A Reply to Americk

This was a post that I wrote sometime in middle/late 2007 in reply to Americk Sidhu‘s (yes, the same one who shared with us a few lovely articles not too long ago) post in one of two online forums that I co-moderate. I later revised and tightened up the language in certain areas and expanded it and posted it for comment at the Bar website as a comment to a news piece sometime in 2007. Though I do not harbour such sentiments (abandoning my country) any more in my weaker moments (it’s amazing how just how much hope can be unleashed when BN’s majority was reduced from 2/3rd to about 11/20 i.e. 8 March 2008), I thought I’d share this posting because the sentiments expressed in there with respect to being a Muslim in this country is still valid if not intensified. Also there is my rather raw and brief analysis on the rise of the Islamist in our country, which I have made explicit for comment, criticism or contemplation – all are welcome.

I confess that in my weaker moments (and with each passing day, they become depressingly more frequent), I veer towards similar sentiments expressed by Noreen [explanatory note: Noreen had lightheartedly mentioned about wanting to migrate from Malaysia if the situation got too bad]. When I express such sentiments before my friends who are not Malay or Muslim, they often react with surprise and puzzlement. They generally think that with the Islamization of this country it is the non-Muslims who would be victimized and that only advantages would accrue to the Muslims. Hence their reaction.

Whilst I think this view to be somewhat tenable at a superficial level, I think it too simplistic to be acceptable. The situation is more complex, convoluted and messy. And I think to view the issue from a Muslim/non-Muslim or a Malay/non-Malay perspective is misleading, unproductive and fraught with unnecessary tension.

To some extent this is understandable because in the 50 years since Merdeka (of the Peninsular), we have been raised, taught, inculcated, assailed and conditioned to see, think and feel about issues mainly from these 2 perspectives. It takes great strength of mind and ability to break out of this (to which I make no claims). As Azhar has pointed out in more fiery (both in colour and content) terms earlier, the current development of events makes greater sense if we look at it from the perspective that these developments are all the machinations of the present political power elite to maintain its hegemony using whatever means, tools, principles and concepts. It is my belief that Islam has clearly become one of them.

Before I proceed, allow me to digress to explain some of my thoughts on the emergence of Islam as a principle guiding policy for government. I think it cannot be denied that when our forefathers drew up the Federal Constitution (which is the Supreme Law of the land), they had it clearly in their minds that this was to be a secular country. Haris has written beautifully on this issue here, so there is no necessity for me to address that issue here.

Until the early 1990’s, there was hardly any push from UMNO/BN for this initiative. I use this reference because to me UMNO is in truth the main party for BN although it still requires the component parties to achieve its domination. It was only when UMNO/BN lost Kelantan again to PAS in the 1990 elections that they started to sit up and take note. However it is here that I feel Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, our previous Prime Minister, made the mistake of thinking that UMNO/BN lost because of PAS’ Islamic ideology. My opinion is that UMNO/BN lost because the Kelantanese could see that UMNO/BN was corrupt, incompetent and they probably felt that they were better off with PAS with whom they felt did a better job. It no doubt helped that PAS had been dominant in Kelantan since 1957 and ruled for a while so the Kelantanese were actually in a position to be able to evaluate the performance of both administrations. This is a privilege that no other state aside from Kelantan and Terengganu have enjoyed. It is also understandable why Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed may have interpreted the loss of Kelantan in that fashion – to reduce cognitive dissonance. The alternative to that interpretation would be to admit UMNO/BN’s failure to convince the Kelantanese on non-religious matters. This would reflect badly on UMNO/BN because if their own Malays could not be convinced that it was good for government, this may influence the non-Malays’ opinion on this issue.

Since that defeat UMNO/BN began to take up the Islamic issue. For a while, Tun Dr. Mahathir thought it was enough to groom Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim and ride on his Islamic credentials. But after he unceremoniously deposed Dato’ Seri Anwar in 1998 on charges of sodomy and corruption and UMNO/BN lost Terengganu in the 1999 elections, he became nervous. Unfortunately however he did not change his analysis and admit the truth of the situation. The first step to truth is to overcome denial and Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed never made it past the first step.

Around 2000 after the issue was slowly being defined in the media as an Islamic one, Tun Dr. Mahathir dropped the bombshell. At some press conference (the place where policy is made at the drop of a hat), in an-off-the-cuff remark, he claimed that Malaysia was an Islamic country. This understandably paralyzed the debate and forced everybody to define the issues similarly. I feel Tun Dr. Mahathir made one of the gravest mistakes of his career (and for this country too) when he thought that the way to beat PAS was to out-Islamize them. That was doomed to failure because UMNO never had any credibility where religion (or morality for that matter) was concerned because religion or morality was never a primary concern of UMNO. It was the welfare of the Malays. The “M” is for Malay, not Muslim, although with all the tears shed about corruption in the past meetings it more likely means Money now. Furthermore, if we look at the definition of “Malay” in the Federal Constitution (which was drafted in collaboration with UMNO), being a Muslim is only a quarter of what it means to be a Malay. UMNO has always been about the Malays not the Muslims. [A quick aside: Professor Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi has explained that the concept and definition of a Malay in the Federal Constitution is a political one not a biological one. This means that an Indian, Chinese and other races that chose Islam as their faith can be considered Malay if they fulfil the other criteria. Tun Dr. Mahathir is an excellent example of this as he is of Tamil descent, not Malay (his original name was Mahathir Kutty s/o Mohamed Iskandar Kutty).] Returning to the main, if one took a quick look at Tun Dr. Mahathir’s cabinet members and his policies, it was clear that Islam had no place in any of the significant and major policies or projects. So to give his Islamization rhetoric credibility, he took the shortcut and recruited those who took a hard line/fundamentalist (Wahhabi-type) approach and put them in his administration and allowed them a limited though significant measure of influence over policy and governance.

This to me explains the incongruity within UMNO/BN. Despite the lack of spirituality in the Islam practised in UMNO/BN and the hypocrisy with which the leadership practise Islam, these hardline Muslims are still pushing hardline policies on the administrative front of government. The politicians and leadership (at most levels) have drained the Islam in Malaysia of spiritualism (i.e. obedience to Allah) leaving only its rituals which become meaningless without its spirituality. To be a Muslim has become a status symbol for these politicians and therefore empty of any meaningful content. How can one offer prayers to Allah not in worship and abject humility but to pray for political success and great obscene wealth? How can kenduris where prayers are held to Allah be doubled up as a platform for political recruitment? How can they claim to be practising Islam truly if they take money while they are in positions of trust? For myself, with Malaysia being found so lacking in the perception of corruption index of Transparency International year after year, I would be embarrassed to tout ourselves as an Islamic state. What does that say about the practice of Islam in this country when most of the organs of government (where most significant instances of corruption take place) are dominated by the Malay Muslims? Not very encouraging things I would imagine.

Another development I have noticed is that the Malay argument is put forward less and less with the emergence of this initiative. The UMNO/BN leadership and their adherents now tend to emphasize their religion before their race where the public are concerned and their race before their citizenship in UMNO Annual General Meetings. Why is this? I think it is because the “Islamic argument” has greater force than the “Malay argument”.

Let me explain. When you put forward the Malay argument for domination of the organs of state for this government, they cannot claim ownership on the basis of “first-in-time” because the Orang Asli were here first. They cannot claim ownership based on magnitude of power since even during Malaccan times there were greater kingdoms and/or empires around it (the Acehnese, Javanese and Siamese hemmed it in). All they can do is put forward the argument of majority i.e. Malays are 60% of this country so most organs of government should have them. But this is a weak and crude argument and hints at a deeper lacking – that the Malay race is without any significant accomplishments/contributions in respect of the progress of mankind in the material realm or the area of knowledge. Further, if you accept Tun Dr. Mahathir’s treatise in The Malay Dilemma that the Malays are genetically inferior (this resonates with the British own worldview of the Malays), then it really is awful to be a Malay because of the poverty of heritage – as compared to the Indians, Chinese, Thais and even the Indonesian brethren. I never agreed with Tun Dr. Mahathir’s treatise (or rather conjecture – he relies on no empirical study in that book of his) and after reading it confess to being puzzled why the Malays lauded it. Tun Dr. Mahathir essentially called the Malays inferior beings and he eventually became the leader of UMNO and achieved Prime Minister-ship. Very sad. But it is understandable why some of the influential Malays went along with this (I’m not saying it was a conscious thing) – they could play up the victim mentality (which is usually easy though pathetic) and use that victimisation to claim economic resources and advantages for themselves. I think that this lack of heritage should not be viewed negatively although that is an issue to be discussed some other time.

That is why the leadership in UMNO has taken up the Islamic argument with greater zest because Islam has a great and prestigious heritage. Islam was not just a religion but one of the great civilizing forces in its halcyon days and was instrumental in bringing Europe out of the dark ages. The Islamic empire had beneath it many vast and diverse territories with a magnificent intellectual heritage. Islam is also now one of the fastest growing religions in the world (albeit in mostly poor countries but Islam is popular there because Islam at its root is a religion when practised honestly encourages social egalitarianism, not political elitism: see Reza Aslan’s No God but God). So seeking greater affiliation with the Islamic argument as opposed to the Malay argument gives UMNO a greater sense of superiority and is a way of reducing its collective cognitive dissonance. So you will notice the political leadership of UMNO switch back and forth between both arguments to suit their purpose, context and subject matter although the trend I notice is that the Malay agenda is pushed more at UMNO Annual General Meetings but the Islamic agenda pushed more at the governmental level. This I think because in the UMNO meetings, there are only Malays so there is no need to feel a sense of heightened (though illusory) superiority as opposed to the government level where there is interaction with Chinese and Indian “culture”.

Now what is the effect of all this then? While some quarters claim that Islam only affects Muslims and will not affect non-Muslims so they have nothing to worry about are, with respect, not correct and sometimes I think a little dishonest. Sure for the most part, Islam would only be relevant insofar as it applies to Muslims but then some of those hardline Muslims here expect the non-Muslims to be “sensitive” to them. By emotionally blackmailing the non-Muslims – if you are not “sensitive” to me, you are therefore “insensitive” and therefore “bad” – they effectively force them to conform to their own practices. And this is where the insidious “creep” factor comes in. That is why you notice more and more non-Muslims dressed in traditional Muslim fashion (as examples, wearing a songkok or a telekung or wearing clothes that cover up even more than modesty demands) during official events. I recall seeing one of our Chinese shuttlers in a songkok when he appeared before the Agong – why should this be so? These hardline Muslims don’t realize or comprehend that sensitivity works both ways – to make a non-Muslim do these things make all Muslims appear to be insensitive and rude. How would they like it if they were forced to wear bikinis at Country X where this has been the tradition since time immemorial and Islam is practised by an insignificant minority?

So when the non-Muslims complain that they are being oppressed, restricted and discriminated against, it is true. I know this. I have seen it with my own eyes and felt it with my own heart. But the non-Muslims in their lament about their position too fail to realize the impact of the current Islamization on the Muslims that do not subscribe to either Islamic brands marketed by BN (Islam Hadhari which I still do not understand despite reading all our present Prime Minister’s speeches on it [the one collected and published by MPH] and think that it’s just a gimmick) and PAS which are both I feel hardline. What UMNO/BN has failed to realize is that by taking up the Islamic argument, it has played into PAS hands. UMNO/BN has gone and done just what PAS wants them to do and would have done anyway as far as Islamization is concerned. UMNO/BN do not realize that their own Islamization policy may in time come back to bite not just the component BN parties (by way of the insidious creep factor) but also UMNO (when the religious officers become more ethical and moral and turn UMNO members to subjects of scrutiny for them). I doubt many of the political elite leaders would pass these religious officers’ stringent man-made tests.

So what then is the impact on the Muslim that does not ascribe to either brands and/or tend to be of a more liberal (I don’t quite like the label of “progressive”) bent? These Muslims I define as the “Independent Muslim” and the “Liberal Muslim” respectively although they may tend to overlap in some of their distinguishing features and posit that the effect of Islamization on them is ironically far worse than it is for the non-Muslims. Witness how only the Muslims are so humiliated in those religious raids on the discos, pubs, etc.; witness the recent case of the singer who was detained and taken photos of; witness the raid on discos where the girls were embarrassed and made to suffer in the back of a truck; witness those videos on YouTube of officers from the religious departments catching and humiliating Malay couples hanging out in solitary public places. Independent and Liberal Muslims suffer the same discrimination as non-Muslims but worse still have to put up with invasion of privacy and public humiliation. As an example, imagine a roadblock and a Malay Muslim guy had some to drink and was over the limit. Now imagine that it was KL and the KL religious officers were at the roadblock too. That guy pulled over will now not only be charged for driving under the influence but also could be taken action on the religious side. A double whammy.

This is why I do not disbelieve that statistic that more Malays have been migrating from the country in the last few years then non-Malays (between 1996 and April this year [2007], 106,000 Malaysians have given up their citizenship; of these, 79,199 are Malays 25,107 Chinese 1,347 Indians and 350 other races). The more the government denies it, the more I believe it. And this is why I hear more and more of Malay graduates who do not want to come back to Malaysia and are only too happy to reside in their foreign place of education like America, England and Australia.

There is little spirituality in the Islam I see, hear and feel being practised in Malaysia. The Islam here is one of rituals and the Muslim is merely as a status symbol. Rarely do the Muslims here talk about their obligation to Allah. They are more concerned with those many little rules and regulations that they concoct. Islam at the enforcement level is a manifestation of power. You can see this in the manner in which these religious authorities carry out their duties – high handed, arrogant, insensitive, without empathy and in a manner that would humiliate their subject. I have mentioned some of those actions above just now at the night clubs, but you also see this in those developments in instances like Moorthy where the religious department breaks up a funeral and takes the body just before burial. How traumatic is that for members of the family in their moments of grief! Is not Allah the All Merciful? When Muslims carry out their duties without mercy, honesty, kindness and humility, can they truly say they do the work of Allah?

In circumstances like these it is hard to live as one likes without having to look over one’s shoulder, to be the fullest of what one wants to be – not just for the non-Muslim but for the Independent and Liberal Muslim too. There are many of the latter who are sadly too afraid to speak up or to engage the hardline Muslims because the latter will always accuse them of having no credibility to take them on in terms of religion simply because they do things that these hardliners says are against Islam. This of course is stupid but it is effective because of its simplicity. They essentially say, “You shut up because you are a bad Muslim so you have no right to say anything about Islam and in any event, you don’t know anything about Islam.” But this is wrong.

What these hardline Muslims in their fervour to do what they perceive to be Allah’s bidding fail to realize is that the quality of one’s worship of Allah (Muslim-ness so to speak) and the quality of their knowledge of the precepts of Allah are not for them to decide – it is for Allah alone. And they fail to realize that Allah sits in judgment on us as Muslims after we are dead, buried, rotted to earth and when He deems fit to call us to account, not before. It is not when some Uztaz/Imam thinks or feels so. It is not on their say so. To me, when these hardline Muslims lay claim to judge our quality as Muslims they have usurped the role of Allah and purport to sit upon His throne. This is blasphemy. On a subconscious level, I think they really wished they were Allah so they could use all that power for their own immediate perverse self-gratification. That is why to me, declarations in the Syariah courts as to whether you are a Muslim or not is irrelevant because it has nothing to do with Allah. Allah will not decide on the veracity of Muslims by that register kept in the KL (or whichever state) Syariah Court. He does not need it for does He not know everything?

For the sake of argument, let’s say when we are called to account before Him, we are declared to be good Muslims but were persecuted for being a heretic on earth? Does not that Syariah Judge (or someone in similar capacity) then sin against Allah? That is why for me, there is no need to persecute or punish anybody on earth in the name of Allah (or Islam) because all things come from Him and all things return to Him. Whoever so has sinned shall answer to Him at the appointed time – but not before that. Therefore to punish Muslims here I think betrays a lack of not just trust but I think a meaningful and honest belief in Allah. If they trusted in Allah, they would leave that Muslim and non-Muslim be.

Allah drives every beat of our hearts. He does not sit in some remote corner of the universe staring out with two eyes through a pair of powerful telescopes with a chance of us escaping his gaze. He is closer to us than our own selves. So He knows everything whether we know it or not. And just because something is done in the name of Allah does not mean Allah approves. All these registration and administration on earth is not for Allah. It is for flawed human beings, sometimes good sometimes bad, claiming to be Muslim and trying to figure out and do what is right. It is because in this country certain benefits accrue to one being a Muslim. That is why this machinery has been erected.

But these conditions are incredibly stifling, claustrophobic almost. And this is why I am now sympathetic to whoever who has left or harbour similar thoughts (I used to chide my friends who left this country, but now I just tell them to visit me as often as they can). It is even more depressing when you think how we are going to get ourselves out of this mess because I see none right now. It’s like we’re in a box waiting to implode with no windows or doors of opportunity to reverse developments.

The question on my lips and the lips of most people that I meet are: Can we get out of this? If so, how? I have no answers but I know what we need to have to achieve it – a lot of bravery, honesty, humility, respect for each other as human beings, a benign though powerful intelligence, patience, a whole lot of love and maybe lots of interracial and interfaith group hugs to begin with *chuckle*.


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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

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5 Responses to A Reply to Americk

  1. Hfaiz Ismail

    On the whole, I'm quite in agreement with you Fahri but I think it's quite unfair to lump the all the imams and ustazs with the 'official' Islam that you and I and many others so detested. They're not one and the same.

    Judging by your description of what a Liberal/Independent Muslim is (or rather, by the activities that they indulge in), I must be one too. That said, to then argue on the Live and Let Live platform vis-a-vis the role of Syari'ah (which I surmise to be the case from your general drift) is problematic insofar as this, ultimately, negates the need for Guidance.

  2. noyawns

    Deep insight – the all powerful omniscient God does not require mere humans to prey on other human beings in His Name! Jais Jakim and the like are usurping His authority when they take upon themselves these judgements.

  3. ali hadi

    Fahri,

    I think about 20 -30 years ago, everybody, citizens at least, who went to see the Sultan or attended a function graced by a Sultan would a songkok, including the non-Malays. It is not about Islamisation. It is about the acceptable dress code when go and see the Sultan. Nobody made a fuss about it. However, today the wearing of songkok when seeing the sultan has always been cited as an example of the impostion of Islamic dress code on the non-Malays. That is a wrong analysis. We also see more and more people, non-Malays especially, not wearing songkok when appearing before the Sultan. I think that is failing to dress properly for the occassion.

    Dress codes are just dress codes. Like how lawyers have to wear robes when appearing in court. Why should lawyers be wearing it complete with bibs and wing-collars? Where does the court dress code come from? What is the significance of it? Does it have any religous connotation when worn in England those days?

    I know I have touched on one very small point in your essay. I am raising so that this misunderstanding would not continue to be harped upon by writers on Islam in Malaysia.

  4. Eric

    You said it all in 2 sentences:

    "106,000 Malaysians have given up their citizenship. Of these, 79,199 are Malays; 25,107 Chinese, 1,347 Indians and 350 other races"

    "The politicians […] have drained the Islam in Malaysia of spiritualism (i.e. obedience to Allah) leaving only its rituals which become meaningless without its spirituality."

    UMNO's main victims are Malay Malaysians, the very people UMNO claims to "struggle" for. Tomorrow, 1 August, will see Malaysians of all creeds working together to remove one of the most unislamic laws in this country. Hope is not lost.

    Malaysians have finally understood they are together on this land. The sooner we remove bigots and cronies, the sooner we'll be free again.

    1 Black Malaysia. Democracy First. Elections Now.

  5. AGuan

    Fahri, I saw a state man in you and a country guy everybody love to hug. :) With this I added another vote on you on the right column.

    Now when I drink a glass of 17% concentrated and seasoned graph juice, I think I am just moisturizing my thirst without thinking whether my faith and my health discourage that.

    Cheers !