Mustafa K Anuar speaks to a few academics to find out how serious the trend towards religious extremism is.
There is a troubling trend towards religious extremism in Malaysia, what with brazen acts of intolerance emerging in recent times, said academics.
Echoing the concern of Prof Syed Farid Alatas of National University of Singapore recently regarding persecution of Shias in Malaysia by the Sunni religious authorities, Islamic Renaissance Front director Ahmad Farouk Musa said: “The persecution against ‘the Other’, such as Shias, was a clear and succinct example. Not to mention about the Ahmadis who were also denied their rights to practise their belief.
“Shias have been targeted by state religious authorities like Jais (Selangor Islamic Religious Department) and JAINJ (Johor Islamic Religious Department) through various means, including the systematic weekly vilification on the mosques’ pulpits every Friday,” said Farouk.
He regretted that these “nefarious actions of the religious authorities” did not receive any form of reprimand from the government, especially the minister in charge of religious affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa.
“In fact, his only response was that their actions were according to SOP (standard operating procedure).
“Obviously, he was abdicating his duty as a minister of religious affairs because he should have voiced out against such actions, which were totally against any basic standard of human rights.
“Not by hiding behind the curtain that religious matters are in the hands of the sultans,” Farouk told The Malaysian Insight.
He stressed that Malaysia can stem this tendency of intolerance if the minister concerned could play a proactive role in organising dialogues between the different denominations in Islam.
“If we want to build a society of a middle community or as the Qur’an termed as ‘ummatan wasatan’, then this community of moderation can only exist if we foster a sense of respect and the ability to agree to disagree.
“A culture of dialogue and healthy debates. A community that could embrace and celebrate diversity.
“After all, we are all brothers in Islam. Didn’t the Qur’an tell us that ‘All believers are but brothers’ (49:10). And didn’t Imam Ali say that ‘A person is either your brother in faith, or your equal in humanity’.”
No one can deny the fact that Malaysia is slowly inching towards extremism, said Prof Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).
“I know because I’ve helped the police analyse evidence.”
However, the path from extremism to terrorist activity may not be seamless. It may even never come, said Fauzi, who has done studies on Islamic terrorism.
“But the spread of extremist propaganda can eventually influence other lone-wolf violent actors.”
He cited social media as an example: “How many youngsters express support for the factory amok perpetrator in Penang on 24 September? Even Puteri Umno praised himas a martyr?
“Do these people know the images stored by the attacker in his mobile phone? Even if he had not harmed the victims, evidence would weigh against him in court if charged on offences of storing pro-terrorist material in his electronic gadget.
“But would we have known that he’s been an extremist for quite some time if he had maintained composure and not acted violently? Most probably no.”
He stressed that seeds of extremism like this are widespread in society.
“Even some members of the state are, inadvertently or not, purveyors of extremist ideology through, for example, their exoneration of figures associated with extremist dogma.”
Political scientist Azmil Tayeb of USM pointed out last year’s Merdeka Centre survey to express his concern about religious extremism in the country.
The survey, he said, showed 28% of Malay-Muslims who displayed “violence-receptive” tendency when it came to religion. Some 18% of them supported extremist Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah and 5% said they supported Isis (Islamic State).
“While extreme thinking might not translate into acts of terrorism, it still contributes to intolerance and disharmony. The nature of extreme thinking is black and white, my way or the highway.
“Coupled that with the special status accorded to Malays and Islam and the perceived threat to this special status post-2018 election, we have a potent explosive mix of ethno-religious politics that has manifested in many controversies in the past-one-and-a-half years.”
The prevalence of this extremist thinking is the result of the dominance of Islamic orthodoxy in Malaysia in the past few decades that does not allow open discourse and diversity of Islamic views to co-exist, he told The Malaysian Insight.
“As a result, we have generations of Malays indoctrinated with the thinking that only their version of Islam is correct and those who disagree are deviants.”