KUALA LUMPUR: A sociology professor has warned that Malaysia is slipping into extremist tendencies following the crackdown on Shia Muslims by Johor and Selangor religious authorities last month.
Syed Farid Alatas of the National University of Singapore said Malaysia is becoming one of the most extremist Muslim nations in the world, stressing that Sunni Muslims in the nation need to quickly realise and understand the implications.
“In the 1980s, when I was a student in the US, whenever I met Muslim students from other countries they would look up to Malaysia, saying we were the model to follow because, in those days, Malaysia was able to combine religiosity with modernisation.
“Recently, in the last 10 years or so, I’m getting the opposite reaction.
“People are saying, ‘Look at Malaysia; this is what happens when you mix religion with politics.
“You’re going to be extremists,’” Syed Farid said. “Malaysia is now the model to be avoided.”
He warned that once extremism has taken root and has spread throughout society, Shia Muslims will not be the only ones who will be persecuted.
“Once the Shias are done with, they will come after us so-called liberals. They’re already after the feminists.
“They will come after the Sufis; there will come a time when Sufism will be banned in Malaysia.
“It’s a slippery slope towards extremism when you let these people take over.”
Syed Farid said the focus should be on educating and influencing the younger generation in order to shift their perceptions on such things, adding that it was pointless to debate with most of the current religious leaders as they were set in their ways.
“I don’t know if they’re stupid enough to actually believe what they themselves are saying or if they’re so evil to say what they say about the Shias.”
He spoke of the urgent need to begin educating the young generation as changes could take one or two generations before becoming tangible, adding that “the situation will get much worse” if Sunni Muslims do not act now.
Need for constant interfaith dialogues
Monash University’s Ahmad Farouk Musa making a point at the forum. On the left is Osman Bakar of Istac.
Monash University’s Ahmad Farouk Musa said there needed to be concerted efforts in holding constant interfaith dialogues and reconciliatory efforts to foster mutual understanding between Sunnis and Shias.
“In the Western world, Sunnis, Shias, Wahabis and Salafis pray in the same mosques and there’s no problem,” he said.
Shia, with a substantial following in Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, several parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan, is the second-largest branch of Islam.
But state Islamic authorities have declared its teachings as “deviant”, with sermons in Selangor frequently condemning its followers as heretics.
Islamic studies in English
Meanwhile, Syed Farid disagreed with Farouk’s notion that Islamic studies should be taught in English, saying extremism was not confined to certain languages.
“Even if we were to have political parties that are not Islamic or if we were to convert our education system into English, it won’t solve the problem. It is not a problem of labels or language; it’s a problem of mentality and orientation.
“Imagine if all Muslims in Malaysia were very proficient in English, and if they were more proficient in English than in Malay. They would all then be very much able to understand Zakir Naik,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
He said the main issue that needed to be addressed was the orientation and mentality that the younger generation were exposed to in schools and universities, stressing the need for more religious leaders with progressive thinking.
“A progressive understanding of Islam or an aggressive understanding of Islam can be conveyed in any language.”
Farouk had called on Muslims to learn their religion in English, while also suggesting for the national education system to revert to the system in existence in the olden days.
He had also suggested for all government schools to be made secular, saying that Islamic practices taught in schools were starting to be ritualistic, citing the prayers during the morning assemblies.
They were speaking at a panel discussion at the Future of the Ummah forum at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (Istac), joined by Istac’s Osman Bakar and prominent thinker Chandra Muzaffar. The session was moderated by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Sharifah Munirah Alatas.