MODERATE Muslim groups in Malaysia should not get embroiled in unproductive debates over labels with local religious authorities, said a US-based Islamic scholar today.
"My advice to you is not to get locked into a debate as to whether you are a liberal or not, and whether your accusers are extremists or fundamentalists.
"That type of debate is unproductive and gets you nowhere. I would recommend that you try to shift the conversations away from labels and focus on values.
"What values do we as Malaysians hold dear that should be the foundations of the creation of a just society?
"Do we believe that all Malaysians have a right to participate in public decision-making? Do we believe as Malaysians in free press, accountable government and free and fair elections?" Dr Nader Hashemi , the director of Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told the forum "Is Liberty an Islamic Value" at Concorde Hotel in Kuala Lumpur this afternoon.
The Canadian-born scholar of Iranian descent was answering a question from a member of G25, a group made up of top former civil servants.
On Tuesday, G25 member Noor Farida Mohd Ariffin had urged moderate Muslim groups that have been demonised by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) as a threat to Islam and the country to sue the federal religious authority for defamation or lodge a police report.
A fellow panelist and prominent Muslim feminist Zainah Anwar from Sisters in Islam (SIS) said such attacks from the religious authorities are inevitable and the only way to counter them is through knowledge.
"These attacks are inevitable... You're entering a territory that others feel is their territory. What right or authority do you have to speak on Islam? You don't know Arabic. You haven't studied 20 years in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
"So knowledge is extremely important. It is only with knowledge that you will have courage to stand your ground," said the co-founder of SIS, which has taken Selangor religious authorities to court for a fatwa which declared them as deviant.
While local religious authorities have consistently attempted to discredit the local Muslim women's rights group, Zainah said SIS's publications, ideas and advocacy are being studied and discussed in universities in Indonesia.
She added that Malaysia used to be regarded as one of the leading progressive Muslim countries in the 1990s but now countries like Indonesia, Tunisia and Morocco are far ahead in incorporating modern, progressive interpretations of Islam into their education system, public policy and law, particularly family laws.
She said local moderate Muslims must find reasons for hope in spite of the rise of religious fundamentalism and the erosion of democratic spaces.
"It's important to show the (local) religious authorities they do not have a monopoly on Islam.
"In a democratic country where Islam is used as a source of law and public policy, everyone has the right to engage, debate how Islam is used as a source of law (and public policy)," said the feisty former journalist.
She said Putrajaya should take Islam out of law and public policy if it does not want to deal with disagreements on interpretations.
"When you want to use the whole coercive power of a modern state to impose a single understanding of Islam on everybody, and those who disagree will be charged, persecuted, questioned, issued a fatwa against or have their books banned, then everyone has the right to challenge that," said Zainah.
The forum on whether liberty is an Islamic value was jointly organized by the Islamic Renaissance Front, the University of Nottingham and G25.
Dr Chandra Muzaffar from the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Emeritus Prof Clive Kessler from the University of New South Wales were also part of the panel.