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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 66

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Islamic Civil Society


Paralleling the development of the modern civil society is its Islamic variant. It too transcends ethnicity and operates outside the sphere of the state. This last assertion needs clarification.

In contrast to the secular West, there is no separation of church and state in Islam. It is all encompassing. True, but conveniently forgotten is that this is so because in Islam there is no “church” and no formal clergy class. The imam is imam because we, the flock, call him so. His power is derived from and not imposed on the congregation—the essence of representative governance at its basic level. That has long been the tradition in Islam.25

Exceptions occur. Shiism, often dubbed Islam’s Catholic Church, has a penchant for an elaborate clergy: Mullahs, Ayatollahs, and the Grand Ayatollah. Malaysia, although non-Shii, is also picking up this trend of having formalized state-sanctioned “church,” complete with its hierarchy of officials with their proud civil service status.

This bureaucratization of Islam in Malaysia is relatively recent, within the last decade or two. Malay leaders try to legitimize their positions through control of the religious establishment. In the past, local communities governed their mosques, with the congregation selecting its imam; today the state takes over that function. Today’s imam is just another civil service functionary, and has as much commitment to his congregation as his fellow bureaucrats in other agencies to their clients. Even the sermons are canned, supplied by the central office.

When the state becomes large and intrusive, whether in Eastern Europe or the Muslim world, that human yearning for freedom begins to express itself. The vibrancy and mushrooming of Islamic civil society is precisely the result of the overbearing presence of the state.

A complicating factor in Malaysia is politics. Many Islamic civil society activists are sympathetic to PAS. This kindred spirit has less to do with Islam and everything to do with their common opposition to an intrusive powerful government. Precisely because of its close association with PAS, Islamic civil society is getting an unfair bad rap from the establishment.

Contrary to the perception in the West, civil society (or its equivalent) has a long tradition in Islam. The institution of waqaf (local endowment) builds hospitals, schools and universities, is active in social welfare, and welcomes new converts. The bulk of their charitable activities are outside the sphere of the state.26

Two Islamic civil society organizations are worth noting: Sisters in Islam and Al Arqam. The former is a women’s advocacy group led by moderate, liberal and essentially political establishment types. One of its officers is Prime Minister Abdullah’s daughter. Its leaders are regularly lauded in the mainstream media. The reason? Their brand of Islam matches that of the government.

At the opposite end of the theological spectrum is Al Arqam, started by one Ashaari Muhammad who until recently was jailed for “deviationist” preaching.27 That movement emphasizes personal responsibility, believing that if individuals were moral and upright, society would become clean and wholesome. “Amen!” to that! The movement was remarkably popular and successful. It combined the independence and discipline of the Mormon Church, the asceticism and cohesiveness of the Amish community, and the communality and free spiritedness of a hippie commune.

Today we have leaders exhorting Malays to be independent and to shed our “subsidy mentality.” That was the same message Ashaari was preaching three decades earlier. He was very successful, and the government jailed him and banned his movement!

Many would consider ABIM, the Muslim Youth Movement once led by Anwar Ibrahim, an Islamic civil society. It certainly has all the trappings of one, but in dynamics it is nothing more than pseudo civil society.

The traditional and pseudo civil societies are fast fading. Today the main contenders are secular (Western) civil society and its Islamic variant. At first blush, the twain will never meet. They view the cosmos, in particular self and state, very differently. Modern civil society, following in the grand humanist tradition, places supremacy on the individual, with the state deriving its power from and using it to serve the citizens. In Islam, everyone—ruler and ruled—are ultimately answerable to a higher authority, Almighty Allah.

If advocates of both civil society and its Islamic variant were to emphasize their missions and ideals, they would find that they are on the same path. Were they to emphasize their symbolisms and differences, they are bound for collision. Malaysia, with its plural society and where both elements are strong and vibrant, is the ideal environment and unique opportunity to test this proposition. Malaysians should seize it.

There is always the possibility that religious-based civil society would heighten ethnic and communal identities with devastating consequences, as in the Balkans and India. The models to emulate instead are the Red Cross and Red Crescent. They share the same ideals and mission; an injured Christian in Beirut would not feel out of place in a Red Crescent ambulance any more than a Muslim patient in Boston would be discomfited receiving blood from the Red Cross. Were we to associate the cross with the Crusade, and the crescent with the Saracen, we would be heading for collision.

Early civil society in America too had strong religious orientations. With time and responding to an increasingly plural America, they began transcending ethnic and religious boundaries. Today, the YMCA is more an athletic club and less a Christian organization. Many recognize the Salvation Army for its many wonderful charity works; few recall its Christian origin.

Islamic civil society, like Islam, should transcend ethnicity, politics, and geography. In reality, the Malaysian version is essentially a Malay movement and politically aligned with PAS. Doctrinally, with few exceptions like Sisters in Islam, their adherents tend towards the more fundamentalist version of the faith. They are also insular; they do not welcome Muslims of less pure persuasions, and of course non-Muslims. Their circle of trust is small. They are significant barriers to developing a common Malaysian identity.

I hope that with time and responding to the plurality of Malaysia, Islamic civil society would lose its religious emphasis and focus more on its missions and goals a la the YMCA and Salvation Army.

There are two avenues to achieve this: revamp the way Islam is taught; and reduce the state’s presence in matters Islamic. Both are tall orders. Islamic learning in Malaysia and in the wider Muslim world is nothing more than indoctrination. Students are dustbins to be filled with dogmas rather than intellects that needed to be sharpened. Islamic schools and colleges are more seminaries than educational institutions. If they were more like their Catholic counterpart in America and also teach “secular” subjects like science and mathematics, then they would not only attract non-Muslims but also produce better and less insular Muslims. Islamic International University uses English and offers nonreligious courses; as such it attracts many non-Muslims. I see no reason why an Islamic school would not attract non-Muslims.

The morals and ethics of Islam are universal. The central command and recurring theme of the Quran is to “command good and forbid evil.” All, believers and non-believers, would agree with that.

Young Muslims must have broad-based liberal education in schools and undergraduate years. They can specialize and study Islam in depth later in graduate school. Exposure to and learning the humanities and sciences (natural and social) would enhance their understanding of our great faith. Muslims would benefit by being exposed to the rich and varied theological interpretations of Islam. It would be the height of intellectual arrogance if not downright “un-Islamic” to declare that your interpretation is the only true one.

The second approach would be to reduce the role of government in the lives of its citizens. The state’s close identification with Islam risks many negative consequences.

It alienates non-Muslim Malaysians and makes them feel disenfranchised. It also degrades the faith; it would be viewed as nothing more than a bureaucracy. Failures of the state would be viewed as the deficiencies of Islam, eroding the public faith in this great religion. This is exactly what is occurring in Iran. The Ayatollah and other members of the overbearing clergy class have driven more Iranians away from Islam than any Western crusader. The current contempt many Malaysian Muslims have for the Islamic pseudo clergy in the political establishment also reflect this sentiment. These political ulama are viewed less as men of piety and more as petty bureaucrats. With the government out of Islam, Muslims would be free to explore and discover our rich and varied traditions without fear. This intellectual freedom, like all freedoms, is empowering.

The most devastating consequence of the state’s heavy involvement in Islam, and one inflicted exclusively on Malays, is that it diverts scarce talent into the non-productive activities of the bloated religious bureaucracy.

With the bureaucratization of Islam, functions previously done by the local waqaf are taken over by a paternalistic and authoritarian government. I do not know whether the poor are looked after better today, but I do know that those religious functionaries (I would not dignify them by referring to them as Imam) live in government-appointed bungalows, drive luxury cars, and work in palatial offices.

With the government out of Islam, Muslims can truly focus on the essence of our faith instead of its superficial rituals and manifestations. Then we would see in the modern civil society not its Western origin, rather its ideals that are also the ideals of our great faith. With the de-emphasis on Islam, Islamic civil society could concentrate more on its civic mission and less on its Islamic trappings. That would also bring Malaysians together.

Next: The Fourth Estate

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