Malaysia: Do Muslims Really Need a Central Command HQ?


Dr Farish A Noor

The question of authority in Islam is as old as the religion itself, and the historian will be the first to tell you that since time immemorial countless Muslim scholars from Ibn Taimiyya to al-Ghazali to Ibn Khaldun have been grappling with the question of power and discursive authority among Muslims, to address the fundamental question: 'Who speaks for Islam?' So important has this concern grown over the past few years that this writer alone can claim to have attended no less than a dozen conferences since 11 September 2001 that were convened around the same - admittedly tiring and outdated - question.

Now the question has been raised again in Malaysia with the Director of the Malaysian Islamic Research Institute (IKIM) Dr Syed Tawfik al-Attas proposing that the Malaysian government paves the way for the creation of the office of Grand Mufti of Malaysia, ostensibly to bring an end to the indecorous debates and polemics that have been flying across the country. Citing other countries like Egypt, Jordan and Australia as examples of countries whose governments have appointed scholars to such a post, Dr al-Attas added that 'with a Grand Mufti (in Malaysia) religious issues will no longer be debated openly in the media because it can then be discussed behind closed doors among qualified mufti'.

Dr al-Attas' concerns are, it has to be noted, legitimate to some degree: this year alone has witnessed a number of loud and angry demonstrations by Muslims across the country over the highly sensitive issue of freedom of faith and the right of Malaysians to choose the religion they wish to practice. The Director of IKIM correctly pointed out that some of the more 'populist' ulema of Malaysia have gone out of their way to incite and inflame public opinion with a host of rumours, including the bogus claim that around 200,000 Muslims had secretly converted to Christianity.

But the real question that has to be addressed is this: would the centralisation of power and discursive authority put an end to such rumour mongering and hate speeches? Or would it not merely add to the increased power of the state and result in the further co-optation of Islam and Islamic discourse in the country? Is there not the very real problem that once religious discursive authority is bolstered by power and institutionalised it merely ends up being yet another appendage to state power?

Here it has to be pointed out that this is not a concern unique to Islam or Muslims. Since the 19th century orthodox conservative Hindu reformists in India have likewise attempted to control the meaning and circulation of Hindu discourse, firstly to 'purify' it of non-Hindu elements and secondly to ensure that it does not degenerate into a form of popular Hinduism that breaks away from the Vedantic tradition. This preoccupation with purity and control contributed to the emergence of reformist movements like the Arya Samaj and later the BJP, and we all know the result by now.

Likewise between the 17th to 18th centuries Europe was a hotbed of religious pluralism with sometimes grave and bloody consequences. The emergence of different schools of thought and the growing schisms within the Church led to the fear of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, whose political treatise The Leviathan was as much concerned about ending the disputes between the different streams of the Church as it was to ensure the centralisation of state power. Hobbes' main worry in the Leviathan was how to prevent religious disputations leading to civil war, and his remedy was a simple one: the King, and the government, would bring an end to religious discourse by monopolising the discourse of religion and impose bans on even the use of public language if and when it was necessary. This was the politics of divine containment in the extreme, and Hobbes did not hesitate to recommend that religious dissenters be put to the sword if need be.

But dissent is precisely the stuff of religion and it has to be noted that the Abrahamic faiths all emerged from dissent. Islam began as a reaction against the corruption of the Bedouin tribes and their feudal customs, and it is the egalitarian ethos of Islam that rebelled against such feudal power that today fuels the differences of thought, belief and praxis among Muslims the world over. How can Muslim states ever contain, police and monopolise the discourse of Islam without striking at its very ethical and philosophical heart?

For many a Muslim government today, a reality check is in order. Rapid development since the post-colonial era, accompanied by mass migration to the cities and urbanisation, accelerated by globalisation and exposure to global media and trends of thought means that plurality of opinion and belief is greater now than ever before. Muslim elites have to realise that this pluralism can and should be turned into an asset, and not seen as a threat per se. While it is true that the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakar Bashir exist out there to antagonise and provoke the masses, there are also countless Muslim intellectuals and scholars of note whose ideas are path breaking, revolutionary and modern. The way to prevent the slippage towards a more communitarian and violent register is not to close the doors of free speech but to create the framework for a civil society where ideas can be discussed maturely and in the open.

This will surely take time, and perhaps the Muslim world does not have much time at its disposal. But nobody ever said that creating a society of mature responsible citizens was an immediate process that can be fast-tracked. What is required however are the constitutional and institutional guarantees that such a civil society will not come under the domination of a small self-interested elite. That is why the remedy to the hyperbolic rhetoric of the likes of Osama lies not in more security laws, but in a free media, an open university system, the flourishing of texts and discourses and the rule of law that will guarantee that all citizens abide by the same rules. No, the Muslim world does not need a 'Muslim Central Command Headquarters' that dispatches government-approved fatwas by the minute. But it does need the space to think aloud and to dissent. In time, the angry voices of the likes of Osama will be drowned out not by government propaganda, but by ordinary Muslims who will simply say 'enough is enough' and claim their faith back for themselves. I pray that my optimism is justified.

WATCHPOINT: A move towards creating of the office of Grand Mufti of Malaysia would be a step away from creating the necessary framework for a civil society where ideas can be discussed maturely and in the open.


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