This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on January 30, 2023 - February 5, 2023
In my first article of the year (The Edge, Issue 1455, Jan 16), I asked responsible Malaysians to help the nation return to the middle path of moderation. This was after last year’s toxic general election campaign, during which racial and religious issues were exploited to the hilt just for the sake of winning votes.
Since then the unity government under the premiership of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has launched a national policy with the Malaysia Madani tagline that focuses on putting good and fair values first. This civil society concept will emphasise a nation that places importance on six core values — sustainability, compassion, respect, innovation, prosperity and trust.
In line with its thrust, minority groups and the poor will not be marginalised when it comes to government policymaking, and governance will be emphasised to prevent economic leakages and poor management.
If the policy is sincerely adopted and implemented, and its objectives fully understood by Malaysians, then we are heading in the right direction — that is, bringing the nation back to not only the middle path but also towards securing a fairer and more prosperous future where economic and racial inequalities will be narrowed.
Given that previous governments also proclaimed many policies with taglines such as 1Malaysia and Keluarga Malaysia, let’s wait and see if the Malaysia Madani policy will yield the much needed result. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
But the need to go back to the middle path is not Malaysia’s alone. Many countries across the globe, which have seen rising racism and extreme right-wing politics, must do the same.
The last time the world saw such uncontrolled behaviour, it led to the rise of Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy and Japanese imperialism, which resulted in the devastating World War II (1939-45) that killed more than 70 million people.
The world is currently nowhere near that stage of political uncertainty but there is growing concern that if these spurts of extremism are not curbed, it could lead to bigger problems.
The burning of the Quran, the holy book of the Muslims, in Sweden by activists last week — which was condemned by the Swedish government but allowed in the name of freedom of speech, a cornerstone of Western democracy — is a worrying development. For it to happen in Scandinavia, supposedly Europe’s liberal bastion, is something that could not be imagined a few years ago.
Everywhere in Europe, right-wingers are gaining political traction. Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, elected last September, heads the Brothers of Italy party, whose origins date back to post-war neo-fascism.
In Russia, to legitimise his invasion of Ukraine among his countrymen, President Vladimir Putin is using the “Russianess” of being Russian as a political tool. In India, which now has the world’s largest population, Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party BJP is well entrenched to rule for many more years. Will Modi lead BJP to the middle path? That seems highly unlikely and the fear is that he will move India further to the right, as many of his critics say.
In the US, will the Republican party find presidential candidates other than Donald Trump to run for the 2024 presidential election? Maybe, but all potential candidates would need a Trump endorsement to get into the race. Then again, Trump, who got 75 million votes from Americans in the last presidential election, is unlikely to give way, nurturing a notion of making a “whiter” America great again.
As for China, will it ever respect the right of Taiwan to exist as a nation state or will it go to war to claim it as part of the motherland? Taiwan is potentially China’s Ukraine.
The politics of leaning towards the right also translates into rising Islamophobia. The burning of the Quran and more Charlie Hebdo-type caricatures ridiculing Prophet Muhammad and Islam are likely to continue in Western democracies, the bulwark of free speech and press freedom. But here is the thing — if a Muslim burns the flag of Israel in the name of freedom of expression, he is immediately branded as anti-Semitic.
The good of Islam is often eclipsed by the many aspects of disinformation about the religion out there, and this is not helped by the advent of social media, on which hate messages have multiplied manifold.
Muslims should know better than to fight extremism with extremism. Instead, we should show the good of Islam by explaining and highlighting the universal values of Islam. In many Muslim spheres, instead of protesting in the streets, more are resorting to social media to correct the misrepresentation of Islam. To do otherwise now seems counterproductive.
For one, Islam does not condone terrorism, and the destruction of public amenities and the murder of the innocent is forbidden. The Quran, in chapter 6:151, says: “And do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct.” Islam does not allow the killing of innocents “for killing one innocent person is likened to the killing of the whole community and saving one life is likened to saving the whole of humanity”.
In 2015, in reaction to the Paris killings of editors and journalists at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, more than 50 European-based imams and scholars issued a statement that Islam is very much against violence. Quoting hadiths, they re-emphasised two of the Prophet’s sayings. One compiled by Bukhari says, “Someone who unjustly kills a non-Muslim citizen cannot attain a whiff of heaven, even though its fragrance is felt from a distance of 40 years.” The other, compiled by Tabarani, notes that “he who hurts a non-Muslim citizen hurts me, and he who hurts me annoys Allah”.
Muslims must also do more to reach out to other communities. In this respect Qatar, despite some criticisms on its treatment of foreign workers and the LGBT community, during the Fifa World Cup showed visitors the many other sides of Islam that are positive, fair and tolerant. Like any other religion and culture, Islam has its own set of limitations that others need to understand and respect.
In Malaysia, during the Chinese New Year, the spirit of muhibbah in the Madani sense looks well and alive. On social media, I saw many friends and personalities with Chinese spouses uploading many photos of them celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with their families and in-laws.
Not to be left out, politicians — including those from PAS — also uploaded photos and stories of how they celebrated Chinese New Year with their Chinese relatives and friends. It is a nice gesture that shows politicians too are eager to promote a multiracial and multireligious Malaysia.
But let’s see if this remains the case during the upcoming state elections, which are expected to be held in the next six months. Or whether it is back to being irresponsible, spreading racial and religious disinformation and resorting to political scaremongering just to win votes.
Azam Aris is an editor emeritus at The Edge
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