KUALA LUMPUR: A prominent US-based Turkish scholar has weighed in on a raging debate in Malaysia over the move to consider ratifying a United Nations convention that will commit the government to ending all forms of racial discrimination and guarantee equal rights to all races.
Mustafa Akyol, an award-winning author on contemporary Muslim issues, said Muslim groups who oppose the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD, should study the policies of past Islamic powers including the Ottoman caliphate with regards to equality.
“I would recommend that all those in Malaysia who oppose the ICERD on Islamic grounds read the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. It reads:
“‘All subjects of the empire are called Ottomans, without distinction whatever faith they profess… [And] All Ottomans are equal in the eyes of the law. They have the same rights, and owe the same duties towards their country, without prejudice to religion.’
“This was the ICERD that the Ottoman Empire, the very seat of the caliphate, accepted 150 years ago. Why should Malaysia stay behind?” Akyol told FMT, when asked to comment on protests from Umno, PAS and several Muslim groups over Malaysia joining the international treaty.
Malaysia is among a handful of countries that have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.
The treaty provides individuals worldwide with a mechanism for complaints over issues of racial discrimination, among others, and is enforceable against member states.
Specifically, it obliges parties to eliminate racial discrimination in all forms including in public institutions as well as in government policies, the issue at the heart of the opposition from Malay groups.
They say ratifying ICERD will undermine the special position of the Malays, including provisions to allow quotas in public institutions, as spelt out in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.
They are also opposed to the ICERD’s timeline on member countries to end affirmative action programmes, which they say would be a death knell for Malaysia’s decades-old Bumiputera policy.
Others have also warned that the ICERD is based on a Western value system, and that accepting it would open the floodgates to other values that the Malaysian government would be bound to accept.
Akyol, whose last visit to Malaysia in 2017 ended dramatically after his lecture tour was abruptly halted by Islamic authorities in Kuala Lumpur, said justifying one’s opposition to the ICERD with Islamic arguments was self-defeating.
“If those who argue against ICERD have Islamic arguments in their mind, there are counter Islamic arguments as well,” he added.
He said the argument that ICERD would abolish Bumiputera rights was counter-productive in lifting the community economically.
“Relying on an advantageous status granted by the state is actually not beneficial for any group,” said Akyol. “It makes members of that group lazy, rather than pushing them to work hard to use their full potential.”
He gave the analogy of a football match with rules favouring a particular team.
“Not only would that be unfair to other teams, it would also make the favoured team much less dedicated and disciplined than what it could be.”
Akyol said the opposition by some Muslim groups to the ICERD could be due to an inability to emerge from the classical Islamic system which divides Muslim and non-Muslim citizens.
He said such a system had been overtaken by historical realities.
“Yes, that was the historical experience of Muslims, but not a divinely ordained blueprint valid for all ages,” said Akyol.
He said the Ottoman empire realised this in the middle of the 19th century and abolished the dhimmi system, giving Christians and Jews of the empire equal citizenship with Muslims.
He said it was time that Muslims learnt to accept values that are Islamic even though they originate from the “un-Islamic” West.
“Western norms will tell you that every religious community has the right to worship freely. Is this un-Islamic? No, it is in harmony with the Quranic principle of ‘no compulsion in religion’.”
He said besides religious texts and traditions, humanity was expected to act with reason and conscience.
“And those who use them in good faith, no matter which religion or culture they come from, can come up with good ideas and principles.”