Can Muslims Think?

Shaun Tan has a question about Malaysian Muslims.

A few months ago, my Australian Muslim friend asked me about Islam in Malaysia. When I told her about it she was shocked. Shocked at the coercion used to impose a narrow brand of orthodoxy. Shocked at the extremism and intolerance in a country that proclaims itself a ‘moderate Muslim nation’.

“I can’t believe it,” she said sadly. “A fundamental principle of Islam is that there is to be no compulsion in religion.” She then told me about the Allah that she knew. The Allah Whose name is peace and love and compassion and understanding and wisdom.

We’ve seen a very different version of Islam in recent months. We’ve seen draconian laws used against childish bak kut teh bloggers. We’ve seen four Muslim beauty pageant finalists charged with “insulting Islam”, apparently for the egregious sin of daring to participate in a beauty contest. We’ve seen them threatened and insulted and bullied into apologising. We’ve seen Maznah Mohd Yusof, a kind person with a big heart, arrested for posting up a video of herself celebrating Aidilfitri with her dogs. All these waves after waves of persecution done in the name of Islam.

The rabid fanatics at the head of this farce have been the Islamic departments JAKIM and JAWI. These measures are necessary, JAKIM and JAWI allege, to protect Muslims in Malaysia. According to them, Muslims are so stupid that they can be misled by bak kut teh antics; their faith is so shallow that it can be threatened by a beauty pageant; Islam is so petty that it can be undermined by a woman choosing to celebrate Aidilfitri with the animals she loves.

With all their talk, JAKIM and JAWI might have convinced me. Except that I happen to know quite a few Muslims and have on many occasions been impressed by their intelligence, by their kindness, and in some cases, by their extraordinary courage and their strong sense of justice. Some of them are my friends and I am honored to know them. I’m convinced that they are capable of thinking and choosing for themselves and I put my trust in their judgment knowing that, while we may not agree on all things, their essential goodness and humanity will endure.

JAKIM and JAWI seem to think otherwise. They seem to think that the best thing is for Muslims in this country to be scared out of their wits, to be straight-jacketed into orthodoxy, to live in fear of fictitious ‘enemies’ behind every corner – and for proof of this you need only look at JAKIM’s planned Aidilfitri sermon. They seem to think that Muslims must be treated like children (or rather, like machines, for even children are supposed to think), incapable of thinking or questioning for themselves, but who should just uncritically accept the diktats JAKIM and JAWI hand them. They seem to think that any Muslim who lives a little differently should be made to cower, to apologise where no apology is necessary, to feel shame where there is no cause for shame.

It is time, past time, for Malaysians to start calling injustice by its name. To say to bodies like JAKIM and JAWI that stupidity is stupidity, that bigotry is bigotry, that cruelty is cruelty, no matter what religious scriptures they try to twist to defend their villainy.

Many Malaysians are starting to see some of the officials of JAKIM and JAWI for what they really are: a bunch of bitter and vindictive individuals who know little of the world beyond their myopic perspectives, who were elected by no-one, but who somehow have the incredible presumption to claim to do the thinking for millions of Muslims. It’s strange that they seem to go through so much trouble to find perceived insults to Islam. The next time they want to find an insult to Islam, they need only look in a mirror.

At their official Aidilfitri sermon, Jakim planned to cast the issue in opposition to “secularism, pluralism, and feminism”. The real question at issue is a far more fundamental one: Can Muslims think?

Are Muslims, as JAKIM and JAWI seem to suggest, subhuman, unique among all the peoples of the world in being unable to think for themselves without disastrous consequences?

Or are they just as smart as everyone else, capable of pursuing their own happiness in their own way, of living their lives guided by their own sense of justice and goodness?

I, and some other Malaysians who I respect and admire, have given our answer to this question. JAKIM and JAWI have given theirs. It’s up to other Malaysians to speak out about whose they think is right.


Featured image by AP

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Shaun Tan is a Malaysian writer. He enjoys reading, partying, and talking about himself in the third-person. Contact him at [email protected]

Posted on 19 September 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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