Race & Islam

The dilemma that Malaysia is facing now is the same dilemma faced by many other Muslim societies where the defence and promotion of religion often goes hand-in-hand with the defence and promotion of communitarian interests of Muslims/

It is odd, to say the least, that after more than fourteen centuries, there remain some people who claim to be Muslims but who still have not internalised the universal values of Islam. Odder still that there remain those who on the one hand can embrace Islam’s universal claim of brotherhood (and sisterhood) but still cannot get around to understanding the simple idea that Islam and racism do not mix.

Evidence of such discrepancies can be found pretty much everywhere these days. It has, sadly, become the normative cultural norm in so many Muslim societies today that those who are fair are better off and given the privileges that they feel are the natural right of all light-skinned people. It is also interesting to note that Muslims tend to rejoice whenever a white American or European converts to Islam, but seem less enthusiastic in their recognition of the fact that thousands of Africans and Asians are converting to Islam every year.

Furthermore, when it comes to governance and politics, it remains painfully clear that some Muslims still place blood and race above competency and merit even today, and that despite their profession of faith, they remain embedded in the stagnant mode of racialised thinking that operates on the basis that some races are better than others.

One such case has popped up recently in multi-cultural Malaysia, where a row was sparked by the nomination of a Chinese woman — Low Siew Moi — as the head of a state institution linked to the economic management and development of the state of Selangor, the PKNS. Despite the fact that Low Siew Moi was selected by the chief minister of the state, Tan Sri Khalid, on the basis of merit, some quarters chose to publicly disagree with her appointment on the grounds that the Malay-Muslims of the state would object to the appointment. But objection on what grounds? That she is Chinese?

Here, the already convoluted waters of Malaysia’s racialised politics turns a shade murkier, for among those who objected to the appointment of Low Siew Moi were some members of the Malaysian Islamist party PAS.

Malaysia’s politics has been defined by racial concerns and the communitarian demands of the various religious and ethnic groups of the country since its independence in 1957. Over the past three decades, however, the tone and tenor of the country’s conservative, rightwing, ethnonationalist politics was further coloured by the Islamisation race in the country with the Malaysian government attempting to further inculcate Islamic values into the norms of governance.

Ironically, however, Malaysia’s Islamisation programme seems to be more concerned with book-banning, fatwas on social behaviour (including the recent revelation that there may be a fatwa on yoga soon, wait for it!), and moral policing instead. Where, the Islamic scholar may ask, were the universal values of Islam in the midst of all this social engineering? Did the leaders of Malaysia not realise, or forget, the simple idea that Islam is an egalitarian faith that is colour-blind? And that the concept of ‘race’ is an alien idea in Islam?

The dilemma that Malaysia is facing now is the same dilemma faced by many other Muslim societies where the defence and promotion of religion often goes hand-in-hand with the defence and promotion of communitarian interests of Muslims. In Malaysia’s case, where Muslims are overwhelmingly Malay, this then also translates as the defence of Malay interests — to the extent of propagating the ethnonationalist idea of Malay cultural dominance. Now what on earth is Islamic about this?

Here is where orthodox Muslim scholarship has to make a timely intervention. It has to be remembered that the success of Islam and the success of Muslims are two entirely different things, which may also clash and negate each other at times.

The victory of Islam, so to speak, has to be understood as the victory of universal values such as egalitarianism and equality before God. The victory of Muslims, on the other hand, may at times be understood as political victories that may or may not conform to the standards of Islamic ethics.

The defeat of the Kuwaitis at the hands of Saddam Hussein, for instance, was a case of one Muslim state defeating another, but was this a victory for Islam? Likewise, when Muslims openly and abrasively demand special rights and privileges for themselves at the cost of equality and meritocracy, is this really a victory for Islam?

Those who have criticised and opposed the appointment of Low Siew Moi as the head of PKNS on the grounds that the job should have been given to a Malay-Muslim should instead look closely at themselves and ask: what is it that we are fighting for? Malay-Muslim dominance or a better form of governance that is based on merit and equality? The Islamic scholar will remind you that the latter is Islamic, while the former is not.

In any case, for Muslims to even think in racialised communitarian terms is a misnomer of sorts, as such modes of communitarian, sectarian thinking have no real place in Islamic orthodoxy and ethics. To quote Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS: “Tell me, what race was Adam?”

‘Nuff’ said, I think.

/Dr Farish A Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and one of the founders of the //_www.othermalaysia.org_/ <file://www.othermalaysia.org>/ research site.

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