Malaysia needs to define extremism

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Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Extremist thinking is a challenge to the moderate foundations of our nation, says Ronald Benjamin.

The Barisan Nasional government’s decision not to adopt Pas’ motion for enhancing the punitive role of Sharia courts dubbed as Act 355 is a relief not only for the common good of the nation, but also for the politics of consensus.

It is obvious that the vision of the founding fathers of the country has stood the test of time in spite of the political opportunism of the actors who were playing the extreme ethno-religious card. The Barisan Nasional’s consensus politics has brought the nation to the middle for now.

The reality is that Hadi Awang’s bill, which has origins in extremist and exclusivist religious thinking, is still around and could be used as leverage in a power play, possibly after the upcoming general election. Currently, the debate on the bill has been postponed, which is a reflection of opportunism in play.

Extremism in its political, social and cultural forms will continued to persist in a subtle and overt manner unless the Barisan Nasional government, opposition parties and civil society exercise a moderating influence and take a balanced approach in acknowledging the historical context of the role of Islam in the country and the secular nature of laws which are derived from the Federal Constitution.

When there is a moderating political and social influence for the common good of society, religious issues can be brought to reasoned and civil discourse. For this to take shape, it is vital for extremism to be clearly and broadly defined so that a moderating influence can prevail.

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For this to happen, a bipartisan approach in Parliament to define and tackle extremism is vital. There is a need for broad definitions with legislative bite to complement the inclusive nature of our Constitution. Coming up with religious slogans of moderation will not work as the 1Malaysia slogan did not work, unless there is concrete social education and laws that tackle extremism at its roots.

This would also require a broader understanding of extremism and its complexities related to national and global issues. For example, an issue that has national and international roots like social marginalisation and economic inequality should be addressed. Extreme ideology develops when there is inequality as empirically proven in developed nations. The help of sociologists and political scientist should be sought in broadening the understanding of extremism.

For a start, Malaysian political elites could learn from Xinjiang province in north-west China, as reported in The Star (1 April 2017), where there are clear definitions of religious extremism. Certain definitions of extremism in this region reflect the ethno-religious extremism that we experience in Malaysia.

For example, extremism as defined in Xinjiang province is interference with religious freedom, expanding the concept of halal to areas other than food, and hate speech with religious connotations – which also reflect the realities in Malaysia.

Therefore, it is vital that extremism be properly defined and proper education and laws are put in place if the Barisan Nasional is serious about moderation and rejecting any form of extremism. Extremist thinking is a challenge to the moderate foundations of our nation.

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Hadi’s bill of exclusivity would damage the nation in the long run. The catastrophic failure of certain Muslim nations that have come up with divisive religious laws and related extremist ideology should be a lesson to compel our political elites to define extremism.

Source: Malaysiakini online

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