It begins with the narrative...

loading Dr Anas Al-Tikriti, founder and president of the Cordoba Foundation.

When Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak invented the phrase "human rights-ism" in May to denounce humanism, secularism and liberalism as ideological threats to the particular variety of Islam institutionalised in Malaysia, he was giving his stamp of approval to a growing narrative for religion, politics and, essentially, freedom in this country. It is a narrative designed to decouple the values of religion, specifically Islam, from the values of human rights, like justice, equality and freedom.

The elevation of such a narrative comes at a time when it underpins so many headliner issues du jour – implementing hudud laws, banning Malay bibles, persecuting Shias, banning the Malay translation of Darwin's The Origin of Species, raiding weddings and funerals, and so on.

Dr Anas Al-Tikriti, founder and president of the Cordoba Foundation, a research and policy think tank promoting intercultural dialogue, spoke on this issue at the "Colloquium on Freedom of Religion" forum that was jointly organised by the Penang Institute and the Islamic Renaissance Front on May 17 in KL. By drawing on the turmoil that has afflicted his birthplace of Iraq, Anas showed how yesterday’s conjured narratives, designed to divide-and-conquer, have become the reality of today.

On controlling the narrative...

Anas: (Religious persecution) begins long before we get to the politicians or the judiciary. It begins at the level of the narrative, at how we choose our words and tone our ideas.

In order to justify the 2003 Iraq War, the narrative made in statements by George W. Bush and Tony Blair at the time described Iraq as a country ruled by a minority Sunni population, subjugating and terrorising a majority Shia population. And that's how Iraq was later shaped, in the post-war invasion and occupation.

Yet during the Baath regime, virtually every single segment of Iraqi society was victimised. The regime, in a sense, had no religion or ethnicity. It would deal with any group, as long as it served its own purposes and interests. Therefore, within the close circle of the Baath regime, you’d find Saddam's close comrade, foreign minister Tariq Aziz, who was a Christian. You’d find the information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf aka Comical Ali, who was Shia. For these dictators, their religion is self-preservation. The victims are everyone else.

President Barack Obama being given an aerial tour of Baghdad. In late February 2009, Obama announced an 18-month withdrawal window for combat forces from Iraq, but it was only in December 2011 that the Iraq War was officially declared over.

During those years, Iraq was a society that didn't identify itself along either ethnic or sectarian lines. Iraqi families inter-married across the board. But for political purposes, the narrative needed to show there was an oppressor and oppressed. Saddam Hussein committed unbelievable crimes against Kurds and Shias, but let's keep quiet about the ones he committed against Sunnis.

So this narrative sent armies across continents to Iraq in order to save the Shias and Kurds from the Sunnis. That was the narrative. But now it has become the reality. Once Saddam's regime fell, you have the premise to actually divide the country according to the very same lines you have been using in the media.

On using the hudud narrative for politics...

This issue of hudud (in Malaysia) stems from a political discussion, not a social or even religious one. You use the religious narrative for political purposes. Why wasn't Malaysia a Muslim country 40 or 50 years ago? Why wasn't this a big issue back then? What has happened now that has forced this particular issue onto the table?

Countries that proclaim themselves to be Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, Iran and Sudan, are really, with due respect, failed countries – economically, politically and socially. Why did they resort all of a sudden to implementing hudud? It’s to mobilise the religious masses and cover up the major failures. It’s a red herring.

You're given a choice. Either you're a good Muslim, and therefore you'll subscribe totally and entirely with what the political agenda has set – not the religious agenda – or you’re a bad Muslim. And that is the worst kind of debate we could ever have.

To put people at a point where they have to choose, and then be judged and labelled, is extremely dangerous for everyone, not just for Muslims. This is not the way to carry forward a country that faces immense challenges on every single level.

On whether we need an Islamic state...

The concept of an Islamic state is alien to Islam. I have personally seen examples of so-called Islamic states which haven't served the cause of Islam. If anything, they have been detrimental to Islam. I don't think Prophet Muhammad strove to establish an Islamic state. What we do strive for is to proliferate Islamic values, and essentially those values are humanity, equality, dignity, liberty, freedom and justice. These are universal values.

I don't need a ruler who prays five times a day, fasts twice a week and all of Ramadan, knows the Quran and recites it beautifully, and is also a dictator. I'd rather have someone who is either of a different religion, or no religion, but is a just leader. That is a matter of common sense.

On the concept of freedom in Islam...

Islam rotates around a central concept, and that's freedom. The very declaration of the faith, La illah ila allah ("There is no God but Allah") is in itself a declaration of freedom. The very declaration of Islam is about freedom from all ties, from all sorts of submissions to any earthly, worldly issues, whether they are political, economic, social and such.

In Islamic jurisprudence – the fiqh – you will find that in the many actions one is encouraged to commit, among the conditions is to be free. You can’t ask someone who's enslaved to carry out religious obligations as you would a free person, which was why one of the most noble acts one could do was to free slaves.

I am often reminded of a line in the Holy Quran which states: "Verily we have dignified the sons of Adam." Not Muslims, but all sons of Adam. This is the overriding law that governs our relationship as human beings.

Also in the Holy Quran is the verse: "There shall be no compulsion in religion. No one is to force anyone to believe in anything they do not." The most repulsive act is to compel someone to convert to an idea or a religion they do not want, or to do it out of fear. It must be left to one’s own convictions and devices to believe.

These are the concepts of Islam which unfortunately seem to be absent and lacking from the overall narrative. Within our enclaves, our own mosques, we don't see the need to press on these particular principles, when it's actually within our religious congregations that these principles need to be pressed.

On the freedom dilemma...

It seems we're torn between two choices. The first is that freedom is absolute – that's the overriding narrative that we hear from Western liberal circles where there can be no infringements on freedom – and the other is the problematic approach where there is a negative correlation between freedom and religion. The more freedoms you speak about, the less religious you must be. The more freedoms you take away from yourself and others around you, than the more religious and pious you (apparently) become. And this is not exclusive to Islam.

The problem with the Western definition and practice of freedom is that it's quite hypocritical. In the case of the Danish cartoon of the Prophet, the argument for it is that it's the freedom to offend. But I also have the freedom to feel offended.

Young woman in a hijab. In 2010, France approved a bill that banned the wearing of the Islamic full veil in public.

How can we talk about liberalism and freedom as such when, for instance, there's the banning of the hijab (in France)? A woman can strip as many layers of clothing as she wishes, but she has no right to decide how many layers of cloth she puts on her body? Once you become hypocritical about this, then you cannot profess or uphold the principle as a whole.

On religious persecution being everyone’s problem...

The issue I face in Britain and Europe is Islamophobia. Society as a whole needs to reconcile itself with its own founding principles. British and European societies proclaim democracy, freedom, equality and the right to express themselves. So when they start to pass legislations to restrict those freedoms, then they need to contend with what they have become. Islamophobia is not a problem for Muslims; it's a problem for society as a whole. As was racism – it wasn't just a problem for the blacks; it was all of society that needed to take a closer look at itself.

Palestinian women in Gaza City.

When the Jews were persecuted, the Western world needed to contend with itself, how it allowed that to happen. And now that the descendants of those victims of Nazism are carrying out similar crimes against the Palestinians, the world once again forgets with whom it should side. It’s allowing the same nature of crimes, under the same narrative, to take place.

On what must be done...

We need to assert the need for a new, unique model of education, and to create a demographic where people come from different backgrounds and cultures, with different aspirations, yet work collectively towards making a better society.

We need to start this at the earliest possible moment so that it becomes part of society’s psyche as a whole. Our children will not be shocked when they meet someone with a foreign name or they see them worship in a way they're not accustomed to, and will accept that this is part of the world in which they live.

Related Articles

Jan 2010

The probable effects on the climate of Penang of the continued destruction of its hill jungles

In this article written 164 years ago, James Logan warned that cutting our hillside jungles could be disastrous for Penang's climate.

Jul 2016

Penang and Kuching Redefine Malaysia’s Urban Cool

The two cities are revitalising through the arts.

Dec 2013

Penang's secret hash society

Hashers take running to a whole different level of fun.

Feb 2015

Shelter for those who seek their way back

For former drug users, vagabonds, sex workers and the mentally ill, local non-profit organisation Payong provides much-needed support for individuals to transition back to society.