Saturday, November 14, 2009

Autocratic orthodoxy in religion

NOV 15, 2009 – The arrest of former Perlis Mufti Dr Asri Zainul Abidin in the bourgeois neighbourhood of Bukit Antarabangsa has opened up another Pandora’s box in the country.

Allegations by the state religious authority Jais that Asri was “teaching Islam without certification” has been criticised by many but also defended by some in the Islamic establishments.

Generally, Malay Muslims are being taught in their religious upbringing to accept and submit without question to the teachings of their tok guru, lecturer or ustaz in madrasahs, sekolah pondok or in university lecture halls.

This Asian-esque and parochial values has been effectively used by the local Islamic institutions and the conservative orthodox ulama's to strengthen their grip on the religion in the country.

The orthodox school of thought is entrenched in almost all state religious councils and local Islamic district departments, as well as top federal Islamic institutions like Pusat Islam and Jakim and the local universities.

However, some degree of intellectual debates can be seen in academically inclined Islamic institutions like Istac, Ikim and Yadim, ?which are viewed as a threat to these orthodox establishments.

Hence, it is surprising that Malaysian Islamic Youth Association (Abim) stoutly defended the move by Jais and showed that the disease of an old school of thought creeping into what used to be a progressive institution.

The dismantling of “total submission without question” as a result of an open education system and globalised borderless world seems to be scaring the orthodox groups which worry that their grip on the religion may be under threat.

Just like some old autocratic dictator offering up the lame defence of “Asian values” for the purpose of maintaining hegemony and hindering democracy, the traditional Islamic establishments are using the same mantra.

The arguments on maintaining law and order in that other established schools of thought, like Shiite, Wahabbi or Salafi, have no place in the country because they will “disrupt harmony and cause confusion among Muslims” mimics the autocratic line of arguments of “Order first, democracy later” leaders.

The labelling and unfortunate connotation that Wahabbism, Salafi or Shiite has been associated with, has been propagated to instil prejudice among the general Muslim population in Malaysia that these streams are deviationist in nature.

Just like democracy has been conveniently tainted with accusations that it is a Western and imperialist agenda; reform movement in Islamic teachings were also accused of being a Western agenda.

The Islamic reform movement were championed by progressives like Muhammad Abduh and Rasyid Ridha, which was carried out in this region by laureatte Syed Syeikh Al Hadi in the early 1900s through education in madrasahs and liberating publications.

Syed Syeikh Al Hadi went through similar ordeal with the dogmatic traditionalist Islamic establishments accusing him of being a radical and causing disharmony among the Muslim community.

This Cold War which went on until the 60s and 70s between traditionalists and reformists were termed “Kaum Tua vs Kaum Muda” with the reformists or Kaum Muda confined mainly to the Straits Settlements of Penang, Singapore and pockets in Malacca.

After Independence, with the establishment of heads of state or rulers as the guardian of Islam in their own state, the Perlis ruler is the only known royal to subscribe to the progressive reform Islam.

In this latest episode, the orthodox establishment launched an assault on Islamic reformists with the humiliating arrest of Asri in front of hundreds of attendees, including several lawmakers.

Like a regime under threat, in order to silence dissent, to blunt creativity and to kill off new ideas in the society, the dying regime needs to exercise their power to show that they are in control and that the religion is their key to bossing people around.

But like all regimes or juntas, education and exposure to new ideas will lead to progress and the disintegration of parochialism as well as formation of an egalitarian society.

The dogmatic conservative orthodox will eventually fall despite their suffocating grip on local institutions, media and enforcement agencies.

However, in order for the reform agenda to prosper, whether in religion or politics, it must be based on sincerity to develop or promote social upward mobility as well as create a more aware and rational society.

For too long, the society has been trapped in the dogmatic ways of an old depleted regime and the struggle to uplift the society by reformers should not go to waste – in religion, politics or otherwise.

- published in The Malaysian Insider : Nov 15, 2009

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