The integrity of religion must be protected from the politics of power, says Ronald Benjamin.
Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman wrote an interesting article called “Problems and solutions in the Muslim world”.
In the article, he states that, despite rapid development across regions and continents, some problems remain within countries in which the majority of the population share a common trait, ie they are followers of Islam.
As the saying goes, correlation does not imply causation, but one cannot help but wonder why Muslim-majority countries continue to be plagued by civil wars, terrorism, famine, extreme poverty, epidemics, armed conflicts, coups d’état and human rights violations?
He questions how a source of personal faith and spiritual belief, touted as a blessing to mankind and the universe (rahmatan lil alamin) can be the common denominator for all the troubles brewing in the backyard of its followers.
He went on to state that a learned Islamic scholar, Muhammad Abduh, once said: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”
It may sound cynical, but we must take cognisance of two things. Firstly, Islamic values, in essence, are parallel with any universal good values practised by people all over the world, and secondly, being Muslim is not enough for one to be deemed Islamic; one must match it with behaviour and action. In other words, we have to walk the talk.
There is a problem with Syed Saddiq views here, even though he tends to be objective in his assertion. He does not address the fundamental principles of thought plaguing the Muslim world. What confronts the Muslim world is not merely about behaviour and action or walking the talk but about a deep-seated religious, ideological outlook that lacks the spirit of objectivity, spirituality and humanism. If these were all in place, there would be no necessity for wars, authoritarianism and extreme poverty in the Muslim world andin the non-Muslim world.
Progress comes when we learn to separate what is of God from the politics of power that is more of a human affair than divine. One can enrich the political and socioeconomic system with spiritual values, but it has to take the shape of shared values rather that an ideology restricted in form and laws that are rigid and self-serving.
While Syed Saddiq supports the Kuala Lumpur Summit last year for Islamic countries to come up with tangible goals to resolve issues facing Muslim nations, what is clearly missing in the minister’s assertion are the principle questions concerning the mixture of politics and religion, which has a strong ethno-religious ideological foundation that is rooted in the quest for power and is one of the root causes of conflict and misery in the Muslim world.
This ideology has a divisive impact, since power becomes entangled with religious emotions. This can be seen in Malaysia, where religious elites who are supposed to bring people closer through universal spiritual works end up creating division in the name of religion.
Division in society through the politics of religion weakens society, and this enables an ecosystem for geopolitical imperialism, which can be currently observed in West Asia, especially in the feud between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the role of the United States in capitalising on such division for its own hegemonic goals.
The entanglement of state and religion and the role of the religious elite who tend to control the thinking of the masses is something that should have been discussed at the Kuala Lumpur Summit. In Malaysia and many other Muslim countries, using religion for political purposes with a superiority mentality will continue to impede progress.
It is obvious that the mainstream religious establishment in Malaysia is not concerned about issues related to abuse of power, corruption sustainable development, climate change or the fourth industrial revolution. Instead, it is focused on issues related to the politics of control and dominance, where any other worldviews are regarded as communist, liberal or from the decadent West.
Syed Saddiq is right when he quoted the learned Islamic scholar who went to the West and saw Islam and no Muslims and in the East, where he saw Muslims but no Islam. But the minister did not mention why the West has been successful. Is it not because of the principle of separation of state and religion? While there is separation of state and religion in the West, this has not in any way marginalised religion, since Christian humanitarian values are very much reflected in their socioeconomic wellbeing, human rights laws and judicial customs. Scandinavian countries are an example of such values.
Therefore, it is time that Syed Saddiq brings about change in his own country before thinking of collaborating with nations who are no better. It starts with an objective framework that is spiritual and not ideological. It is vital that the integrity of religion is protected from the politics of power.