Modern, and Moderate, Islam
By Zainah Anwar, in AsiaWeek,
16 September, 1997
(AsiaWeek): PRIME MINISTER MAHATHIR MOHAMAD’S call for reform of Malaysia’s Islamic laws and the administration of Islam in the country reflects a growing public concern. Intolerant and repressive teachings and practices are slowly creeping into society. Nowhere is this more true than in matters relating to women’s rights and fundamental liberties. These pose a challenge to the progressive vision of Islam…the federal government supports, and. . .Dr. Mahathir himself relentlessly champions.
Malaysia, alone in the Muslim world, grants each state control over religious matters. This has led to contradictions and differences in the interpretation and enforcement of Islamic laws, in particular family laws. While in Selangor state a man has to fulfill four conditions before he can practice polygamy, in Trengganu he does not have to meet such requirements. A divorced man ordered to pay child support by the shariah court of Kuala Lumpur can avoid doing so by moving a few miles across the border to Petaling Jaya. The decision of a shariah court in one state is not enforceable in another. Such differences have enabled errant men to circumvent the law to their own advantage. Islamic laws and the administration of the shariah system must be reformed to ensure…justice prevails. Reform will not be quick. But it is time to begin the process.
It was the arrest — on stage and in full view of press photographers — of three Muslim girls participating in the Miss Malaysia Petite Contest in June that triggered the federal government’s current effort at comprehensive reform. The public outcry, echoed in the national press, and the calls for a more moderate application of Islamic laws are welcome reactions to the rising conservatism. Many citizens are no longer willing to obey rulings and pronouncements made in the name of Islam if they are, in effect, unjust. Obscurantism has little resonance among the educated, modern middle class of Malaysia.
Calling for reform is not an easy task. The prime minister has been criticized at Friday sermons for doing so. When Dr. Mahathir speaks on the subject, he receives little back-up from the political figures who usually echo his thoughts and exhortations faster than the speed of sound. Women’s groups, which criticize the shariah system and offer alternative interpretations of the Koran on issues of equality and justice, are often condemned by those who believe…only the ulama (Muslim theologians) have the right to speak about religious matters.
Therein lies the contradiction and challenges of a modern democratic nation like Malaysia, where religion is part of public life. There is a difference between what is revealed (and therefore divine and infallible) and what is human interpretation (and therefore fallible and changeable). The opinion of the state religious authorities is merely a human effort to interpret the limitless message of the Koran. It is therefore open to public debate and change.
Using the fatwa in this way violates the fundamental liberties of Malaysians, as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, and has no basis or historical precedent in Islam. . . .very few Muslims have the courage to question, challenge or even discuss Islam in public. They have been socialized to accept that the religious authorities know best. Many fear. . .if they were to express an opinion that differs from the establishment, they would be accused of being anti-Islam, or of having deviated from their faith. This is the common experience of individuals and groups pushing for reform in many parts of the Muslim world. Malaysia is no exception.
In a democratic society. . .Islam cannot be the exclusive preserve of the ulama. How can it be when Islamic laws affect our very way of life? The decision-making process must be participatory and must reflect the diverse and changing nature of Malaysian society. Those practices and legal provisions that give the ulama the sole power to decide on matters of religion and criminalize those with differing opinions must be abrogated. The Constitution must be amended to ensure uniformity of laws and one standard of justice for all. If the ulama continue to remain oblivious to the palpable change that pervades a quickly modernizing, multi-ethnic Malaysia, they run the risk of making themselves increasingly irrelevant to the lives of their people.