A radical proposal on religious education

In the aftermath of the Seafield temple fracas and the ensuing racial and religious tension, Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin, the respected mufti of Perlis and scholar extraordinaire, penned an open letter to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. His letter, from my perspective, contained the most progressive idea about the subject of religion in our public schools.

Even I had not dared to write about it in public. If I had mentioned it in my writing, not only would the Malays have united against me, I might even have received a visit from the authorities. What did Asri write that was so unprecedented in conservative Muslim Malaysia?

He wrote three main points about the subject of teaching religion in schools. Firstly, the subject of Islamic Studies must be taken out of the regular school curriculum and transferred to the afternoon session.

Secondly, he wrote that funding for the teachers of this subject should be taken from the zakat coffers. Thirdly, he wrote that other faiths could also hire their own teachers and teach the students in the afternoon session.

Surprisingly, his revolutionary and visionary thoughts on this matter were totally ignored by both Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as the media.

In this article I wish to throw my full support behind Asri’s idea because this is the only viable step towards achieving racial unity and harmony in this country. One of our Achilles’ heels of race relations has always centred on religious education.

I have always argued that all religions must be taught in public schools instead of just Islam. I understand the complexity of the issue but those revolve around syllabus content and pedagogy, something that we can resolve with much discussion and thought.

With Asri’s idea, religion can be relegated to the afternoon session in a totally separate mode from the national curriculum. Mahathir had already lamented that public schools now resemble religious schools more than centres for gaining knowledge about the world.

PAS and Umno, and even those in Amanah and PKR, will probably resist this idea of taking Islam out of the national curriculum. Malay society and even the state religious officials may also revolt against this idea as Islam has been entrenched in national education since we even had a national syllabus and curriculum.

But I believe this is a right step towards reducing the “religious school” image. It will also democratically allow all religions to be taught in the after-school session, based on the demand of parents. Hopefully a new syllabus will be prepared that will ensure racial and religious harmony, not a rehash of traditional practices, values and attitudes at odds with modernity and democracy.

Secondly, the idea of supporting Islamic education in the afternoon session from the zakat coffers is an extremely brave and forward-looking idea. Although it would put Islam at the behest of state religious institutions rather than the control of the federal government, I look upon it as an interesting democratic process of discussions between classical Islam and modern ones by the state.

The fact that other faiths can also have classes by hiring teachers and paying them using their own funds will create a situation that is uncharted because all the children will be in the school.

One thing I worry about in Asri’s proposal is his unwritten implication about the existence of vernacular schools. I think Asri’s implied proposal may suggest the closing of all vernacular schools, to be replaced by a single school system with the new primary school curriculum. I would disagree with this.

I believe that we should run national schools with the suggested changes in religious education and let parents slowly abandon vernacular schools on their own. I have always maintained that if we were to close all vernacular schools, religious schools should also suffer the same fate. Vernacular schools nowadays are not filled 100% with non-Malays but comprise a significant number of Malays as well, whereas religious schools are 100% Malay.

It is a great pity that not many non-Muslims in Malaysia have expressed support for Asri’s idea of solving racial tension through education. Once upon a time, Asri was seen as the most progressive and moderate Islamic scholar, cleric and academic that we had seen in many years.

However, he lost the trust of the non-Malays because of his careless and callous statements about Hinduism and Indians. His support of Zakir Naik has worsened the matter. Now there is strong talk about him being an extremist in non-Malay circles. I urge my friends and fellow citizens not to believe such talk and to give due recognition and credit to what he has done and is trying to do in Malay society as well as Malaysia as a whole.

Although I have made it very clear that I do not support Asri’s views on Hinduism and Indians or his stand on Naik, I must implore non-Malays to consider Asri’s ideas seriously.

I will not support a forced closure of both vernacular and religious schools as these have a long history of contributing to the specific communities they cater to. But if we Malaysians support vernacular and religious schools simply out of love for identity and tradition, we may have missed one important moment in history when a powerful and respected cleric advocated the removal of Islamic Studies from the main curriculum of national schools.

This moment in history is fleeting and if we miss the boat, there is no one else with the same charisma and credibility as Asri to advocate this change. We will remain in our quagmire of religious mistrust and disharmony for another century.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.