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Friday, April 23, 2021

PAS has to reform to stay relevant

 

From Moaz Nair

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, as reported recently, gestured that PAS would not work with political parties that are “liberal”. Does this mean that PAS is only willing to work with political parties that are illiberal or conservative?

If this is the case, then PAS cannot work with other political parties, as there is none in the country that is as conservative. PAS should then stand alone with its conservative approach to politics and governance, and seek out support from the voters.

All political parties in Malaysia, except PAS, are liberal in principles and approach. Even when race becomes central to some of these parties, in reality they acknowledge diversity and are still willing to accommodate people of other races, religions and those with diverse lines of thinking.

Liberal thoughts are not confined to political and social issues. They have philosophical and scientific dimensions which have brought about many scientific inventions and discoveries that have made life more expedient for mankind.

A liberal democracy is a representative democracy with protection for individual liberty and property by rule of law. It supports free markets, a limited government, individual rights, democracy, secularism, gender and racial equality.

It values the rule of law, freedom and social justice where all individuals are treated equally and enjoy basic rights to education as well as religious tolerance. In a liberal democracy, it is obligatory for domestic and international bodies to protect these values.

On the contrary, a religiously conservative government or an illiberal democracy has no limits on the power of the elected representatives to rule as they please. Although elections take place, citizens are usually deprived of knowing about the real goings-on of those who exercise power because of the lack of civil liberties. Thus, it does not create an open society and is regressive in nature.

Liberal thoughts

Liberal thoughts have long been associated to progressivism within Islam. Among the many rationalists were Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Ibn Khaldun, Al-Razi, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Muhammad Abduh, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina but they were rebuked by the Muslim conservatives labelling some of these personalities as apostates.

Liberalism and progressivism within Islam in the past involved professed Muslims who had created a substantial body of liberal thoughts about Islamic understanding and practice. Their work was sometimes characterised as “progressive Islam” (al-Islām at-taqaddumī). In fact, progressive Muslims have long embraced modernity and even secularism.

Even earlier Islamic philosophy emphasised an inevitable bond between science and religion, and the process of ijtihad to find truth. In effect, all philosophy was political to some Muslim liberalists as it had real implications for governance.

Liberal ideas may be considered controversial by some traditional Muslims, who criticise them on the grounds of being too Western or rationalistic. They fail to grasp the fact that a lot can be learnt from the West or East and that logical and rationalistic thinking advocated by secularistic thinkers is a must to emulate for Muslims to progress.

The Muslim liberalists see themselves as returning to the principles of the pluralistic intent of the Scripture. They distance themselves from some traditional and less liberal interpretations of Islamic law which they regard as culturally biased and without universal relevancy. Today, liberal Islam values reinterpretations of the Islamic Scriptures in order to preserve their relevance in the 21st century.

A precursor to modern secularism

Many Muslim thinkers espouse the principles of Islam as compatible with those of Western or secular modernity. They have provided reasons for the liberation of science and philosophy from traditionalist theology and that there is no intrinsic contradiction between philosophy and religion, thus compatible with contemporary secularism.

For instance, they accept racial and religious diversities as this is explicitly prescribed in the Scripture. The principle of women’s equality is respected and they reproach the unquestioning imitation of tradition.

They espouse independence of will as well as independence of thought and opinion, and, apparently, the growth of Western civilisation in Europe was based on these two values, where the people are able to exercise their choice and seek out facts with their minds.

They believe in the form of Islam that would liberate men from enslavement, provide equal rights for all human beings, obliterate the clericals’ monopoly on exegesis and abolish racial discrimination as well as religious compulsion.

They have made great efforts to expound harmony between the feuding sects in Islam, preaching comradeship between all schools of thought in Islam and calling for better rapport between religious communities.

As such, progressive Islamic thinkers have argued that Muslims cannot simply rely on the interpretations of texts provided by medieval clerics; they need to use reason and intellect to keep up with changing times.

Social justice

Muslim liberal thinkers had long argued that the Scripture had to be read in the context of the language and culture of seventh century Arabs, and it could be interpreted in more than one way. They also criticised the use of religion to exert political power. PAS should take note of this.

These progressive Muslim thinkers emphasise “intellect” (`aql) in understanding the Scripture, arguing that they should be interpreted in the historical and cultural context of their time. They see the Scripture as a living theme, a discourse.

Hence, to them, the Scripture can be the outcome of dialogue and debate. This liberal interpretation of Islam should pave for new emphases on the religion as a bonding apparatus that can lead to social change in Muslim societies.

The rationalists are promoting modern Islamic thought that enables Muslims to build a bridge between their own tradition and the modern world of freedom of speech, equality, minority rights, women’s rights, social justice, human rights and democracy.

There are unrelenting calls for social justice in the Scripture. Moderate Islamic political thought contends that the nurturing of the Muslim identity and the propagation of values such as democracy and human rights are not mutually exclusive, but should be endorsed together.

Muslim liberalists believe that Islam promotes the notion of absolute equality of all humanity, and that it is one of its central concepts. A breach of human rights or discriminations based on race, gender, status or religion is not accepted.

Muslim liberals often reject traditional interpretations of Islamic law which, for instance, allows slavery. They claim that slavery opposes Islamic principles which they believe has to be based on justice, humanism and equality, and some say that verses relating to slavery – “those whom your right hands possess” (ma malakat aymanukum) – cannot be applied nowadays due to the fact that the society has transformed.

They contend that the Scripture had imposed an unqualified ban on slavery. They have also argued against the death penalty for apostasy based on the Scripture which says “there shall be no compulsion in religion”. Even polygamy is arguably interpreted as an antiquated practice by some of these progressive scholars.

Man was given intelligence so that he could be guided by knowledge. In fact, it is a patriotic duty to accept the changes that come with a modern society to develop a nation. Unfortunately, in most cases, interpretational diversity has been set aside by the Muslim conservatives throughout Islamic history.

PAS’ approach to politics

The rationalists among Muslim scholars have argued that secular states have long existed in the Muslim world – since the Middle Ages – and are compatible with Islam. They claim that a secular government is the best way to observe the shariah as opposed to enforcing the shariah through the intimidating power of the state which repudiates its religious nature, for the reason that Muslims would be observing the law of the state but not at will performing their religious obligations as Muslims.

Muslims who now find themselves living in non-Muslim countries are inclined to reinterpret many aspects of the application of their religion in their life in an attempt to reconnect with reality. Of course, they may face several challenges when familiarising to the new environment that espouses the separation of religion and politics, and empirical reasoning when it comes to religious matters.

Millions of Muslims, most of whom have left their countries that claim to be Islamic but in reality are conservative and despotic, now live in non-Muslim states and many are adapting well with Western values. The majority have reconciled Islamic faith with modern Western values such as nationalism, democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality and progress.

History has shown that the more conservative a Muslim nation is the more regressive they become with the exception of a few oil-rich countries ruled by monarchies. Even these countries, realising that they cannot forever depend on oil as revenue, are liberating the minds of their people, as they find that only by thinking out of the box can they be able to compete and progress in this borderless world.

The objective of liberal democracy does not lead to limitless freedom. It is a democratic system of government in which individual rights and freedoms irrespective of race and religion are officially recognised and protected, and the exercise of political power as well as public life is governed and limited by the rule of law.

This is the 21st century but if PAS is still bogged down with conservatism and fantasies of the Middle Ages in seeking partnership only with non-liberal or conservative political parties in their approach to politics and nation-building, the country can never progress under their rule.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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