“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
- Barry M Goldwater
When “religious adviser” in the Prime Minister’s Department Abdullah Md Zin claims that “liberalism” is as big a threat to Islam as radicalism and terrorism, it has to make any rational person wonder what kind of advice is he giving the scandal-prone prime minister.
Let us take this howler of “reasoning”, for example. He defines liberals as those who “… bring different views, which while interesting, end up disregarding Islam.” So now, he has defined liberals, but then what about those radicals and terrorists who are a threat to Islam? Are they too not bringing different views to Islam?
How are the views of these radicals and terrorists different from the Wahhabism that is the Weltanschauung of some Muslims here in Malaysia and Islamic political sects whose agenda is to further erode the secular line in the sand of this country?
When was the last time a “liberal” Malaysian, whatever his or her religion, cut off the head of someone who had differing views? When was the last time a liberal Malaysian advocated that a female rape survivor marry her rapist or that minors are ready for marriage?
Never mind that “radicalism” does not necessarily have to have a pejorative connotation. All religions have ideas and people that were consider radical at one time or another, but ultimately proved beneficial to the advancement of secular ideas and traditions.
Of course, Islamists like this adviser narrowly define “liberalism” to advocate an agenda of racial and religious superiority, which is in reality is a fascist agenda using religion as a means of delivery. This is why we have the president of Isma (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) in a forum a couple of years about liberalism and faith declare that - “If liberalism tries to redefine or reform Islam following the demands of liberal basis, that maybe can never be accepted by Islam.”
This is why Islamists groups like Isma object to the ideas of someone they consider “liberal” like Chandra Muzaffar. This is also why they write screeds with titles like ‘How Malaysian liberals use Rukunegara vehicle as their left-hand drive’, where they claim:
“Such attempts to implement a new understanding of the constitution (or rather bring changes to its provisions and insert alien and ‘liberal’ elements) have become a leverage for the leftists within the political parties, liberal groups or public individuals to manipulate and fortify their Islamophobic agenda.”
This kind of religious nationalism has proven extremely effective in maintaining hegemony for strongman leaders or scandal-prone tyrants in lieu of unstable democratic practices that could evict them from power.
Of course, many Christians would object to belonging to a “liberal-Christian” plot to destabilise Islam or being lumped together to a “Zionist” plot to well, destabilise Islam in Malaysia.
Other religious extremists
This idea that “liberal” values are anathema to religious values is not only the province of Islamists.
Without the “civilising” process that the other two Abrahamic faiths went through, and which Islam desperately needs, there would be no “liberal” values to argue about. Indeed, I have often argued that traditional secular liberal values are under threat by Christian extremists who use extremely sophisticated arguments to undermine constitutionally (in some cases) protected rights and the so-called culture war in the West is a manifestation of this agenda to subvert Western secular values to “Christian” values.
Meanwhile, Hindu extremists in India conflate religion and culture and attack ideas which they consider anathema to their way of life which include other Indians academics, students and journalists, Muslims and ironically, Christians, whom they consider promoting a “liberal Western agenda”.
Indeed, as reported in The Diplomat quoting an editorial by The Hindu - “Commenting on the incident, The Hindu, in an editorial, wrote that ‘there is no denying the fact that fringe right-wing groups have created an atmosphere of intolerance to outspoken writers and academics who question religious practices and myths, thereby putting pressure on freedom of speech and expression’. The editorial asks the government not to go soft on Hindu fundamentalism and to ‘crack down’ on these fringe elements in the same way it would deal with other ‘religion and ideology-based extremist groups’.”
Meanwhile, Buddhist extremism disguised as nationalism as reported in The Guardian is rearing its ugly head in Myanmar, “Small but viciously insular, these ‘Buddhist-only’ outposts serve as microcosms of the festering religious tensions that threaten Myanmar’s nascent experiment with democracy.”
As reported in the same article. “The new minister for religion, the former general Thura Aung Ko, recently called Muslims and Hindus ‘associate citizens’.”
This just goes to show you that most extremists are more alike than different. Which brings me to this idea of religious-induced nationalism that afflicts many countries in South-East Asia. This phenomenon is best articulated (in the Israeli context) in a Haaretz article disputing the rather dumb themes of Reza Aslan’s last CNN poppycock ‘Believer’ episode.
“And here is where Aslan really missed the bigger picture: despite the inevitable frictions that accompany the growth of its population, it’s not the religious fanaticism of the Haredim that is threatening Israel’s democracy (or what remains of it). The real threat is the religious-induced nationalism that has taken hold of large swathes of Israel’s population, secular, religious, and Haredi alike.”
In an interview with the Washington Post on his book ‘A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen’, Basharat Peer answered why India and Turkey - both with complex histories and politics - should be placed in the “same frame”:
“Both nation-states rose from the collapse of empires, are multi-ethnic societies and have had charismatic Western-oriented founding fathers who undertook major social engineering projects.
“Mustafa Kemal Ataturk attempted to mould Turkey by way of French secularism. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, promoted a different kind of secularism, which was not against religion but tried to ensure that the state maintains equal distance from all religions. They became the dominant ideas of both the countries for decades, but there were groups of citizens who contested those civil religions: the Islamists in Turkey and the Hindu nationalists in India.”
This, of course, in many ways is thematically similar to Malaysia. For years, the strongman policies of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad defined the political agenda of this country where he balanced the competing agendas of secularism and Islamism to maintain hegemony setting the scene for the latter to dominate the landscape because of weak ineffectual replacements.
Those people who fear “liberalism” however they define it, in reality fear the loss of power when empowered societies choose alternatives. So yes, liberalism is a threat to the kind of Islam they preach. Mind you they may actually win in a “fair” democratic contest because that is one of the perils of democracy. Beyond institutional safeguards, democracy is a risky endeavour, but I would take it to anything these Islamists have to offer.
If we do not make our stand clear, if we accept the compromise that we are told comes when placating an ethnic/religious majority, we will truly become an Islamic state envisioned by corrupt Islamists who will destroy not only their society but the rest of us as well.
Demand more from the people who claim they want change and hold them to the high standards they claim they have.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini