A formidable, but doable, challenge

THERE was the Islam of PAS that wanted to create an Islamic state with the Quran and the Hadith as the Constitution of the country. There was the Islamisation of Dr Mahathir Mohamed to introduce universal Islamic values of honesty and hard work as the basis of governance. Only for the policy to be hijacked by conservative ideologues into a massive expansion of the Islamic bureaucracy and Syariah jurisdiction.
Then there was the Islam Hadhari of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, a civilisational approach to Islam to promote good governance, democratic practices, and equitable sharing of wealth.
There was a moment of openness when Abdullah was able to assert his belief in the need for ijtihad (reinterpretation) to deal with changing times and circumstances and to promote inter-faith dialogue and women’s rights in Islam.
But by 2006, the Islamic state ideologues within and outside government launched a campaign against any effort at liberalisation of the ways Malaysians understood and used Islam as a source of law and public policy.
A nationwide campaign, supported by Jakim and other government religious apparatus working with Islamist non-state actors, was launched to mobilise Muslims against more openness and compassion, proclaiming Islam was under threat, Islam was insulted because of civil society demands for fundamental liberties and equality.
Unfortunately, the then Prime Minister was not able to muster the political will to push his agenda, and mobilise support from within his cabinet and his own party to his vision of Islam. Those behind a dogmatic and punitive approach to Islam dug their heels deeper, unhindered and unchallenged by those in authority.
And then came the Islam wasatiyyah (moderate) of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to counter the growth of extremism and to promote moderation in Islam. He even launched the Global Movement of Moderates at the United Nations and established its Secretariat in Kuala Lumpur. But Islam wasatiyyah brought no respite to the rakyat. Incident after incident of intolerance and injustice in the name of Islam piled up on a long range of issues.
And now we have the newly minted Islam rahmatan lil alamin (compassionate Islam) of the new Pakatan Harapan government, as announced by the defacto Minister for Religion, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa. The proof of the pudding is of course in the eating.
But finally we have a Minister for Religion who seems willing to take on full frontal the challenges in the decades-long unresolved matters in the administration of Islam in this country. He made several significant points in his recent interview withThe Star that are welcome departures from how the last Barisan Nasional government understood and practised Islam.
That the Minister has pronounced that the Islam of this Pakatan Harapan government will be inclusive, compassionate and progressive set distinct values that we pray will guide how laws and policies are made and enforced in the name of Islam.
On the highly contested issue of moral policing, he made the important distinction within Islamic jurisprudence of the difference between “sins” committed in the private and public spheres. What takes place behind closed doors between consenting adults is not the business of the government. And any form of enforcement by state religious authorities should be guided by the compassionate Islam of this new government.
He believes in discussion and consultation to reduce the tensions and polarisation between different visions and understandings of Islam. He is not scared to say that he might take a stand against a fatwa because it might not serve the public interest, referring to the concept of maslaha in Islamic jurisprudence.
He criticised the unseemly competition among some states to prove their piousness by implementing more punitive measures such as public caning. He cajoled Syariah court judges not to be dictated by extremist thought or be fearful in showing compassion and being labelled liberal for exercising their authority to do what is just.
After over a decade where it seemed that we had a political leadership that showed no will, no courage and no interest in dealing with the contentious issue of how Islam is understood, codified and enforced within a multi-ethnic, multi-religious constitutional democracy, Dr Mujahid is giving some hope that this new government is willing to take on the hardliners and their punitive and intolerant approach to Islam.
This is an important and welcome beginning. For eventually, he will need to grapple with much bigger and more difficult challenges and debates on the place of Islam within Malaysia’s constitutional democracy.
If the compassionate Islam of Pakatan Harapan takes the position that personal wrongs that happen behind closed doors are not the business of the government, then it will have to deal with the substance of the Syariah Criminal Offences law which provides for state intrusion into the private lives of Muslims and state-imposed punishments on those who commit personal “sins” that cause no harm to the public.
When he talks about the progressive Islam of this new government, then he must deal with women’s demands for a more just and equitable legal framework governing marriage in Islam. When he says this government believes in inclusive Islam, he must ensure that the voices of those silent and silenced in the decision-making process must now be heard. The complaints of injustice and discrimination women suffer in the Syariah Court system must be taken into consideration in the reform process.
If this government is truly committed to Islam rahmatan lil alamin, it must lead in shaping a new discourse on Islam, build new champions within its own religious authorities and institutions, and build public support for the necessity and possibility for change. It needs to build a new culture of civic engagement on matters related to Islam, instead of being put on the defensive by toxic statements by hardliners meant to inflame their support base, rather than find solutions to real problems on the ground.
The problem in the end is not with Islam, as the legal tools and concepts for reform towards equality and justice, towards compassion, towards bringing about an Islam that is a blessing to all, exist. The problem is whether those in authority have the political will and courage to do what is right and the wisdom and strategic thinking to win over those in the middle ground and isolate the extremists that exist within every society.
The challenge is formidable, but doable as this Pakatan Harapan government is filled with reformists and self-proclaimed Muslim democrats.

The Minister in charge is making a good start and I would like to believe that he has it within him the skills to build bridges and mobilise support to deliver the government’s commitment to a more compassionate and just Islam.

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