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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #76

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Reform in Islam

The Quest For Answers

Present-day Muslims look askance at the sorry state in which the vast majority of our ummah live. Muslim nations, even those well endowed by Allah with abundant rich natural resources, live in abject poverty. Human rights abuses are the norm in many Islamic countries. As painfully noted by Abdullahi An-Naim, the vast majority of Muslims live at a superficial level of both Islam and modern civilization. Although we claim adherence to Islam and exhibit apparent commitment to its ritualistic formalities, we fail to appreciate and live up to its moral and spiritual essence. Likewise most Muslims benefit from modern civilization but have little appreciation of the values and ways of thinking that underlie and sustain those technologies and institutions. Further, many Muslims’ understanding of Western civilization is often reduced to the gaudy simplistic images propagated by Hollywood, and the seamier aspects highlighted by Muslim fundamentalists eager to denigrate the West.

Muslim leaders are no better. They smugly and gleefully gloat over the ills of the West without once pausing to look over the inadequacies of their own society. Meanwhile the West progresses while Islamic societies stagnate. Envy and jealousy are common human faults. As a result today there is considerable rage against the West among Muslims. The 9-11 Al Qaeda’s attacks on America are only the latest and most vicious manifestation of this ugly emotion. I suggest that Muslims emulate, not hate the West. The energies of Muslim leaders and scholars should instead be directed to picking the best out of the West for emulation. Condemning (or destroying) does not take any talent.

Bernard Lewis’s critique of Islamic societies in What Went Wrong, suggests that contemporary Muslims in pondering their fate should stop asking the question, “Who did this to us?” and more usefully substitute, “What did we do wrong?” and, “How do we right it?” That Lewis is not a Muslim does not in any way diminish the wisdom of his observation.

Muslims can begin to answer the “What we did wrong?” by first critically reexamining the sunnah and Shari’a. Foremost we must remember that both are the creations of man and have qualities inherent in all such endeavors, including the possibility of errors and imperfections.

Only the Koran is perfect. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the sunnah is not the practices and sayings of the prophet, rather what some scholars interpret to be so. It is instructive that the collection of ahadith (plural for hadith) considered most authoritative is that of Imam Bukhari. But he was not even born until nearly two hundred years after the prophet’s death. It is equally instructive that he rejected thousands of purported sayings of the prophet (pbuh). The essential criterion he used was the lineage of the oral propagation (isnah), relying heavily on the piety and reputation of the transmitters. The assumption is that the pious would not willingly fabricate or embellish. May be not willingly or consciously, but our memory does play fools on us, regardless of our piety or wisdom. Being a mere mortal, we can expect errors on Bukhari’s part both in including the less-than-truthful ahadith as well as excluding some legitimate ones. Remember, only Allah is perfect.

Had Imam Bukhari and the early scholars not put as much effort on evaluating the theological pedigree of the transmitters and instead concentrated their intellectual energies on reconciling the purported sayings and practices of the prophet (pbuh) with the message of the Koran, their ensuing treatises might have been considerably different. Or perhaps Bukhari, knowing full well how entrenched some of the beliefs in the purported sayings and ways of the prophet (pbuh) were in the minds and culture of the Muslims then, dared not personally challenge the perceived wisdom. He knew only too well the fate that befell “deviationists.” Thus he ingeniously devised the “science” of hadith by using his considerable intellect and prodigious memory to tracing the lineage and transmission of each hadith. With this “science” he found a neutral or objective way of dispensing with the more outrageous and embellished sunnah and ahadith. Were he to simply dismiss them through his own independent research and critical thinking, he would have been lynched. As it was, he had his share of denigration and banishment for daring to dispense with some of the more popularly accepted but obviously preposterous ahadith.

Today over a millennium later, there is no possible way of independently ascertaining the veracity of the lineage and pedigree of the sunnah. In the interpretation of the Koran, modern scholars pay as much attention to the “occasion of the revelation” as to the text, thus giving us a much richer and more perceptive reading. We should likewise do the same in interpreting the various ahadith, that is, examine the occasion of the purported sayings as well as analyzing their historical and sociological contexts.

Many scholars, past and present, have cautioned Muslims on attributing infallibility to the sunnah and Shari’a. We should reserve that only for the Koran. Kassim Ahmad has suggested doing away completely with hadith. For that audacious position, his book was banned in Malaysia and he was branded an apostasy. So much for Muslim tolerance in Malaysia! I disagree with Kassim, but I find his views refreshing even though his analyses and reasoning are less than rigorous. We must have an open mind and treat the hadith and sunnah as historical and sociological vignettes in order to understand the Koran better.

To me the current debate on whether Malaysia should adopt the Shari’a and whether it is an Islamic state is futile, nonproductive, and highly divisive. Such controversies are nothing more than wayang kulit (shadow play) or sandiwara (staged theater) between UMNO and PAS out to display their religious aroma. At least wayang kulit and sandiwara are entertaining and help bring people together. The bigger question that has yet to be addressed and is being shunted aside in the preoccupation with trivia, is how to make the present laws and institutions conform to the ideals of the Koran.

Next: Islamization of Education

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization # 75

July 25th, 2011

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Reform in Islam

Confusing Examples For Principles

My main criticism of the traditional ulama is that in their meticulous and detailed studies of the individual verses of the Qur’an and sunnah, they completely miss out on the underlying theme – missing the proverbial forest for the tress.

To Taha, Muslims’ preoccupation between secular and Islamic state is arbitrary and useless. The values of supposedly secular Western societies like gender equality, commitment to basic human rights, abhorrence of cruel and inhumane punishment, the brotherhood of mankind, and participatory democracy are also Islamic values and ideals. That the West has absorbed and claimed these virtues to be its core is no reason why Muslims should not also subscribe to them. If we follow Taha’s message and make the Shari’a compatible with modern values and aspirations, which as we have seen are also Islamic, then the question of secular versus Islamic would not arise.

The Syrian reformist Muhammad Syahrur argues along similar lines. In his book, al-Kitab wa al Qutan: Qira’a Mucasira (The Book and the Qur’an: A Contemporary Interpretation), he challenges Muslims to imagine: Had Allah revealed the Qur’an today, how would it be written? Apart from being an intellectually stimulating exercise, it would certainly help us understand the Holy Book better. Such an endeavor however, requires considerable mental effort, much more demanding intellectually than simply parroting the lessons of the past.

In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I posed a similar question. Had Allah chosen an Eskimo to be His Last Messenger instead of an Arab, would the imagery of Hell be a place of eternal fire or a cold frozen dungeon?

The Qur’an and sunnah teach through parables and anecdotes, but we should not confuse these examples with the underlying principles. Let me illustrate this principle with, well, an example.

If I were to explain the universal theory of gravity by stating that gravitational pull is directly proportional to the mass and inversely to the square of the distance, or more precisely and elegantly stated by the simple formula g=km/d2, only math jocks would get excited. Others would fall asleep. But if I were to illustrate this with the example of an apple falling to the ground, then the concept is readily grasped. But if one confuses this example with the underlying principle, then one’s faith would be severely shattered on seeing an apple floating when in a spaceship. Indeed if you drop an apple while on one of those gut-wrenching roller coaster rides, it “falls” to the sky. If we truly understand the principle of gravity, then these apparent aberrations, far from shaking our faith, reaffirm it.

Much of the disagreements over the interpretations of the Qur’an and the sunnah are attributable to this confusing of examples over principles. We interpret the Qur’an literally, often completely missing its essence.

I am reminded of the Catholic priest who was sent to preach among the Eskimos. On his first sermon he was in his usual fire and brimstone form, exhorting the natives not to plunder, lie, or fornicate lest they would be sent to burning Hell. Imagine his horror the very next day to find his congregation enthusiastically doing all those damnable deeds. To his angry admonition, they jovially countered, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the fire burns all the time!” Confusing example with principle!

It is instructive that many of the fresh insights into Islam are the result of the intellectual efforts of lay Muslim scholars rather than traditional ulama. Equally significant is that these scholars often are the product of Western liberal education, imbued with the capacity for critical thinking. Taha and Syahrur were professional engineers. Abdullahi An-Naim has a law degree from Cambridge and a doctorate from Edinburgh. As noted by Fazlur Rahman, himself an Oxford PhD, the level of scholarship of the traditional ulama is severely challenged. Their training is narrow, lacks scholarly rigor, and is singularly devoid of original thought. The state of the traditional Islamic educational institutions is no better. Al-Azhar University, Islam’s Harvard, did not have disciplines outside the traditional theological field until the late 1960s. Thus its scholars did not have the opportunity for intellectual cross-fertilization with those in other fields. They remained insular intellectually and socially.

The best hope for the future will be the new breed of scholars coming out of Western universities. It is gratifying that many leading American campuses now have chairs in Islamic Studies. These future scholars, trained under the liberal, broad-based education that is the hallmark of the American system, will lead Islam into its renaissance. According to Osman Bakar, the Malaysian Chair of the Institute of Islamic and Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, America will be the second Mecca. Islam flourishes only in an atmosphere of freedom. America amply provides that.

Traditional ulama are dismissive of Western-trained scholars. To them you are not a “real” Islamic scholar if you do not have the overflowing robe (preferably green, the color of the prophet), oversized turban, and scruffy beard. The spiritual leader of PAS, Tok Guru Nik Aziz, in a Friday sermon contemptuously dismissed Western-trained scholars as having been brainwashed by “orientalists” out to ridicule Islam. When you cannot challenge the message, simply attack the messenger – an age-old trick, and a very cheap and ineffective one at that.

Next: The Quest For Answers

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Applying Prospect Theory to Ending Affirmative Action

Applying Prospect Theory To Ending Affirmative Action
M. Bakri Musa

An insight of cognitive psychology (that sub-discipline dealing with mental processes like thinking and decision making) is that humans are far removed from the ideal of a rational self-interested Homo economicus (Economic man) when making decisions, contrary to the core assumption of traditional economics.

Two factors weigh heavily when we make decisions, given a set of alternatives. One, we are loss averse; that is, we magnify the value of a potential loss and minimize the potential gain even if the two are quantitatively the same. The other is that how those alternatives are framed very much influences our decision.

Although these insights refer to individual decision-making processes, nonetheless they can be extrapolated to the societal level, on how we collectively make decisions. This has relevance to the central wrenching issue dividing our Malay community today, on whether to continue or do away with affirmative action.

The example (minus the intricate mathematics and fancy graphs) used to illustrate the Prospect Theory (as this new insight is called) is the potential epidemic of an Asian disease hitting America that is expected to kill 600 people. When asked to choose between an intervention that would save 200 people and another that would have a 1/3 probability that 600 people would be saved with 2/3 probability that no one would, most would approve the first. Both propositions state exactly the same thing. The first however, framed it more positively with the element of undue certainty thrown in.

There are other variations on the same theme. Thus we willingly drive across town to save $5 on a $15 calculator but not on a $125 suit. The savings are the same – $5 in both cases – but what decides is the framing. Never mind that you spend $10 on gas to drive across town! Marketers make full use of these insights of cognitive psychology when advertising their products. Thus the grabbing banners: “Fifty percent savings!”

Returning to the difficult issue of affirmative action, we have made it unduly contentious as we have framed it unwisely. One, we have stated it as taking away special privileges, and being risk averse, we rightly reject that. Two, we have framed special privileges as being part of our character, our right by virtue of being the indigenous people. We forget that affirmative action was instituted for the explicit purpose of overcoming disadvantages we suffered under colonialism. Those privileges were meant to jumpstart our development so we could be on par with the rest of the community.

New Frame of Reference

We can deal with the issue of special privileges more effectively and less acrimoniously by tapping the wisdom of modern cognitive psychology. First, we must reframe the discussion differently, away from privileges and the taking away of them, to the more general but pertinent issue of enhancing Malay competitiveness; and second, we must amplify the benefits and minimize or lessen the loss of doing away with these crutches.

By making affirmative action part of our culture and character, we have made it difficult to critically examine it. No matter how noble in intention and beneficial the results, any scrutiny would be viewed as an attack on our values, character and heritage. Those are formidable obstacles.

Instead we should focus not on special privileges per se but on how to prepare our people for this new highly competitive economy. Indeed I would specifically eschew any talk of doing away with special privileges; all that does is to inflame passions and further polarize us. Once we are competitive, then the need for special privileges would simply melt away. Then we can talk of about ending them more rationally as they would have become irrelevant in the lives of most Malays.

What made affirmative action so highly effective at its inception was its emphasis on education and rural development. Under Tun Razak, schools were literally mushrooming in the villages, bringing both development and education. I vividly recall that in the seven-mile bus ride from home to my high school in town, there were no fewer than seven primary schools being built! In the afternoon when the children were finished, those schools would still be full, this time with adults attending literacy classes.

The emphasis on rural development made great sense; the overwhelming majority of Malays then were rural dwellers. Under FELDA, massive land development schemes were initiated, with mass relocations of landless kampong folks, an internal migration of sorts, so they could begin a new life away from the stifling atmosphere of their old villages. Its sterling success in mass relocating poor people remains the only shining example in the world up to this day.

Today the noble mission of FELDA has been hijacked, the entity itself being “corporatized,” another government-linked company (GLC). Tell me, how does the building of a RM 670 million headquarters in the glittering part of KL make those FELDA settlers in Ulu Pahang more competitive? Headquarters are nothing but expensive overhead. Likewise, I fail to see how FELDA’s plantations abroad would help the poor people back in my kampong.

The same query could be posed on the billions spent on GLCs. Najib, like his predecessor Abdullah, cannot find a GLC he does not love. He and we accept that because those expenditures are being framed as furthering NEP and not on the more pertinent issue of making Malays competitive. Had we done that, then obviously those funds would be better off diverted to making schools in FELDA settlements have the best facilities and teachers, as well as making sure that those settlers have electricity and potable water.

Maximize The Gain, Minimize The Loss

The other insight is of risk aversion. For us to favor a decision, we have to be convinced that the promised gains would vastly outweigh the potential loss, and that the majority would benefit and the loss suffered by the minority, preferably a minority we (the majority) are not enamored with.

If we dispense with inflated contracts to UMNO cronies and instead get the best price through competitive bidding, then we could build two schools for the price of one. Even if that contract were to be won by a non-Malay or even a foreigner, the benefits would fall on the hundreds more Malay families whose children would now have safer and better schools. The losers would be the handful of UMNO-connected “contractors” and Ali Baba “entrepreneurs.” Again, many more gainers with far fewer losers! Besides, those losers are the types we have difficulty identifying or sympathizing with.

Similarly with the billions spent on GLCs; again if we divert those resources to improving our schools and universities by recruiting superior teachers and professors from abroad, thousands would benefit. The losers would be few, those has-been politicians and near-retirement civil servants seeking cushy corporate jobs. Again, those are the people we do not readily sympathize or identify with.

I advocate this in my forthcoming book, Liberating the Malay Mind. Sell all those GLCs including and especially such jewels as Petronas and MAS, and put the proceeds in a professionally-managed trust fund with the returns to be used exclusively for education and improving the lives of our urban and rural poor. To me, it is far more important to train young Malays to be pilots, airline mechanics, geologists and petroleum engineers than to own an airline or oil company.

One big benefit to selling those GLCs would be the elimination of a major source of undue lobbying and influence peddling by politicians and senior civil servants. Currently they, especially the near-retirement civil servants, are preoccupied with ingratiating themselves to their political superiors in the hope securing a coveted chairmanship of a GLC on retirement from government service. With that no longer an option, these civil servants would then be emboldened to challenge their political superiors should they embark on some silly policies. Were that to happen, we would have a far superior civil service, and the whole country would benefit.

Another benefit to ridding these GLCs is that those highly accomplished Malays presently in Petronas and Khazanah would be free to sell their talents to the highest bidder and then be appropriately compensated. Right now they are being unfairly taken advantage of, in fact seduced by such silly sentiments as national service and misguided notions of patriotism.

As for those less talented who infest the many money-losing GLCs, well, those companies were not created to be public work projects for them.

The other reality to the discussions on special privileges is this. If today we were to embark on a policy to enhance Malay competitiveness, assuming that it is highly effective, it would take a while for its results to be apparent. Further, we do not know or can predict specific potential winners except for the amorphous “Malay masses” and the aggregate results. Hence there will be no one to lobby or vigorously advocate for the changes.

On the other hand, if we were to terminate affirmative action today, the losers would feel the loss right away. Not being saints, they will fight it; they will immediately be on the streets protesting, as those in Perkasa are doing. That is predictable.

This dilemma is the greatest challenge facing policymakers everywhere, especially in a democratic society. China does not have that problem. Thus it would take an extraordinarily enlightened and farsighted leader to achieve this, someone focused on the long term and not on the next election. Such leaders are also the ones most likely to tap the wisdom of others, including that of behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists.

Unfortunately for Malaysians, Malays specifically, our current leaders are content parroting the latest buzzwords of those disciplines, while their long-term strategy never extends beyond the next party elections. Self-interested they very much are, rational they are not.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #74

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Reform in Islam

Islam is fortunate in that right from the very beginning it has a tradition of revival and reform. A tradition of the prophet has it that Allah will send every so often unto each ummah those who will renew the faith. Implicit in this hadith is the recognition of a community’s dynamism. The great Muslim reformists of the 19th and early 20th Centuries were handicapped because their native lands were under Western colonization. Many were necessarily consumed with the battle to free themselves from colonialism and by association, Western influences.

They understandably regarded the West as an enemy of Islam. Nonetheless despite such burdens, reformists like Muhammad Abduh of Egypt and Pakistan’s Muhammad Iqbal were able to forge a new understanding and insight into Islam. While many reformists of his time were consumed with the futile effort of trying to bring Islam back to its glorious past, Iqbal was forward looking. He rightly distinguished between the eternal and immutable principles of the Quran on the one hand, and those laws, regulations, and practices that were the products of human interpretation.

While he rightly acknowledged the great contributions of earlier scholars and ulama, Iqbal reemphasized the necessity for present-day Muslims to use their God-given akal (intellect) to forge new meanings and interpretations to serve modern society. He was rightly contemptuous of the fiction of the “closing of the gate of ijtihad” (rational discourse)” of the 11th Century, and with it the arrogant presumption that everything had been decided and that no fresh insight or thinking was warranted. All that was needed was for the faithful to follow what had been established. That particular hubris resulted in the subsequent stagnation of Islam.

Like many contemporary reformists, Iqbal believed that Muslims must once again emulate our earlier brethrens and reassert our right to ijtihad, that is, to reinterpret and reapply Islam to changing social conditions. More significantly, this right belongs to all Muslims and not just the ulama. He felt strongly that the views of individual members of the ummah must be heard and that the mechanism for this can be achieved through a variety of mechanisms. To him, modern participatory democracy is indeed an idealized form of the Muslim concept of mesyuarah (consultation). This is his take on the Westminster model of democracy: “It is…the spirit of the British Empire that makes it the greatest Muhamadan Empire of the World.”

Iqbal was the product of the great universities of the West (Cambridge and Munich) and the beneficiary of the finest tradition of liberal education. Having seen the best of the West – its dynamism, unrivalled intellectual fervors, and powerful technology – he was not nearly so dismissive of Western achievements. Iqbal was very unlike those ulama who had never ventured beyond their villages and whose intellectual horizons rarely extended beyond the worn-out pages of ancient religious texts. Although Iqbal was very much aware of the excesses and weaknesses of the Western tradition as exemplified by its legacy of colonialism, exploitative capitalism, and rampant secularism, nonetheless he viewed such central Western values as the equality of man, and the rights and dignity of the individual as very much the ideals of Islam also.

While traditional ulama may contemptuously dismiss Iqbal because of his Western training, they cannot easily reject Muhammad Abduh. He was after all, one of them, having served as the Grand Mufti of Egypt. He rejected the orthodox notion that constrained Muslims to a literal reading of the Qur’an and sunnah. Clearly he felt that Muslims were mistaken in rejecting the ideas of the West simply because they originated with non-Muslims.

Later 20th Century reformists carry on the Iqbalian tradition. Unlike Iqbal, they were not burdened by having to live under colonial rule or foreign domination. Indeed many benefited from the West in terms of their education and freedom. I will mention two in particular. One is Sudanese Mahmoud Taha. He excelled under the British as an engineering student at the rigorous Gordon College (the precursor of the University of Khartoum) and had a thriving private practice before turning to politics, occasioned by the turn to extreme fundamentalism of the Sudanese military government. He feared that the government’s headlong rush to implement Shari’a would severely disadvantage and disenfranchise the significant Christian population. Unchecked this would only lead to a destructive civil war.

His observation was particularly prescient. He was not against Shari’a, rather the form in which it was to be implemented. There were too many provisions that were simply inconsistent with modern and widely accepted concepts of justice and simple fairness. He founded the Republican Brotherhood, a movement whose objective was to reform the Shari’a to meet the demands of a modern pluralistic populace. Sadly the military rulers interpreted that to be apostasy, a capital crime under Shari’a. Taha was executed in January 1985.

In a turn of events that could only be interpreted as divine intervention (or perhaps simple justice), those same military leaders were later killed in yet another military coup. The Sudanese Supreme Court in reviewing the appeal brought by Taha’s daughter, reversed the earlier decision and excoriated those who participated in the sham trial. It was of course too late for Taha.

Mahmoud Taha’s enlightened views are now widely accepted by the Sudanese and others. Equally significant, his many disciples, in particular Abdullahi An-Na’im, are carrying forward his torch. Na’im is uniquely positioned to spread that message from his vantage point as a professor at a leading American university. With the vast resources afforded by Emory University, An-Naim is able to effectively propagate Taha’s ideas to the wider world. An-Naim’s translation of Taha’s seminal work, The Second Message of Islam, and An-Naim’s own tome, Toward an Islamic Reformation, represent some of the most original and enlightened interpretations of Islam and the Shari’a.

Taha’s basic thesis is that we should, like earlier Muslims, go back to the Qur’an and divine its immutable and eternal theme, and then reformulate a new set of laws to meet the needs of contemporary societies. Just as the ancient Muslims were able to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in the interpretations of the various passages of the Qur’an and successfully formulated a remarkable set of laws, so too should modern Muslims do likewise. While ancient Muslims out of necessity emphasized the later passages of the Qur’an that was revealed to the prophet while he was attempting to build the first viable Muslim community at Medinah, present-day Muslims having successfully established our community, must now go back to the Qur’an and ponder its earlier messages, the Meccan verses, that address the idealistic and universal values of Islam.

Early Muslims introduced the concept of naskh (abrogation), to justify their emphasizing certain Qur’anic passages over others. Volumes have been written on this topic, with some denying entirely the very concept. Nonetheless the reality remains; that is, the Shari’a relies on certain passages of the Qur’an while de-emphasizing or simply ignoring others. Thus it justifies capital punishment for apostasy by referring to the Medina verses while ignoring the Meccan passages that encourage Muslims to lead a life of peaceful coexistence with non-believers, and that there be no compulsion in religion.

As Muslims accept the Quran to be infallible and consistent, perceived differences must therefore be just that – a matter of perception. Thus instead of analyzing to death particular Quranic verses to support one’s viewpoints – the atomistic approach – present-day Muslims should instead emphasize the totality of the message. In the words of the late Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago, we should deduce from the particularities of the Qur’an its underlying unifying principles, and then apply those same principles to specific present-day situations. Obviously modern society differs from those of the prophet’s time, but the moral principles and imperatives remain the same.

Next: Confusing Examples For Principles

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Malaysiain the Era of Globalization #73

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Shari’a in a Plural Society

The issue of the Islamic state is needlessly consuming the energy of many Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is also the platform of the Islamic Party (PAS), its reason for being. Yet when challenged on the specifics, PAS is sorely unprepared. Surely after championing the issue for the past half a century, its leaders should have a pretty clear idea of their goals. If by Islamic state they mean one based on the ideals of justice and morality of the Quran, then all Muslims and many non-Muslims would agree. But if they want a state based on the Shari’a (Islamic law) in its current form, many Muslims and certainly all non-Muslims would demur.

The Shari’a took three centuries to formulate and consumed the best intellectual talent of the Muslim world at the time. Although based on the Qur’an and sunnah (ways of the prophet), the Shari’a remains the creation of mortals and as such, carries all the imperfections implicit in such endeavors. For Muslims to ascribe to it the reverence and perfection reserved only for the Quran means that we ascribe those very same qualities to the mortals who crafted the Shari’a.

Shari’a literally means, “the road to the watering hole,” the right or straight path to be followed. To Muslims, Shari’a refers to the body of Islamic laws that are perceived as being part and parcel of the faith. It thus assumes the same rightful place as the Quran and sunnah. To criticize the Shari’a is to criticize the faith itself. And therein lies the problem.

There are over 6,000 verses in the Quran; of these less than 600 are concerned with the law. And most of those cover such matters as prayers and rituals. Only about 80 verses deal with such traditional legal matters as crime and punishment, contracts, and family law. Clearly the Quran is not a legal tome but a general guidance on how to build a moral and ethical society.

It is a magnificent tribute to the intellect of those early Muslim scholars that they were able to fashion out of the Quran and the sunnah a coherent and consistent body of laws that is the Shari’a. In its time the Shari’a represented a giant leap in intellectual, social, and legal achievements. Its treatment of women in particular was light years ahead of its time. The status of women accorded by the Shari’a was of the order of magnitude a thousand times better than the prevailing practices. Then women were not even recognized as humans. Whereas women are granted a share of the inheritance in the Shari’a, in the then prevailing culture, women were the inheritance. They were chattels and properties of their husband, to be passed on or traded accordingly. The Shari’a represented a grand emancipation of women. In this regard Islam was centuries ahead of Western civilization. The codifying of divorces too was truly an inspiration, considering that the concept did not even exist then. Wives were not divorced then; they were simply discarded, traded, or handed over to their husband’s heir. The Shari’a’s treatment of criminal justice was similarly light years ahead of the prevailing ethos of “an eye for an eye;” likewise the treatment of slavery and indentured labor.

While the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in achievement of early Islam, in its present form it is clearly incompatible with many of today’s universally accepted norms, in particular with respect to human rights, criminal justice, public law, gender equality, and hosts of other areas.

I do not say this lightly seeing that to many Muslims, any criticism of the Shari’a is blasphemous. But I cannot look at my daughter and tell her that she is worth only half that of my son, as the Shari’a would have it. I love all my children equally and my inheritance to them should and will reflect that sentiment. Nor do I find such cruel and inhuman punishments as stoning to death a woman for adultery and the chopping of hands for thievery compatible with an All Compassionate and All Merciful Allah. Similarly I find the death penalty for apostasy as prescribed by the Shari’a not only abhorrent but also incompatible with the Koranic admonition that there shall be no compulsion in matters of faith.

As a Muslim I take the Koran to be Allah’s revelation. Its message is infallible and immutable, and for all mankind at all times. That is a matter of faith. Being Allah’s words, the Koran takes precedence over everything else, including the Shari’a and the sunnah.

That is a heavy statement. Having said it, a much-needed pause for clarification. Muslims consider the Koran and the sunnah as co-equal parts of the faith. One cannot separate the message (the Koran) from the messenger (the prophet – pbuh); they both form an integral part of the faith. I agree wholeheartedly. The main issue I have is differentiating between the actual practices and sayings of the prophet (pbuh) and what scholars say they are. I will revisit this important differentiation a few pages hence. Meanwhile back to my original discussion.

Societies change, and so too must the laws. There is nothing in the Shari’a that mandates we give it the reverence due only to the Quran. Thus the pertinent question, and one rarely asked, is not whether the Shari’a should be applied to modern society, rather how can we adapt and modify it to meet current needs. A body of laws that was an enlightened piece of legislation for 7-10th Century Arabia is clearly not suitable for the present. When the Shari’a was formulated, the Arabian society was just emerging from the Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance), a period of rampant female infanticide, slavery, and tribalism. A millennium later, the problems are of a different order. The challenge today is to enhance the freedom and dignity of humans. That these freedoms and rights are emphasized by Western civilization is no reason for Muslims not to co-opt and adopt them.

Today’s Muslims should emulate our illustrious predecessors. Had ancient Muslims been like their present-day counterparts and considered everything originating outside of Islam as “un-Islamic,” Islam would not have expanded. Muslims today should be equally receptive to and be welcoming of new ideas and innovations regardless of where they originated. That Allah chose a Christian to reveal His secret on gravity, a Jew on the nature of the atom, a Confucian on the explosive power of gunpowder, and a Hindu on the concept of zero, is not for us to question. It is however, for us to appreciate that such wisdom and insights are for the benefit of all.

Next: Reform in Islam

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Malaysians Passed the Test, Brilliantly!

Malaysians Passed The Test, Brilliantly!
M. Bakri Musa

[Due to last Saturday’s Bersih 2.0 event, for this week only, the serialization of my book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, is switched to Wednesday, and my weekly essay to today (Sunday). My usual pattern will resume next week.]

A remarkable thing happened this past weekend. To many, the event on Saturday was nothing more than a massive public demonstration that capped a long brewing confrontation between those advocating “fair and free elections” and those who deemed that our elections are already so.

As with any fight, the drama was played out long before the event, and by the time the actual battle took place, the participants had long forgotten the original issue. Instead, now the preoccupation is who blinked first, who outsmarted whom, and most of all, who lost and who won. These then become the new overriding divisive issues, eclipsing the original one.

The losers would return to their corner with their new resolve: “Next time!” And the battle continues; they never learn! There were plenty of losers this weekend but few winners. The winners may be few but their achievements scaled new heights.

To me, this weekend was one of those moments (much too frequent, I hasten to add!) that test our nation. This time however, Malaysians acquitted themselves well. The same cannot be said of the Najib administration.

If this was an academic exercise, I would grade the performance of Malaysians as represented in Bersih an “A,” while the Najib Administration flunked badly. So dismal was its performance that the Najib administration should have no recourse to a remedial course or supplemental test; expulsion is the only option.

Terrible Trajectory

I would have thought that after the debacle of 1997 with the grossly inept handling of the reformasi demonstrations, and again a decade later with HINDRAF, the UMNO government would have learned a thing or two on how to deal intelligently with dissent and public demonstrations, two inherent features of a democracy. My expectation is not unreasonable, if not heightened, considering that we are today dealing with essentially the same characters in the administration. Most of the ministers who were in power during the reformasi and HINDRAF (now dubbed Bersih 1) are still there in Najib’s cabinet.

Obviously they, individually and collectively, have a flat learning curve. They are incapable of learning. There is a clinical term for that, but since this is a lay article I will resort to street lingo: idiots.

Their flat learning curve is even more incomprehensible considering that the consequences to them were so severe. The 1997 reformasi mess resulted in Barisan being thrashed in the 1999 elections, with Najib nearly being kicked out of his safe seat in Pekan that his father had held for many years.

The price escalated with Bersih 1.0. The general elections of 2008 saw Barisan being humiliated with an unprecedented loss of its two-thirds parliamentary majority, along with five states, including two of the most developed: Penang and Selangor.

I will let readers plot the trajectory as to the consequences of this weekend’s mess should the next general elections be held soon, as is widely predicted.

The iconic image of the reformasi debacle was of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar’s battered face; that of Bersih1.0 was of Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin frothing at the mouth, babbling incoherently in front of the international news media trying to justify his government’s brutal suppression of its people. It was a classic demonstration of that uniquely Malay mental malady, latah (verbal diarrhea). It was also a display of amok, another peculiarly Malay affliction, albeit in this case only of the oral variety.

The iconic image of Bersih 2.0 was refreshing; that of its leader Ambiga Sreenivasan, former Bar Council President, serenely leaving the Istana after an audience with the King. The symbolism could not be overstated, for the Najib Administration had earlier declared her organization illegal! Only those retarded would miss the message, and they are precisely the types we are dealing with here.

Winners and Losers

My award for courage and excellence in Berseh 2.0 goes to those brave Malay masses who defied their government, their imams, and the party that had long proclaimed and presumed to speak on their behalf. In taking a very active part in a movement led predominantly by non-Malays, those Malays showed that they are no longer trapped by tribalism; they had escaped the clutches of chauvinism. There is now no going back.

This significant milestone is not acknowledged, much less appreciated. However, leaders who ignore this do so at their peril. For aspiring Malay leaders, it is now no longer enough for you to display your nationalistic zeal or ethnic instincts. You have to articulate the issues that matter most to the Malay masses: fairness, honesty, and justice, in elections and on other issues. I would also add competence. Those incidentally are also the concerns of all Malaysians.

Yes, there was a time when you could garner Malay support by justifying that the victims of your corruption, injustices and unfairness were non-Malays. Those days are now long gone; get used to it! Malays now realize that while in the past those victims may be mostly non-Malays, today they are increasingly Malays too.

The comforting corollary to my observation is that those capable non-Malay leaders would be assured of Malay support, if they were to address the central issues facing the masses.

Yes, Bersih 2.0 had strong non-Malay support especially abroad. Unanswered is whether a similar movement with equally noble objectives but with predominantly Malay leadership would garner the same enthusiastic support from non-Malays. If reformasi was any indication, the answer would be a reassuring yes.

I am especially heartened by the responses of Malay NGO leaders like Marina Mahathir. When Najib, and others who took their cue from him, began demonizing Ambiga by maliciously injecting ugly racial and religious accusations, Marina unambiguously and passionately defended Ambiga. Marina was of course all smiles and gentleness, as is the traditional halus (fine) Malay way, but there was no disguising her contempt for such odious tactics and their purveyors.

The biggest loser was of course the Najib Administration, specifically Najib and his fellow UMNO ministers. Their inanity was typified by Home Minister Hishammuddin complimenting the police for keeping the peace and stability. Yes, with the streets blockaded, stores closed, and citizens bludgeoned – the ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ of a prison “lockdown.” That was KL all week leading to last Saturday.

The conspicuous silence of other Barisan leaders was noted; that reflected solidarity not out of courage but cowardice. In contrast, even UMNO Youth defied Najib in declaring that it too would stage a counter demonstration.

Despite its defiance, UMNO Youth was also the loser, together with that ultra-Malay organization led by has-been politicians and past-their-peak professors, Perkasa. Good thing that the government had banned their leaders from KL; at least they had a ready excuse for their dismal performance.

The list of losers is long; there is little merit in mentioning more except for just this one, and I do so with profound sadness. A few weeks before the event, all the mosques in Kuala Lumpur, including the National Mosque, were warning their Friday prayer congregants of the evilness of those who led Bersih 2.0 and the sin that would befall those who would participate in it.

At a time when our community is divided, as with this central issue of fair and free elections, I would expect our ulamas and religious leaders to be our healers, to bring us together, to be the balm to our collective wounds. Instead they became only too willing instruments of the state with their canned state-issued sermons demonizing those who saw merit in the objectives of Bersih 2.0.

Obviously to the thousands of Malays who took part in Bersih 2.0, including one particular old man in his jubbah who had to be helped to walk, those characters cloaked in their flowing robes standing at their mimbar every Friday noon are less pious ulamas to be revered but more propagandists for the state to be defied. They may be Imams, but to the thousands who took part in Berseh 2.0 last Saturday, they are carma imams, to borrow National Laureate Samad Said’s term. Carma is the Malay contraction of cari makan, seeking a living. Idiomatically it refers to those who prostituted their honored craft or profession.

Those GI Imams (Government-issued) have flunked their test; there is no remedial course for them either. That is one of the great casualties of last Saturday’s event. For those carma imams, there is no corner they can return to or hide in.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Wisdom of the Students

The Wisdom of the Students
M. Bakri Musa

In a remarkable display of professorial prowess, University of Malaya Vice-Chancellor Ghauth Jasmon recently engaged his students in a two-hour dialogue on what it would take to make their university great. With humility, pedagogical skills, and great stage presence, he enthralled his audience while imparting an important message. They in turn were not at all shy in telling him the challenges they faced. It was truly a dialogue, not the usual one-way pedantic pronouncements.

Those students had a clear message not only for their Vice-Chancellor but also the country’s leaders and policy makers: Listen to us!

The session was even more remarkable as it was held after lunch, typically siesta time in the tropics. Anyone who has faced a classroom of students at that time of day knows how difficult it is to get their attention. Yet there they were – professor and students – intellectually engaging each other, interspersed with frequent cheers and laughter.

The Vice-Chancellor listed the five criteria of an elite university, as judged by the rating bodies. They are, in order of importance, the academic reputation of its faculty (40 percent); the related faculty citations (20); student-faculty ratio (20); employers’ assessment of its graduates (10); and the institution’s internationalism as reflected by the number of foreign students (5) and faculty members(5).

For parents and students however, the fourth factor – employers’ assessment – is for practical reasons the most important. Thus Ghauth focused on that. To employers, local graduates are deficient in such important areas as English proficiency, critical thinking, and problem solving. He emphasized the lack of English fluency.

The first three major criteria, comprising 80 percent of the total, are beyond the students’ control. Those are the responsibility of the university, specifically Dr. Ghauth. Students’ contribution would be limited, as the Vice-Chancellor humorously suggested, to existing foreign students encouraging their friends and family members to enroll at UM, and that would influence only five percent of the total assessment.

In a Kennedyesque twist, Dr. Ghauth asked his students what they could do for their university to make it great. Specifically he asked them for ways on improving their English proficiency if for no other reason than to make them acceptable to local employers.

The students’ responses were most illuminating. To be sure, most were the usual and predictable, “Use English more frequently,” or “Befriend more foreign students.” One student stood out for the frankness of his opinion and sharpness of his observation. He also had a deft sense of humor, outclassing the Vice-Chancellor’s. He introduced himself as “Azlé from Kelaté” (Azlan from Kelantan) in that distinctively Malaysian east coast accent. That brought the house down.

Azlan freely admitted to his mediocre English and bravely committed to improving it to “C-grade” over the semester. Amidst the ensuing laughter, many missed his sharp observation, made difficult by his frequent resorting to Malay. In Malay he articulated his problems eloquently.

He related how his teachers back in Kelantan had to resort to using Malay when teaching English! The atmosphere was no better on campus. His friends and classmates would for example, mock and berate him whenever he tried to speak in English. Obviously opportunities for him, and others like him, to learn and practice his English were as limited on campus as they were back in his Kelantan village. That was his crucial message.

As indicated, Azlan could not escape the irritating and jarring Malaysian habit of mixing Malay and English at will. I can readily excuse him because of his admitted lack of English fluency; inexcusable however, were Dr. Ghauth and the other supposedly English-proficient students.

“Soft” and “Hard” Obstacles To Achieving English Fluency

I would have stated Dr. Ghauth’s central question differently: How could the university enhance the English proficiency of its students? A good start would be to follow up on Azlan’s insights.

What Azlan had related are the “soft” obstacles to achieving greater English fluency among Malay students, the subtle cultural and peer pressures. The mindset that dictates learning English is tantamount to hating your own language is part of this “soft” problem. It is a formidable obstacle precisely because it is so amorphous; you cannot easily put your hands around it.

Then there are the “hard” obstacles, like the lack of competent teachers or our students not taking the subject seriously. Ironically, because they are concrete barriers we can readily get a handle on them and then come up with workable solutions.

Take the obvious, the poor teaching of English in our schools and the lack of competent teachers especially in rural areas where the need is greatest. To train these teachers the university must have a strong Department of English. Yet UM’s department has only 11 faculty members and three tutors to serve a campus of 25,000 students. To its credit however, nine of its members have doctorates, a higher percentage than the university as a whole.

The department’s size is not consonant with the great needs of the university and country. Considering that it was one of the first if not founding departments, its lack of growth must have been deliberate. That was short sighted and must be quickly rectified.

The university must expand that department and provide non-credit courses and language labs so its Azlans can have a place to learn and practice their English. Emulate many American campuses including elite ones like Harvard that have similar facilities to improve the math and writing skills of their students.

Dr. Gauth should go further and persuade his fellow Vice-Chancellors to impress upon our policymakers on the importance of teaching English in our schools and universities. They should not remain silent in the face of such regressive steps as the discontinuing of teaching of science and mathematics in English.

As academic leaders these Vice-Chancellors could also mandate a pass in the Malaysian University English Test (MUET). That single move will make our students take English seriously. There will be severe opposition from some students and Malay language nationalists, part of the soft obstacle I alluded to earlier. Thus to soften the impact, I would add this proviso: If a student is otherwise qualified except for his MUET score, then he would be given a year to remedy the deficit before enrolling.

If these academic leaders are really assertive and truly believe on the importance of English for their students, as they frequently profess, they would go further and make English mandatory for all freshmen. Have a placement test so students could be assigned to the appropriate class. Again this is common practice on many American campuses.

Dr. Ghauth could also require all students write no fewer than 30 extended essays (term papers) during their undergraduate years. Again, this is the norm at good American universities. I would also have a similar requirement for essays in Malay (though far fewer in number) for international students. It would be a great shame and make a mockery of their attending a Malaysian university if they were unable to read or write in our national language.

Once we have successfully overcome the “hard” obstacles, the soft barriers will automatically disintegrate like a mud wall in a downpour.

This emphasis on English, though well placed, should not distract us from the other problems facing our students. English proficiency is no panacea; otherwise those Indian and Filipino graduates would be competitive.

Deficiencies in critical thinking and problem solving are not English language dependent, as attested by Azlan’s performance. Instead they are the consequence of our pedagogical philosophy as well as our approach to teaching and testing. Far too often what goes on in our schools and universities is not education but indoctrination. Education in Malaysia is, to borrow Noam Chomsky’s phrase, “a system of imposed ignorance … a system of indoctrination.”

Consider how we test our students; it is nothing more than an exercise in regurgitation. If we design our questions so students could have “open book” examinations, then we are truly evaluating critical thinking and problem solving abilities instead of talent for regurgitation. Professor Ghauth had demonstrated a teaching style that engages students and make the intellectual traffic flows both ways.

I applaud the university personnel for doing a professional job in videotaping the session and then posting it on Youtube. I hope Dr. Ghauth will have other similar sessions with his faculty, the public, and policymakers to address the first three criteria on making the university great.

Anticipating that, I offer my suggestions. One, strive to have within five years all faculty members with terminal qualifications. I would later elevate that by requiring new recruits to have substantive post-doctoral experience. Two, I would fund faculty members so they could present papers at international meetings. That would encourage them to submit their papers to international bodies. Three, grant all faculty members automatic research funding equal to their annual salaries, and spread over three years. Four, I would supply each faculty member with a free laptops and unlimited WiFi access so they could download lectures by leading scholars elsewhere for presentation to the students, as well as access to professional journals. Many of those publications offer free access to academics from the Third World. That alone would pay for the computers, by sparing the library from having to subscribe to those expensive journals. Five, I would treat our academics with great respect beginning with getting rid of that idiotic Akujanji pledge.

If our policymakers think that my suggestions are expensive, think how much more it would be to have our universities remain in the academic cellar and continue producing mediocre products! That would be the greatest disservice to the students, as well as to the country.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #72

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Authoritative Versus Authoritarian Ulamas and Scholars

Then there are such irrelevant issues as who can and cannot partake in these debates. There are those ulamas and scholars who feel that only they are qualified enough to partake in such heavy issues. There rest need merely follow their dictates. They are not so much authoritative as much as authoritarian, to use Khalid El Fadl’s words.

It reminds me of the bad old days of imperious doctors who behave like Gods; their utterances and decisions cannot be challenged, least of all by the laity. Thank God, those days are gone. Today physicians fully engage their patients and the y in turn participate fully in decisions affecting themselves. The seeking of second and alternate opinions is now standard practice.

Take the issue of Islamic scholars, another very contentious one. Much of the confusion and the ensuing controversies revolve around the different meanings of basic terms. I can best illustrate this by using the example of surgical scholars. In the academic department I was once associated with, among my colleagues were a veterinary doctor, a biochemist, and an engineer. In standing, pay and prestige, these professors of surgery were no different from the other “operating” professors of surgery, the clinician surgeons. They taught medical students and would-be surgeons, and published in surgical journals. But if one were to have appendicitis, one would not ask these “non-operating” professors to operate. If someone were stupid enough to do so, he or she would be politely if not embarrassedly referred to the “real” surgeons in the department.

Similarly there are Islamic scholars and there are ulama. One can learn a lot about Islam – both the discipline as well as the faith – from Islamic scholars; but in performing funeral rites or reciting the Surah Yaseeen (requiem), one needs the ulama. In medicine there are strict rules as to who can treat patients. Apart from specific training, he or she has to be properly licensed. Anyone not so licensed, no matter how competent, could be charged with fraud and criminal assault were they to practice as physicians. This is to protect the public.

No such statutory delineations occur in the practice of Islam, and rightly so. Islam, unlike other religions, lacks a proscribed clergy class. In Islam it is we mortals and Allah, there being no need for an intermediary. There are no priests, bishops, or pope in Islam. Sure we have an imam, but to paraphrase an ancient saying, he is imam because we, the flock, call him so. His power and prestige are derived from and not imposed upon the congregation.

The present heavily bureaucratized Islam, with ulama placed on salary schemes and acquiring all the other accouterments of the civil service, is purely a Malaysian phenomenon. No surprise then that these modern day ulama behave like their petty counterparts in the civil service – very conscious of their turf. Thus, instead of engaging in a scholarly fashion with those who disagree with them, these ulama treat new ideas as potential threats. Hence the ugly specter of the president of the Muslim Scholars Association filing a police report against writers he disagreed with, instead of publishing his own scholarly rebuttal!

This is not a surprise considering the training these ulama had undergone. They are not so much being educated as being indoctrinated. The quality of their scholarship, certainly when viewed from the vantage point of Western scholarship adept at critical thinking and “deconstruction,” is severely wanting. Their training is akin to that of students of classical music. Classical musicians are trained not to interpret but simply to follow the path of their masters before them. Improvisations or novel interpretations are not expected or welcomed. If you do, you may end up playing for the local jazz band instead. Only when you have become a Glenn Gould could you establish your own style. Until then, no fancy incidental notes or flourishes in phrasing. Follow the score as it is written.

Likewise the ulama; they are not expected to put forth any new thought or to question. Indeed such critical thinking and novel interpretations are viewed suspiciously as the devil’s machinations. Occasionally one may get an alim, who, having mastered the existing state of knowledge, goes on to make his own seminal contributions. There were many such outstanding individuals in the history of Islam. Some were successful in blazing new trails in the understanding of our faith, but most ended up being marginalized or worse, labeled as apostate –and treated accordingly.

What is threatening the world of the traditional ulama today is not the “orientalist” secular Islamic scholars like Patricia Martinez and Farish Noor, rather the emergence of ulama trained in the traditional madrasah system who then went on to be exposed to the rigors of Western scholarship. In the past such scholar-ulama were denigrated back in their native lands, but with the heightened interest in Islam in the West, these individuals are now eagerly sought after by leading Western universities. From their vantage point there, with its superior supporting structures and generous funding, this new breed of scholar-ulama are spreading their views onto the wider Islamic world. With their madrasah credentials, they are as erudite and exquisite in their tajweed (rendition of the Qur’an) as the best of Al Azhar.

The Islamic faith is invigorated with this new breed of scholar-ulama like UCLA’s Khaled Abou El Fadl and Duke University’s Ebrahim Moosa. These distinguished scholars, steeped in the traditional as well as Western scholarship and well versed in Arabic (the language of Islam) as well as English (the language of technology), will take Islam to greater heights. El Fadl is also remarkable in that he has a personal library of over 6,500 Islamic texts and manuscripts, some dating as far back as the 13th Century. More importantly, these enlightened scholars present a refreshing face of Islam to the modern world, a view more in consonant with the ideals of the faith as revealed to our prophet (pbuh) – a much-needed antidote to the rabble rousing and fatwa-issuing likes of Osama bin Ladin. These modern scholars spread the word of Islam not by issuing endless edicts but by the power of their intellect and the logic of their arguments. As the Iranian scholar Abdoolkarim Soroosh noted, the Qur’an is divine; its interpretation is human. The text of the scripture is silent; it is up to us to make it speak. These enlightened scholars have given a fresh voice to the Qur’an.

Much of the present understanding of Islam comes from the works of dedicated scholars, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. All Muslims should value their contributions. They complement our ulama. Confusion arises only when scholars try to assume the trappings of an alim, or when ulama take on the pretensions of a scholar.

For Malays, Islam is the central element of our culture; it also defines Malayness. Legally, a Malay is someone who regularly practices the Malay culture and professes Islam. Malays belong to the mainstream Sunni sect. But what is more important at the daily level is that Islam in Malaysia is what the government bureaucrats deem it to be. Anyone straying from this “straight path,” as defined by the government’s ulama, risks being branded as a subversive or “deviationist,” and will suffer the worldly consequences (like being incarcerated under the ISA).

Islam arrived in the Malay world in the 15th Century by way of Muslim traders. It did not land on a cultural vacuum as Malays then were already steeped in Hindu beliefs and animist traditions. Many Malays today would want to deny this aspect of our past, to wipe the slate clean. This tendency to overlook what present-day Islamists view as less-than-pristine “unIslamic” past is not an affliction peculiar only to Malays. The Japanese have yet to come to terms with their role in World War II. Thus the preoccupation of Malays today in trying to “cleanse” and “purify” the faith, while misguided, is understandable. The difference between the Talibans blasting to smithereens the ancient Buddhist monuments and Malaysian Islamists desecrating Hindu temples is only a matter of degree.

Sadly, much of the world today view Osama bin Ladin and his band of the Talibans as representing the essence of Islam. Unfortunately many Islamic leaders and scholars implicitly encourage this misconception by not condemning unequivocally the criminal activities of these extremist Muslims. As the late Sudanese reformist Mohamad Taha observed, religious fanaticism is inalienable from religious ignorance. It is out of ignorance of the basic tenets of Islam that these fanatics view this world as hostile, and not as God’s wonderful gift to mankind. The challenge is to enlighten Muslims especially those in Malaysia to the pristine message of Islam.

Next: Shari’a in a Plural Society