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Vol. 17, No. 4, 2018
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covering islam



Prashant Waikar is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). His research interests include the identity politics of race, ethnicity, and religion, Islamophobia, and the construction of ideas, narratives, and discourse.

PREAMBLE: An article published in Forbes (Jan., 2018) I attempted to address the fundamental problems with media coverage of issues concerning Islam and Muslims. Written by Mr. Ralph Jennings, that article sought to assess the headscarf ban in high-end Malaysian hotels. I had previously co-written a commentary on the same subject, which Mr. Jennings read, after which he emailed me with a couple of questions, and has since quoted my responses in his article. The overall argument Mr. Jennings offers is thoroughly flawed. It contains a number of dangerous logical fallacies. Dangerous because they reinforce Islamophobic narratives that are far more divisive than any number of bans against religious apparel. It is to these I intend to respond.


Mr. Jennings suggests that the Islam practiced in Malaysia is moderate when compared to “countries such as Saudi Arabia.” He then attempts to define what a moderate Muslim country entails by relating it to three concepts: (1) the absence of Sharia, (2) peaceful multi-ethnic co-existence, and (3) the availability of alcohol.

On the first point, he says that Saudi Arabia is “ruled by Islam’s own Sharia Law” as a way to contrast it from Malaysia. In other words, the prevalence and practice of Sharia is being equated with immoderation. While Mr. Jennings does not make his position explicit, discussions of Sharia in the context of Saudi Arabia are more often than not related to the theocratic regime’s use of archaic punishments against criminals – whipping, hand-chopping, stoning, and so forth. There is little doubt that such forms of punishment do not belong in the 21st century. Just as impalement, being burned at the stake, and being skinned alive in Medieval Europe have been relegated to the past, brutal punishments against ‘offences’ that are not even universally regarded as criminal (e.g. adultery) should have been abandoned long ago. Here, Mr. Jennings and I are in agreement.

What he gets woefully wrong though is the notion that punishment is the essence of Sharia. As Professor Jonathan Brown from Georgetown University has demonstrated, laws concerning punishment (known as hudud) comprise of no more than 2% of Sharia. Most of Sharia deals with mundane daily conduct: what you can and cannot eat, how you should engage in commerce, how you should get married and divorced, how inheritances should be divided, and what constitutes an accepted prayer are some examples. In other words, Sharia is fundamentally a system of norms, values, and beliefs that exist to guide how people should navigate through life. It can be likened to norms that guide most people living in cities and towns. In between, one might go to church on Sundays (prayer), eat at a gluten-free restaurant (selecting food), and shop at specific stores (types of commerce).

Using popularly known reference points, like forms of punishment in Saudi Arabia, to construct an all-encompassing image of what Sharia constitutes effectively tries to anchor it in terms of barbarism. To follow Sharia is to be barbaric. Consequently, narratives such as the one Mr. Jennings offers negates the possibility of thinking of Sharia in the terms common to Muslims at-large – as a set of beliefs and practices to guide ‘boring’ activities like marriage, trade and eating. Certainly, these are far less controversial than beheading and dismemberment. But they are also far more common renditions of Sharia. Not just in Muslim-majority countries, but quite literally in every part of the world, including Singapore, India and Australia. If we ignore this and instead accept the logic put forth by narratives such as Mr. Jennings’, we in effect sweep all of Sharia, and thus all Muslims under the rug of barbarism.


The second parameter that Mr. Jennings suggests as a measure of moderate Islam is peaceful coexistence between ethnic groups. A Muslim-majority country that is ethnically diverse, but remains nonetheless peaceful, is one in which Islam is said to be moderate. No doubt peace amidst ethnic diversity is a virtue every country should aspire towards. It is not clear, however, what the type of Islam practiced has to do with anything. Ethnicities are not just demographic concepts that governments use to count the population. Neither are they merely identities that people define themselves by. They are first and foremost politically loaded categories that exist to determine who gets access to limited resources. Examples include who gets to receive employment opportunities, who gets a spot in university, and indeed, who gets to avoid police brutality.

Consequently, both peace and discord between ethnic groups become a matter of political practice, not the types of religions followed. In the case of Malaysia, ethnic antagonisms have been an undisputable fact of electoral politics for reasons ingrained by the divisive mechanics of British colonialism. Observers have argued that the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is multiracial only in name. It exists to maintain the primacy of ethnic Malays. After BN won the 2013 General Elections (GE) by its lowest margin yet, Prime Minister Najib Razak even referred to the near miss as the result of a “Chinese Tsunami.” Malaysia has also had race-based affirmative action policies for Malays since 1971. Minorities are frustrated, and expectedly so. Of the 56, 576 Malaysians who gave up their citizenship between 2006 – 2016, 88% of them were Chinese.

Contrary to what Mr. Jennings seems to imply, Malaysia is far from a multi-racial paradise. It is just not clear what this could have to do with Islam, moderate or otherwise. Mr. Jennings suggested that Malaysian Islam is moderate because of ethnic co-existence. But then, if ethnic divisions in Malaysian electoral politics are endemic, does that render Malaysian Islam immoderate instead? How could that be if, as Mr. Jennings notes, most people voiced outrage against the Muslim-only launderette that turned up in Johor? This is a circle that cannot be squared.


The final indicator of a moderate Islam Mr. Jennings refers to is the fact that “you can get a beer” in Malaysia. It is hardly a secret that Islam forbids Muslims from drinking alcohol. While Mr. Jennings is not explicit, he seems to be suggesting that even if Islam forbids Muslims from drinking alcohol, the true mark of a moderate would be to permits its commercial trade. Thus, only an immoderate would stand between a non-Muslim and his bottle of beer. This is a perplexing argument. In Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, nobody can legally buy alcohol. Qatar too is a Wahhabi state. Yet, non-Muslims are permitted to purchase alcohol there. Does that make their brand of fundamentalism comparatively moderate? Beyond the six Muslim-majority countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Kuwait – where alcohol is banned for all (black markets notwithstanding) there have been laws prohibiting alcohol across a number of countries throughout history. From 1920 to 1933, the US institutionalized alcohol prohibition. Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1989. Since 1955, women have been prohibited from purchasing alcohol in Sri Lanka. In different periods, up to nine states in India have banned the consumption and sale of alcohol. As per Mr. Jennings’ logic, if a Muslim-majority country permits alcohol, its brand of Islam must be moderate. What then of those non-Muslim regions and countries which either have or continue to prohibit alcohol? Have they been flirting with some form of immoderation too? If so, what form does it take? More than that, why is it that alcohol of all things is held as the standard for moderate behavior?

The main point I have been attempting to make is that it is futile to try and split any belief system – not just Islam – into two opposing camps: moderates and extremists. Most scholars and researchers who have studied the theological doctrines, as well as the way in which religions are practiced by people on a day-to-day basis, have dismissed such a dichotomy as fallacious. Mr. Jennings’ attempt to delineate Islam into binaries is problematic. As I have argued in the email response to his questions, Muslims are not monolithic. This, by definition, means that there are multiple currents of Islamic practice. There are even multiple forms of fundamentalisms. All may share a puritanical approach to reading Islam, but even they can come out with contradictory interpretations.

It is worth remembering that we are all configurations of multiple identities. It is inevitable that the norms, values and beliefs of our different identities will interact to produce a person who cannot be reduced to any single one of those identities. Needless to say, Muslims are no different. To claim otherwise is, frankly, dangerous – it feeds into the classical political strategy: divide, destroy and rule.



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