ISLAM is facing a problem with the divergence between reality and perception.
The reality is that Islam is a religion of peace and compassion. History tells us that Muslim countries have been far less involved in destructive wars and mass murders, such as what the big powers did during World War 2.
Americans and Europeans are more likely to be killed in road accidents or gunned down by thugs than by Islamic terrorists.
Unfortunately, Islam suffers from the perception that it teaches intolerance to other faiths and culture. It is this intolerance that breeds terrorism.
Critics point examples to the theocratic Muslim states where the clerics (ulama) have the final say on social policy, using religion to enforce morality laws on society and to deny the people, especially women, their rights of choice.
Intolerance is worse in Muslim countries where the state has neglected its responsibility of government in outlying regions far away from modern influences.
In the absence of the government, tribal and religious chiefs take the law into their own hands. They use Islam as a basis for governing, with cruel punishments for moral offences.
These warlords are responsible for bringing down the image of Islam because each time they send suicide bombers to kill civilians, they attribute their achievement to God.
It is important for governments in Muslim countries in central Asia and Africa to show their presence in remote areas and bring development to educate children, provide public services and rescue them from terrorism.
We see home-grown Islamic fighters born and bred in the United States, Britain and Europe, from middle-class family backgrounds, joining Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Despite their secular education, they have been influenced by religious teachings in mosques and IS recruiters that jihad is a noble cause in Islam and that it is the best way to take revenge against injustices to Muslims.
These educated jihadists have carried out the worst terror attacks in Western cities and by doing so, they have reinforced the impression that Islam is a violent religion.
Fortunately, their number is small and will get smaller as those who return home recount their disillusion with the atrocities of IS, which are unacceptable to Islam.
The best way for Muslim countries to gain the trust of the world about the purity of Islamic teachings is for them to undertake reforms for better governance in the administration of law and order.
There have to be avenues for facilitating stronger oversight on religious officials so that they do not bring their intolerance of other religions and cultures into the policy-making process.
The system of governance should allow for a consultative process in making Islamic laws to ensure they do not suppress individual freedoms.
The perception on Islam will change for the better when the world sees there are checks and balances to avoid abuses that give the religion a bad reputation.
Good governance on Islam and responsible government for the poor and needy will not stop terrorists from killing civilians, but it will improve the perception of Islam by showing the world that Muslim countries are doing their best to end intolerance and terrorism through people-friendly policies.
We should be thankful that Malaysia, by focusing on developing the country to serve the people’s needs, has created a strong internal defence against the rise of Islamic radicalism.
We must strive for improvements in social and political governance, together with responsible administration of Islam, to provide a good environment for sustainable growth, prosperity and social justice, for the poor especially.
Women’s rights must also be improved, especially among Muslims, to develop a fair and just society. With Malaysians feeling confident about the future, there will be no space for radicalism.