Islam places great emphasis on the equality of human beings – God’s creation – particularly in tackling the evil curse of tribalism, which breeds racism, xenophobia and supremacism, observes Mustafa K Anuar.
Pakatan Harapan’s election promise to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) has led to a flurry of conversations between civil society groups and the government.
Certain organisations claiming to represent the Malay-Muslim community, including proponents of ‘Malay supremacy’, assert that the planned ratification of the convention would endanger Islam, bumiputera privileges, the status of Bahasa Malaysia as the country’s official language and the institution of Malay rulers.
While those who initially opposed the convention now seem to have come to a common understanding with the government over the matter, because they are satisfied that the convention does not affect what is enshrined in the Federal Constitution, revisiting this issue may still be beneficial for other concerned Malaysians, especially adherents of the Islamic faith.
The convention essentially acknowledges that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set out therein, without distinction of any kind, in particular, as to race, colour or national origin”. Hence, the urgent need to dismantle all forms of racial discrimination throughout the world.
A deeper appreciation of the convention may be better achieved by understanding it in relation to the Qur’anic verse of Al-Hujurat (49:13): “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed, the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
Diversity in human beings – in terms of different genders, ethnicities, tribes and nationalities – which reflects divine greatness and his grand design is meant to be celebrated.
Surely, none of these differences can, by themselves, confer the status of superiority of one man or ethnicity over another, because men and women are recognised by Islam as being born equal. Similarly, no nation is created to be above other nations or to rise above them.
The only distinction that Allah, the beneficent and merciful, recognises is the good a man or woman does and his or her obedience to Him ie his or her piety. Nothing else matters.
Indeed, Islam places great emphasis on the equality of human beings – God’s creation – particularly in tackling the evil curse of tribalism or asabiyyah, which nurtures the scourges of racism, xenophobia, supremacism and even militarism. The last two scourges should be familiar especially to the Hitlers of this world.
While the togetherness of a community can bring about common good, tribalism, which also manifests itself in everyday life in the forms of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and violence, if abused or exploited to the extreme, can undermine a vital principle in Islam ie justice.
The Qur’anic verse of al-Nisa’ (4:135) is instructive: “O you who believe, be persistently standing firm in justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. Follow not your desires, lest you not be just.”
The champions of tribalism are often blind to justice, especially in a world that they divide into the privileged ‘us’ and the demonised ‘them’, with the rallying cry of “My people (or nation), right or wrong”. Their love of their own kind and hatred of others induces them to rationalise and justify the indefensible. Obviously, by doing so, they polarise a country and, at the same time, commit the heinous act of injustice.
In the Malaysian context, a mindset that borders on tribalism can result in some people who are in dire need of assistance, such as the Orang Asal, being neglected and given the kind of treatment that can only be regarded as unequal and unjust. Isn’t such discrimination as unIslamic as it is against the international convention?
Carrying out affirmative action for the benefit of such marginalised groups would go long way towards tackling social injustice and, equally important, restoring the honour and dignity of fellow human beings, irrespective of their ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.
Isn’t this the kind of distinction that the Almighty seeks in all of us – as opposed to the differentiation marked by tribalism?