Stop­ping re­li­gious ex­clu­sivism in Malaysia from tak­ing root

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Nor­shahril Saat

The Sul­tan of Jo­hor, Ibrahim Iskan­dar, re­cently con­demned a laun­drette in Muar for its “Mus­lim-only” ser­vices. He de­manded its owner apol­o­gise and dis­con­tinue the dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tice, which un­der­mines his peo­ple’s gen­er­ally tol­er­ant, har­mo­nious and moder­ate out­look.

This is not the first time the Sul­tan has voiced his con­cerns re­gard­ing ex­clu­sivist at­ti­tudes. Pre­vi­ously, he cau­tioned the Malays not to im­i­tate the Arabs by ig­nor­ing their cul­tural her­itage. He had also asked the fed­eral Is­lamic de­part­ment Jakim to ex­plain its overblown an­nual bud­get of RM1 bil­lion (S$320 mil­lion).

Malaysia’s Coun­cil of Rulers, which is made up of all nine sul­tans in the coun­try, echoed the Sul­tan of Jo­hor’s un­ease, urg­ing Malaysians to up­hold the coun­try’s cher­ished mul­ti­cul­tural, in­clu­sive and tol­er­ant val­ues.

Many ap­plauded the Malay rulers’ in­ter­ven­tion. To have a group with such royal stature re­ject­ing ex­clu­sivism will def­i­nitely put the brakes on di­vi­sive be­hav­iour of cer­tain re­li­gious elites. The rulers are the heads of Is­lam in their re­spec­tive states and they have au­thor­ity over ap­point­ments in re­li­gious coun­cils and de­part­ments. The rulers also de­ter­mine who be­comes the mufti (chief re­li­gious scholar) of each state and whether fat­was (re­li­gious rul­ings) can be en­forced.

Yet, to de­velop a more in­clu­sive so­ci­ety, a top-down in­ter­ven­tion would not suf­fice with­out grass­roots sup­port. We do not want Mus­lims to tol­er­ate non-Mus­lims (and vice versa) be­cause of their fear of the law, or be­cause their lead­ers said so, but be­cause they truly un­der­stand the essence of up­hold­ing di­ver­sity and free­dom found in Is­lam. Thus, so­ci­ety should also give the in­tel­lec­tu­als and ac­tivists the space to de­velop crit­i­cal ideas.

Re­strict­ing grass­roots in­tel­lec­tual in­puts means shut­ting the doors to progress, as so­ci­ety is ex­posed only to ideas pro­moted by those in power whom they are fa­mil­iar with.

So­ci­ety must be aware that there are groups pro­mot­ing ideas that are rel­e­vant for mod­ern needs. Ideas as­so­ci­ated with laws, gov­er­nance and the econ­omy have to evolve to meet the con­tem­po­rary con­text of a mul­tira­cial and multi-re­li­gious Malaysia. Di­chotomis­ing Is­lamic ideas from non-Is­lamic ones is no longer the right ap­proach in this mod­ern day and age when Mus­lims and non-Mus­lims live along­side one another, abid­ing by the so­cial con­tract em­bod­ied in the


Hun­dreds of ki­mono-clad peo­ple, in­clud­ing Ja­panese na­tion­als and Malaysians, cel­e­brated an an­nual Ja­panese sum­mer fes­ti­val in Shah Alam in July. Malaysia’s Coun­cil of Rulers has called on Malaysians to up­hold the coun­try’s cher­ished mul­ti­cul­tural, in­clu­sive and tol­er­ant val­ues.

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