Forum: Is Reason a Threat to Faith and Society?

KUALA LUMPUR: “Is Reason a Threat to Faith and Society?” was the central question of a forum in Nottingham’s KLTC.

The session was jointly organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), the University of Nottingham, and the Democracy Academy of Malaysia.

Elma Berisha from the IRF was the moderator, and the four speakers included:

  • Professor Zaharom Nain, the UNMC, Political Economy of Media and Communications
  • Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, Sisters in Islam, Feminist and Human Rights activism
  • Dr Isham Pawan Ahmad, International University of Malaysia, Theology and Philosophy
  • Dr Azmi Sharom, University of Malaya, Legal Concepts

The panellists spoke one by one, according to their academic or professional expertise.

An open dialogue among the panellists, alongside audience Q&A, came after the individual presentations.

Recurring topics were (1) State religion against Logic, (2) State religion against Women, and (3) State religion against Democracy.


The State against Knowledge

First speaker Zaharom energised the evening with fearlessness in thought and in language.

To sustain power, the Malaysian State exploits recyclable excuses – such as “the sanctity of Islam” and “prejudicial to public order” – to repress intellectual discourse in the country.

This leads to a deep concern for everyone, because an entity of living things cannot be a ‘society’ without factual information, knowledge, and logic.

The continuous decline of academic freedom in Malaysia is worrying, since scientific researchers of society and nature have always been key to ensuring a well-informed public. Hence, to convey a clear message to his fellow academics, Zaharom began strongly against fraudulent authority:

Let’s still go do some real academic research, publish in worthwhile publications, and get some legitimate funding based on your talent, rather than your bull-crap and kiss-ass mentality.

The sudden seizure and interrogation of Mustafa Akyol demonstrate repressed intellectual life.

After police intimidation, he wrote in his flight to Massachusetts: “At the end of my talk, a group of serious-looking men came into the lecture hall and showed me badges indicating that they were ‘religion enforcement officers.’ When they were done with their questioning, they handed me a piece of paper with Malay writing on it and told me that I shouldn’t speak again without proper authorization.”

Zunar’s Sapuman: Man of Steel, alongside his several other books, faced banning too. The “excuse” from authority is: memuatkan karikatur yang mungkin memudaratkan kepentingan negara (to promote caricature that may harm the nation’s interest).

“Kepentingan negara, the ‘National Interest’, is a term that has been bandied about in Malaysia and in other countries as a catchphrase to excuse or to explain away actions by the State. What is the ‘National Interest’ is often not explained,” explained Zaharom.

Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, an academic work by scholars and activists from Sisters in Islam (SIS), which is in line with the “JAKIM guidelines”, ended up in a similar situation, as Marina Mahathir stressed. In fact, the work of SIS “involves delving into the Quran a lot”: “One thing we’ve found is that ‘reason’ is something a lot of people seem to be afraid of. There is this belief that, if you believe, then you cannot reason why you believe: you just have to accept.”

Marina and Zaharom looked at each other, baffled by the groundless decisions of Malaysian religious authority.

“Things don’t look too good,” warned Zaharom. Malaysians need “to speak out against us having ever to get permission or accreditation from some dubious body to speak and write, or perhaps worse, from some pathetic individual who believes that it is haram for Malaysian Muslims to play chess.”

Further, Malaysians can no longer “sit back and play dead, and quietly allow some idiotic bureaucrat, religious or otherwise, to ban books and curb knowledge. There’s already too much censorship of information, of ideas, of knowledge. All of which is without any real academic or scholarly basis; all of which is to allow those in power, in different areas and capacities, to maintain their fast loosening grip on all of us.”


Religion, Patriarchy, Wealth: Women Oppressed

Oppression differs by context. In Malaysia, patriarchy and wealth have systemic protection from State religion. While most Malaysian women experience the detriments of religious patriarchy, suffering the most are working-class, non-heterosexual, Muslim women.

However, there is a glimpse of change, because “Islamic feminists have articulated Muslim women’s issues within an Islamic paradigm.” Indeed, Sisters in Islam (SIS) represents Islamic feminism.

Right from the start, Marina Mahathir made her message clear: “I understand that one of the reasons I’m here is that, considering SIS takes on many issues – particularly, women – one of the things we are championing is, #NoAllMalePanels.”

Marina Mahathir believes feminism and Islam are compatible.

Marina stressed, precisely because a feminist re-reading of the Quran may challenge the ruling-class belief, religious ‘leaders’ attempted to damage SIS in several fruitless ways.

First, they conflate SIS with ISIS, since the only difference is the ‘I’ alphabet. Second, they demonise the identity of female Islamic feminists by their physical appearance, for instance, when they do not wear the veil.

“We are women – Muslim women – talking about religion. That, by itself, regardless of what we say, unless it is parenting, is unreasonable,” Marina describes the religious patriarchy in Malaysia.

She tackled that, to justify banning the SIS book, “among the reasons given was that the book is inclined towards confusing the Muslim community, ‘especially women’. So, you know, women are easily confused more than anyone else.”

Though the book was eventually unbanned, “we do have another case, which I think is more illogical, irrational, and more dangerous.”

The Selangor state government and JAIS issued a ‘fatwa’ against SIS, stating that the feminist organisation defies Islam due to its ‘liberalism’ and ‘religious pluralism’.

“It is a very, very unusually worded fatwa. Most fatwas are quite general, and never detail who they actually mean. But this one actually did.”

More radical is, although the ‘fatwa’ is religious, the case is not heard in a Syariah court, but in the civil court system.

Nonetheless, even if “we get into the Syariah court, we would have no chance in hell get any justice, at all.”

That is because religious institutions receive constant capital and tax exemption from the Malaysian State; the capital comes from tax revenues, to be exact.

“Their governing principal is that they cannot lose. If they lose, they appeal; if they lose, they appeal. If anything else, it is a waste of taxpayer’s money to keep these really insane cases going.”

The audience found joy at Marina’s sarcasm against religious patriarchy.

Malaysian women face inter-sectional oppression. State religion, money, and patriarchy work in tandem to ensure male elitists stay in decision-making positions.


Democracy: ‘Reason’ and Law

In liberal democracies, two things are for certain.

First, everyone has equal human rights, regardless of backgrounds; second, there is the rule of law, by reasonable judgment on legal issues.

In “undemocratic” Malaysia, according to the speakers, the rights to information and speech are however limited, whereas the “judges have no reason.”

Theologist Isham began on democratic inclusivity: “I speak here today, not so much because of my right to speak, but I think it is your right to listen to different ideas. So you can decide [if] the Quran hold[s] you accountable for the decisions that you make. But in order to to make an informed decision, you must be able to listen to all the different sides. How can they hold you accountable, when they censor what you think, and then tell you that you’re wrong for thinking this way?”

With textual evidence from the Quran, he further stated that “Islam is a religion that rejects the idea of authority”: “Mutual consultation is actually the backbone of the religion itself.”

Dr. Isham provided insights into the role of ‘rationality’ in religious practice.

On the other hand, as final speaker Dr Azmi Sharom explained, such rational interpretation of the religious text is absent among various State institutions, such as the Court.

“Because obviously, reason is not a threat to faith and society: Morons are.”

Due to his academic viewpoint that defied religious ‘leaders’, Dr Azmi was charged under the Sedition Act in 2014, and was only vindicated last year.

“There’s obviously an anti-intellectual movement in this country: particularly, an anti-Islamic-intellectual movement.”

The legal expert then guided the audience to analysing the Malaysian legal system in terms of the foundation of the Constitution, with clear details.

Stated in Article Three of the Malaysian Constitution, Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.

Nevertheless, the Federal Court “said this Article Three actually means that we must protect ‘the sanctity of Islam’. So there’s a huge leap in logic, with regard to constitutional interpretation, without any backing whatsoever.”

“Parliament, they are the only ones who can make laws which impose restrictions on the freedom of expressions. And they can only do so, if it is for the security of the Federation, friendly international relations, public order or morality, to protect the legislature…and to prevent incitement,” clarified Dr. Azmi.

Problems occur when the State exploits the language of the Law for political gains: “Now they can ban you, as long as they label something as Islamic. They can control you.”

Dr. Azmi patiently explained the fundamental problems in the Malaysian legal system.

To end his speech, he lamented:

In any civilised country, the Judiciary is the last call: your last chance at justice. In any reasonable country, that is also the case. That’s not the case in Malaysia.


Written by Teoh Sing Fei

Photographs by Nate Ahmad

"They say that great minds think alike, but also fools seldom differ"

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