‘Royal rebuke on extremism insufficient without grassroots support’


PETALING JAYA: A researcher on religious and political issues in the region has cautioned that despite many applauding Malaysia’s royalty for making a stand against rising Islamist exclusivist attitudes, the situation may not improve if the Muslim masses are not involved and concerned about the situation.

Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said a “top-down” intervention to develop a more inclusive society would not suffice without grassroots support.

“We do not want Muslims to tolerate non-Muslims (and vice versa) because of their fear of the law, or because their leaders said so, but because they truly understand the essence of upholding diversity and freedom found in Islam,” he said.

“Thus, society should also give the intellectuals and activists the space to develop critical ideas.

“Society must be aware that there are groups promoting ideas that are relevant for modern needs,” he added in a commentary in The Straits Times today.

Norshahril, who is also a lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s Malay studies department, said ideas associated with laws, governance and the economy have to evolve to meet the contemporary context of a multiracial and multi-religious Malaysia.

“Unfortunately, such progressive ideas that are relevant to the times we live in are being silenced,” he said.

He cited the home ministry’s move to ban books, including one published by the G25 group of prominent progressive Malays titled “Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy” which was blacklisted in July.

He also pointed to Turkish intellectual Mustapha Akyol’s arrest late last month by the Federal Territories Islamic Department (Jawi) when he had come to the country on a lecture tour.

Also, late last month, two laundrette operators in Muar and Kangar were criticised by various quarters after they were reported to have enforced a Muslim-only customer policy.

On Sept 27, the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, reprimanded the owner of the Muar laundrette, telling him to operate his business in Afghanistan if he wanted to continue with such a policy.

On Oct 10, the Malay Rulers issued a statement to hit out at the controversies, especially the Muslim-only policy, saying such acts went “beyond all acceptable standards of decency”.

Adding that the actions put at risk the harmony within Malaysia’s multi-religious and multiracial society, they said the damaging implications became more severe when they were erroneously associated with or committed in the name of Islam.

Norshahril said Malaysia’s political elite should emulate the leadership of their Malay rulers by speaking up against divisive ideas.

“They must also lead by example by participating in civil politicking, and thwarting the growing resentment between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country,” he said.

He added that it is important for them to allow intellectual discourse to develop from “the ground up”.

“This will enrich society with progressive ideas, allowing people to compare these ideas with intellectual developments from the West and the region, and broaden their minds to look beyond books they are familiar with,” he said.