Religious extremism and bigotry in our midst

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Photograph: Free Malaysia Today

We need a big swimming pool, maybe a deep dam, not a launderette, to cleanse all the dirt in our midst, writes Francis Loh.

The big news over the past few weeks has been about events related to the Muslims-only launderette in Muar, Johore; the discovery of a similarly exclusive one in Perlis; and the criticisms by broad-minded Muslims and non-Muslims about the silliness of such division of multi-ethnic multi-religious Malaysia.

The G25, the group of former top Malay civil servants who have been critical of the rise of religious extremism in Malaysia, condemned the launderette as yet another example of rising extremism and bigotry.

Another critic, Dr Syed Farid Alattas, likened the emergence of such launderettes as taking steps towards apartheid in Malaysia.

But the criticism with the greatest impact came from Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar of Johore. He ordered the Muslims only launderette in his state to cease operations immediately.

Perhaps taking the cue from the Sultan, the Raja of Perlis and the state mufti there similarly ordered that the equivalent launderette in Perlis be closed too.

Then came Zamihan Mat Zin, the conservative Muslim preacher and president of Malaysian Ahli Sunnah Waljamaah Organisation.

In a lecture, apparently presented in the Masjid Tengku Ampuan Jemaah in Selangor, Zamihan suggested that it was not incorrect to operate exclusive Muslims-only launderettes because, as he put it, the Chinese apparently do not wash themselves after defecating, and are accordingly, almost naturally, dirty. Hence if Muslim clothes were washed in the same machines with non-Muslim ones, presto, the Muslims would get contaminated.

Without naming the Sultan, Zamihan expressed the opinion that Rulers should not be in the business of determining matters related to launderettes, even when they are to operate exclusively for people of one religion. But it was clear to all that he was directing his opinions to the Sultan. So he threatened to sue those who said he was attacking the Sultan.

The Sultan of Johore blasted him for his arrogance, but also brainlessness. He also asked the Johore Religious Department (JAIJ) to stop all dealings with the federal Islamic Development Department (Jakim) to which Zamihan was apparently attached.

The Sultan opined: “If it is true that he is a Jakim officer, then I don’t know where the department found him because for me, he is like an empty can and brainless… I have directed JAIJ not to waste time dealing with Jakim, and Jakim in turn does not need to give any views to the state of Johore.”

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Next, the Conference of Rulers issued a decree calling on all Muslims to behave with respect, moderation and inclusiveness in a country that is home to people of diverse faiths and ethnic groups.

Next, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah of Selangor criticised Zamihan for his ‘religious lecture’ which contained racist words and that was uncouth and critical of the royal institution. Accordingly, he instructed the Selangor Islamic Council (Mais) to remove Zamihan’s preaching credentials and to cancel his membership in Selangor’s Credentials Committee.

The Sultan further decreed that mosques and suraus throughout the state should limit the use of loudspeakers for sermons and lectures to mosque premises, except during the azan call to prayer and when reciting verses from the Qur’an. And, oh, the Sultan further called for the recording of all lectures that were presented and their contents monitored for compliance with various regulations.

Reportedly, Zamihan was unfazed over these measures taken against him. In Watan-Online, a Malay portal, he was quoted as saying that he is “a warrior of truth” and was fighting for the hereafter. The Sultan’s curtailment would not deprive him of his knowledge and spirit to continue the struggles of his faith! (The Star, 17 October 2017)

The Sultans, a vestige of feudalism, regarded by many as an anachronism of the 21st Century, turned out to be the boldest critics of extremism and the embodiment of tolerance and unity too.

It is not surprising that Pas, which pursues the introduction of hudud laws – RUU355 – and the full implementation of the Sharia in Malaysia, did not speak out in criticism of the Muslims-only launderettes, nor of Zamihan.

However, despite numerous calls to our national leaders to speak out against Islamic extremism and bigotry, it was most disappointing that there wasn’t a single pip from Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak! Yet he goes to the UN and around the world and recently to visit Trump in Washington, enunciating his Global Movement of Moderates, and theorising about wassatiyyah at home.

All that Jamil Khir Baharom, his minister in charge of Islamic affairs and by extension in charge of the federal agency Jakim, Zamihan’s employer, did was to state that he would be seeking an audience with the Sultan over his decision not to allow JAIJ to have dealings with Jakim.

It is a sad testament to our weakening democracy that our Rulers have to be ones to push back these forces of bigotry and hate. Hence, kudos to our Rulers on this occasion.

But really, there is little to celebrate – for this episode surrounding the launderette does not stand alone. Rising extremism and bigotry is not simply caused by individuals and groups. Rather, as G25 has stated, it is also to be found “within the religious enforcement agencies and independent preachers”.

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In this regard, it is significant that Zamihan was under the employ of Jakim. Ironically, he was also sitting in the Credentials Committee that decides whether a preacher is allowed to preach and teach in Selangor state!

The G25 was also concerned about “the ambiguity of certain Sharia criminal laws and the lack of accountability of religious institutions and authorities”.

“The federal and state governments,” G25 opined, “need to monitor their respective religious departments to ensure that they do not abuse their powers and perpetuate injustice. Those who are guilty of abusing their powers must be held accountable.”

Indeed, the problem goes far beyond the launderette in Muar. For as the Zamihan and launderette affair was unravelling, several other incidents occurred around the same time that highlighted the seriousness of religious extremism in our midst.

A few cases:

  • Mustafa Akyol, an award winning Turkish author, journalist and scholar was arrested, detained and questioned for 18 hours by the Federal Territory Religious Department (Jawi) authorities, allegedly for preaching without credentials. In fact, Mustafa Akyol was in Malaysia for the fifthh time and on this occasion was scheduled to participate in a series of talks and discussions on current issues. The first session was a round-table discussion titled, “Does freedom of conscience open the floodgates to apostasy?” The second was a lecture titled, “Democracy still relevant? The experiences of Turkey, Malaysia and other nations”. His third session, unfortunately, was cancelled due to pressures by religious authorities.
  • Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, the founder of Islamic Renaissance Front, was also questioned by Jawi for several hours about his views on apostasy and related matters and could possibly face Sharia charges for abetting Mustafa Akyol to preach Islam without proper accreditation. His case will be heard in the Sharia court on 4 December.
  • Ustaz Wan Ji Wan Hussain, the PKR Youth religious bureau chief, newly appointed as a Penang information officer, was arrested by police on 13 October after he had delivered a Friday sermon in a mosque in Seberang Jaya, Penang. His arrest, reportedly, is related to a probe under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act, following a report lodged by a social media user (yes!) lodged at the Dang Wangi police headquarters.
  • The saddest case of all is that of Kassim Ahmad who died on 10 October. Kassim, one of Malaysia’s foremost intellectuals and a well read and respected Muslim thinker, was first taken to court by Jawi in 2014 on three charges of allegedly insulting Islam and defying religious authorities. Then already in his eighties, Kassim had to travel up and down from Kulim to Kuala Lumpur for his court hearings. Finally, the Court of Appeal ruled in December 2015 and the Federal Court in March 2016 that Jawi’s prosecution of Kassim was invalid and illegal. Yet Jawi refused to withdraw its charges against Kassim. It was only on 7 August 2017, that the Sharia prosecutors, on the instruction of the Sharia court, finally dropped the charges against Kassim. Earlier, after Kassim’s victories in the civil court, the Court of Appeal in December 2015 had ordered an assessment of damages to be paid to compensate Kassim for his trauma and the tarnishing of his reputation. This ought to have been a straight forward matter. Yet the matter has not yet been resolved in the High Court because Jawi, until Kassim’s death, had continued to fight the assessment of damages. Read this short piece by a young Malaysian student who has been inspired by Kassim and his struggle.
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It appears from the above cases that extremism stems from an attitude found among religious authorities like those in Jawi that does not want Muslims to think about religious and spiritual matters. They simply want Muslim to follow the injunctions and interpretations of the authorities.

Hence they require one to possess the necessary ‘credentials’ before one is allowed to publish or speak publicly about matters Islamic. And if one does not possess the credentials, because they have refused to grant that to you in the first place, one is disallowed from expressing one’s opinion. The regulations allow them to arrest and charge you, like Jawi did to Kassim Ahmad.

No, the problem of religious extremism and bigotry will not get resolved by disallowing Muslims-only launderettes to operate. And while we are grateful to the Rulers for chastising Zamihan and standing up for moderation and unity – note that our elected leaders have not done the same – the problem is that there are many more Zamihans! And many operate within the federal and state departments of religion, in our universities and schools, and in society writ large. They appear on television regularly, and their opinions are given lots of column space in our dailies.

No, a launderette will not do. We need a big swimming pool, probably a deep dam, to wash away the dirt of bigotry and religious extremism and the prejudices, hatred and divisions that the bigots spew.

Meanwhile, ordinary people of all faiths should inform themselves as to why they hold the beliefs they do, lest they fall prey to launderettes for Christians only, for Buddhists only, etc. A simple guideline is that we are all God’s children.

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
23 October 2017

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Francis Loh

Dr Francis Loh served as honorary secretary of Aliran for 20 years and then president of Aliran for five years from 2011 to 2016. He was formerly professor of politics at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

4 COMMENTS

  1. The laundry service just for a certain religion is NOT new.(concept of it).
    Encountered home stays and resorts that are solely for guest from a certain religion only.
    But nobody took offense of it .As that is their private business.
    Its within their democratic rights , their own private business and why should anyone with a democratic mindset be upset?
    Furthermore,it is not illegal.
    As for Racist.
    Malaysia have several racist political parties.(majority from the BN).
    It does not help when racism is well alive in federal government policies.
    Maybe “futuristic thinking” (leaders) ought to amend their very own state Constitution.
    How are we going to explain to school children that being a Malaysian is not good enough to be a Menteri Besar?
    Thank you

  2. We cannot have extremist religious bigots in Malaysia. That path will be the end of the nation and we may we end up as a failed state.

  3. Sorry I rather have extremist religious bigots than corrupt moderates who rape the hills and poison villagers. At least the bigots are sincere in their cause than all the bull… moderates.

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