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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, November 18, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #128

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem


Revamping Islam

A saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has it that the sun (nur) will one day arise from the West. That hadith (saying) was part of his general observation as to the end of time.

One does not have to be knowledgeable in astronomy to consider that statement preposterous. However, if one interprets “nur” to mean not the planet sun but light or enlightenment, as some interpreters would have it, then that statement makes eminent sense.

There is ample evidence historically for this statement. After the first burst of enlightenment in the Arab world with the arrival of the prophet’s revelations, the faith flowered in Western Europe, in particular the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslim world still looks longingly to those glorious days of Andalusia and Cordova that produced such luminaries as Ibn Sina. Their intellectual contributions enlightened the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. To those early Muslim scholars, there were no artificial divisions between the secular and spiritual. Knowledge is knowledge, and it all begins with Allah. Nor did they have compulsions learning from the infidels. They eagerly learned from the Greeks and Romans, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions.

Today, the West is enjoying the fruits of its enlightenment. Its citizens enjoy the highest standards of living and are spared the worries of privation. The bulk of the knowledge, innovations, and insights that lead to the betterment of humankind originate in the West. The West is to the world today as Iberian Islam was to the then civilization.

Also less appreciated is the role of the West today in emancipating Muslim intellectuals, and the consequent emergence of innovative and liberating interpretations of the faith. It is significant that the only two Muslim scientists ever to win the Nobel Prize came not from the Muslim world but from the West. Drs. Abdus Salam (Physics, 1970) and Ahmad Zewail (Chemistry, 1990) may have been educated initially in the Muslim world (Pakistan and Egypt respectively), but the nurturing and flowering of their talent occurred in the West. Even after they were honored, their native countries still refused to appreciate their enormous contributions. The Pakistani Assembly even voted to strip Abdus Salam of his citizenship!8

The Muslim world is doing everything possible to drive out its talented and brightest. Most end up in and are welcomed by the West. Among those driven out are Islamic scholars and ulama, especially those who in good conscience could no longer provide religious justifications for the increasing tyranny and corruption of their leaders back home. The West is today home to many brave and bright Islamic scholars. They use their prodigious intellect to advance Islamic scholarship, and to give fresh interpretations and new meanings to those ancient texts without worrying whether they might incur the wrath of the ruling class.9

Consequently many of the fresh insights in Islam today originate in the West, a refreshing contrast and counterbalance to the ossified, stultifying and oppressive version prevalent elsewhere. Their contributions are a refreshing breath of fresh air that is slowly peeling away the petrified accretions that have burdened the faith since the tenth century. Through the freedom afforded by the West, the views of these scholars are disseminated to the greater Muslim world through the wonders of modern communications that effortlessly overcome the tight censorship of Muslim countries. These emancipated scholars expose the shallowness and insularity of their homegrown counterparts who are increasingly reduced to being apologists and propagandists for oppressive leaders.

Muslim scholars in the West, like the late Fazlur Rahman, relate Islam to the modern world and do not hide behind obscure ancient texts. They treat their readers, followers and students not as a benign shepherd would his flock, rather as thinking and rational human beings, capable of independent thoughts and having essentially good intentions.10

The Muslim world has less to fear from the bumbling crusading efforts of the likes of George Bush and Pat Robertson, but more from the extremists and fanatics within its midst, the Ayatollahs and the Osamas. They do more to turn Muslims away from our faith.

We see the same pattern in Malaysia. Directly as the consequence of the excesses of the religious establishment, with its moral police and other intrusive agencies, more Muslims especially the young are turning away from the faith. Some, like cult leader Ayah Pin, are brazenly denouncing their faith and directly challenging the state’s apostasy rule that demands capital punishment for such offences.

The Islamic establishment is fixated on such trivial issues as women wearing tudung (headscarves) and separate checkout lines for males and females. Meanwhile the rates of child and spousal abuses, incest, abandoned children, drug abuse, and other indicators of social dysfunction are skyrocketing in the Muslim community.

I am used to the diversity, tolerance, and greater freedom in the West, so I have no problem with someone (Muslim or non-Muslim) wearing headscarves. I remember the days when head nurses (“Sisters” as they were called then) wore similar headgears, to separate them from the regular nurses. If the Muslim establishment were not fixated on the tudung and if we make it attractive, then non-Muslims would not hesitate wearing it as a fashion item. We do not need to force Muslim women to wear them. There was a time not too long ago when women in the West would not be caught outside their home without a hat, scarf, and gloves.

I do not look upon women wearing tudung as more pious or God-fearing than those who do not, anymore than I would view a woman with tattoos as being morally loose, or a young man with earrings up his nose, a drug addict. We should look beyond such superficialities.

Malaysia is well versed with modernity; it leads the Muslim world on gender equality, with women visible at the highest levels of government and the corporate world. The only field not open to them is, perversely, the Islamic establishment. While Malay women have been named to the highest court of the land, Muslim scholars and ulama are resisting the very idea of women as Sharia judges. Aspiring to lead the Muslim world and actually doing it are quite different. There will be no shortage of formidable competitors. Malaysia was one of the earlier and leading proponents of Islamic banking and financing. Today, the Gulf States are rapidly usurping Malaysia’s role.

Malaysia Airlines was once the pride and joy of not only Malaysia but also the Muslim world. Today Emirate Airlines surpasses Malaysia Airlines. Malaysia has a few relatively well-run institutions that could be ready models for the Muslim world. One is its national oil company, Petronas. I am no fan of GLCs, nonetheless if the government were to be involved in the oil industry, as is the fascination with many Muslim countries, then Petronas is a far superior model, certainly much superior to Indonesia’s corrupt-ridden and incompetently-run Petromina. In Brunei and Saudi Arabia, their oil industry is the private preserve of the royalty, a much worse situation.

Tabong Haji is another credible institution despite its recent brush with scandals and ill-advised investment forays. It is today the biggest mutual fund in Southeast Asia. It could be expanded into neighboring countries and the greater Muslim world. It is very effective in making Muslims save and in mobilizing those savings. With competent and imaginative management, Tabong Haji has the potential for global reach.

A major contender for leadership of the Muslim world is, surprisingly, America, with Muslims being the fastest rising minority. More significantly, America is attracting and welcoming the brightest Muslims from around the world, 9-11 notwithstanding. American Muslim scholars are wielding great influence in the Muslim world, with English now being the most important language in Islam, second to Arabic.

Apart from America, the other contender for Muslim leadership is Indonesia by virtue of it being the most populous Muslim nation. Indonesia however can barely manage itself; its very survival is questionable. It may still surprise everyone. I am pleasantly surprised that it survived the brutal years of Sukarno and Suharto to have peaceful and relatively honest elections. Quite an achievement! Its recently elected leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is well versed in economics, for a change.

Next: Lessons on Leading the Muslim World

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