”

The answers provided for the multiple choice exam were: (1) Malaysians do not bother getting actual information; (2) Malaysians are sensitive and feel threatened for no reason; (3) Malaysians just follow the crowd without verifying any information; or (4) Malaysians are ignorant about their own religion. All four options paint Malaysians as fools and intellectually inferior to Zakir himself, so the choices for answering the question alone are problematic.

The bigger problem is the question itself. How is Zakir an icon of the Islamic world in the first place? First, allegations of money laundering don’t fit with the claim that he is following the Quran. Neither do accusations that he inspired an attack by gunmen in Bangladesh that cost innocent lives. In terms of racial and religious messaging, he has offended both Chinese and Indian Malaysians, likening them to “pendatang” (foreigners) and questioning the loyalty of Indian Malaysians to this country’s leaders.

What is “iconic” in all this hullabaloo is that he is a Malaysian permanent resident. I am sure there are other applicants for permanent residency still waiting, and they probably don’t have criminal records or face allegations of criminal activity.

Granting Zakir residency shows that Malaysia views him as indispensable to the country’s social harmony. What we need to deal with is the perspective of Zakir’s supporters. Once a question like the above is asked during examinations, students (who will one day be future leaders) may uncritically accept the notion that Zakir’s views are representative of an inclusive Islam when, actually, they serve to divide.

Zakir is merely a reflection of what kind of Islam that is being championed in Malaysia. It is one that is divisive.

Our standard of intellectual discussions of religion needs to, pardon the pun, “naik” (rise). We can laugh at Zakir for saying it is wrong for Muslims to wish Christians Merry Christmas but once students are told that he is an icon, that’s when the laughing should stop.

Let us start the new year by being less tolerant of religious exclusivism. Let us also start the year with questions that have more rigour. Here is one that neither praises nor bashes Zakir: “Discourse surrounding preacher Zakir Naik can be divided into two camps: those who view him as an exemplary Muslim leader and those who fear his views will incite conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. How do you feel Zakir Naik should be understood and why?”

Such a question will invite debate among students, not to mention debates between students and their lecturers.

This is what 2020 should look like: A year where questionable personalities aren’t unquestionably praised.


Kuala Lumpur

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