Islam, Apostasy and ‘Erdoğanists’ In Malaysia

[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]

KUALA LUMPUR – It is my first time in this fascinating city, and I just hope that it won’t be the last. Thanks to the invitation from Malaysian Think Tank, a pioneering organization dedicated to popularize classical liberal ideas in Malaysian society, I had the chance to come here all the way down from Istanbul. And I was impressed by not just Malaysia’s common tourist attractions (gorgeous nature, great food, and diverse society) but also for the lessons it tells us about the interaction between Islam and modernity.

Let’s start with a little bit of encyclopedic information. Malaysia is often defined as an “Islamic country,” but Muslims make up only 51 percent of the population. The rest is Chinese with 27 percent, Hindu with 8 percent, and many other smaller groups. What is curious in this composition is that “Chinese” is an ethnic category, while “Muslim” is a religious one.

That apparent contradiction has a reason: Here, in a way which is a bit similar to Bosnia, being a Muslim corresponds with an ethnic identity: that of the Malays, the dominant group.


Heresy, Heresy!

In other words, it is in the very definition of being a Malay to be a Muslim. And this is not just custom, but also law. Article 160 of the Constitution defines a Malay as “a Muslim Malaysian citizen born to another Malaysian citizen.”

But what happens if a Malay wants to change his religion, and became, say, a Christian?

What happens is a big problem. The ex-Muslim is required to take “permission” from Islamic Shariah courts to convert. But since he or she is not a Muslim anymore, that is absurd. Moreover, the courts are generally not willing to give permission. The consequential limbo can last for a long time. Moreover, the same courts do not allow a Muslim Malay (which is a redundant term, actually) to marry a non-Muslim.

Since I learned a little bit about this problem, I decided to address the issue of apostasy at the speech I gave last Tuesday at a public panel on “the role of religion in a plural society.” First I argued that a secular (not secularist!) political system is the best option for Muslims, because it allows them to practice their faith freely, without any compulsion from state. In return, I noted, Muslims should not exert compulsion on others, too. The latter idea included granting people freedom from Islam, if they decide to leave it. And what would we achieve, after all, keeping people in the faith by force other than hypocrisy?

The comments and the questions from the audience showed that this was a sensitive topic. And those who sounded critical confirmed my gut feeling: This was more of a political issue rather than a theological one. What would happen to “Malay identity” if some Malays stopped being a Muslim? Weren’t they threatening “national unity” by abandoning their faith community? And shouldn’t the state take precautions to protect this unity?

This was no surprise. The ban on apostasy in classical Islam came from political, not religious, sources as well. There is nothing in the Koran or the practice of the prophet that supports it. It rather came from the political wars of the early caliphs, during which the abandonment of religion was deemed synonymous with treason to the political community. In the modern world, in which a change of one’s belief system has nothing to do with high treason, Muslims should take a much more relaxed attitude.

But do these arguments make sense to the Muslim opinion leaders in Malaysia?

To some, definitely yes. One of them is Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and an important figure in PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia.

AKP as Role Model

We actually spoke on the same panel with Dr. Ahmad and he tended to agree with what I said on religious freedom. He further defined himself an “Islamic democrat” who strives for a democratic political system, not an “Islamic state.” When I asked how popular these liberal views are in his party, he gave an interesting answer. “It is popular among the Erdoğanists,” he said, “whereas the Erbakanists strongly oppose them.”

These witty definitions clearly referred to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, and his former guru Necmeddin Erbakan. Erdoğan, as you would know, broke with Erbakan’s anti-Western, Islamist line to found the Justice and Development Party, or AKP and to follow a EU-oriented, liberal policy. This transformation has had influence outside of Turkey as well. It has changed the terms, apparently, even in a far country like Malaysia.

That’s why the AKP experiment (that of synthesis between strong Islamic identity and democratic politics) is crucial for not just Turkey but the world.

It would only be a pity if it is sacrificed to the pettiness within AKP’s own ranks, or to the obsessions among Turkey’s secular fundamentalists.

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