TODAY “moderation” has become a much-touted word as the antithesis to “extremism”, in particular Islamic extremism, which manifests itself in acts of violence or terrorism. The United States, where one of the most dastardly acts of terrorism — 9/11 — took place, is leading the way in the global war against Islamic terrorism. Malaysia, which is respected as a moderate and progressive Muslim nation, is a staunch supporter of the global call for moderation and the prime minister speaks out loudly against terrorism through the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), which was established to position Malaysia’s strategic role in the fight against terrorism, alongside the super powers. The chief executive officer of GMM is Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, who relentlessly pursues the cause of moderation both globally and on the local front.
Acts of extremism by a tiny minority of Muslims are magnified and seen as representing the whole Islamic faith. Muslim countries, including those in Southeast Asia which have a large Muslim population, are looked upon as the “nexus of evil” and as potential dens for harbouring these extremists.
Malaysia would be foolish indeed to deny the tremendous potential for growth of these terrorist cells, especially among the young who cry out jihad. They have to be relentlessly tracked down, nipped in the bud and mercilessly ripped apart to eradicate their influence. We must be united in the cause of fighting Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and other fanatics who use their religion to perpetuate violence and terrorism against others.
Globally, Malaysia enjoys the reputation of being a moderate, progressive Muslim nation and Malaysian Muslims are generally regarded as peaceable and accommodating.
Malaysian Muslims who are predominantly Malays are very much tempered by Malay customs and traditions or adat, which centres around harmonious concepts such as good behaviour (sopansantun), politeness (budibahasa) generosity of spirit (budipekerti) and consensus (budibicara).
Malays from the traditional kampung enclaves display a much milder temperament than their less friendly Arab counterparts nurtured in the rough and tough desert environment. They have evolved vastly different societal make-ups — contrast the warring and sectarian society of the Arabs as against the peace-seeking and accommodating multiethnic and multicultural environment which nurture the development of Malaysian Malays.
Muslims in Malaysia, therefore, take offence if they are called extremists as they believe they practise the traditional, albeit conservative brand of Islam which teaches fairness and justice, mercy and compassion and other positive values which all religions uphold. Thus, groups like the G25 that claim to be moderate Muslims are taken to task over what they mean by “moderate Muslims”. As far as the majority of Malaysian Muslims are concerned, the term “moderate” when applied to Muslims is a misnomer.
Their argument is that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims just as there are good Christians and bad Christians or devout Hindus and Buddhists and not so devout ones. If the adherents of the other religions do not brand themselves as moderate Christians and extremist Christians, moderate Hindus and extremist Hindus, moderate Buddhists and extremist Buddhists, why should Muslims? Does being a devout Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu make you an extremist (one)? We can certainly practise our faith devotedly and devoutly without harbouring any intention to hurt other people.
Perhaps we should be re-examining the concept of “moderation” as it has developed here in Malaysia. It is widely used in the media, which generously supports the moderation movement as a force to contain the growing voices of dissent and disunity. The word has expanded its semantic range and now covers a wide range of meanings and implications as moderation is brandished as the panacea for all manner of societal ills in the national discourse. Lest the cry for moderation becomes clichéd, we have to ensure it is not overused or misused.
Lately, the call for Malaysians to be moderate and to practise moderation in their lives points very much to the political arena where race and religion are used to breed extreme views and stances that manifest themselves in aggressive, anti-social behaviour.
In a once harmonious society, racio-religious issues are played up to drive Malaysians apart and destroy the interethnic integration essential to the nation’s peace and stability. Extremism has made its way into the daily lives of people as they are defined by their ethnic, religious and socio-cultural status. This, as we see, has a way of impacting the political and economic arenas.
I will be bold and suggest that all Malaysians have the potential of being extremists and bigots.
But what is it that guides most of us to seek balance and harmony in our lives? What makes us temperate and restrained, controlled and measured, rational and fair, sober and disciplined — all attributes of a moderate person. Suffice to say that sound moral values and a good, nurturing education will imbue in us the love and kindness for humanity and our fellow men.
I would like to suggest that the word “balanced” is perhaps a less stigmatised term, to refer to the middle path that we take to avoid conflict. Thus we have balanced Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists who are not on edge every time extremism is mentioned and terrorism is implied.
RACISM V RACIALISM
Just as on the global front, moderation is used as the antithesis to extremism. In Malaysia, moderation is consistently juxtaposed against racism, an extreme attitude or behaviour much like religious fanaticism. People who are racist harbour distrust and hate of other races/ethnic groups and translate this into hostile words and behaviour.
In contrast, the word “racialism” is more neutral in meaning and implication. We are racial when we are protective of the race/ethnic group we belong to. While racism is another form of extremism, racialism is the natural feeling we develop for our group or community, much like the love for and loyalty to our family. Patriotism is the love for and loyalty to our country.
To ensure the discourse on moderation is not merely academic and tautological, the concept of “moderation” itself must be given a working definition to allow it to be developed at the more practical level of policy and programmes by the government, individuals and organisations that champion the cause.
As Professor Shad Faruqi eloquently says, moderation is best seen as the fine line between racism (which is a destructive hatred for others) and community-consciousness, which is a positive desire to uplift a community, not necessarily one’s own.
It appears that the old middle paths of tolerance and accommodation are no longer sufficient to mediate societal conflict and impasse. To work strategically on the ground, moderation must be understood in terms of the dynamic principles of cooperation, collaboration and compromise.
A large part of the global understanding of moderation must therefore be embedded in the concept of reconciliation where the rejection of extremism is matched by a return to a balanced middle path.
Excerpts from a paper presented at the 8th Swami Satyananda Memorial Lecture jointly organised by Insaf & Pure Life Society.
The writer is president, Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason