COMMENT The debate (or discussion) set for tomorrow between Perlis mufti Asri Zainal Abidin and the president of Pertubuhan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah (Association of the Sunni Legal School), Ustaz Zamihan Mat Zinis, is more than welcomed by all and sundry.
The media has been rife with the news and a last-minute cancellation will surely be a major letdown, and typical Putrajaya pussyfooting on anything that is positively regarded as an 'enlightenment'.
Putrajaya must not allow this perception of being 'illiberal' and 'intolerant' to their 'brand' of wasatiyah be reinforced, and claims that it has a penchant for flip-flopping be vindicated again.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Shahidan Kassim is said to have consented to the event, ending a month of uncertainty about the doability of an open debate. It is said that the venue will be the auditorium of the department.
I'm least concerned with who would be announced as the winner, especially if it is to be determined using the Akademi Fantasia kind of voting.
What I'm anxiously looking forward to is the depth and breadth of the debate or discourse and how both display their mastery of the subject 'Religious Extremism in Malaysia'.
The debate would enable the audience to discern if there is a profound understanding of Islamic precepts, as opposed to those who merely regurgitate scriptures or texts out of their context and the higher objectives of the syariah (Maqasid Syariah).
Incidentally, the debate is a culmination of barbs being traded and horns being locked for over a week; Zamihan has been accusing Asri of being a 'liberal' and a 'terrorist' at the same time.
More importantly, the debate would allow for both debaters to address the broader conflict of ideas of what represents a true embodiment of 'moderation' ( wasatiyah ) and toleration ( tasaamuh ).
This warrants all the more that it be allowed to be held openly in the public sphere, that is, with an audience.
Very recently, it was observed that some people in authority have been taking the liberty to make judgements and accusations on others and name-calling them with labels like 'wahabi' or 'shiite', as well as barring them from giving religious talks and lectures in some states.
An open discourse will help clear misunderstandings and get a better grasp on such divisive issues.
In the same vein, of late there's a tendency àmong lay Muslims and some religious teachers who are ostensibly politically inclined, to be accusing others who are not in line with their political and religious persuasion, as being 'liberal' even 'heretical' ( sesat ) and 'not Islamic'.
This religious bigotry actually borders on a takfiri tendency (a mindset that easily pronounces others as being out of Islam), an essential ingredient of the IS ideology, and a very dangerous trend if allowed to grow unchecked.
It undermines the nation's inclusive future and an ability to manage differences and dissent, which is a hallmark of a mature and vibrant democracy.
I am of the belief and conviction that a debate or discourse on this topical issue will do a lot of good to the Muslim constituency in particular and Malaysians as a whole.
l call upon the religious minister and national religious bodies to not outlaw, but on the contrary, encourage such discourses, for the greater good ( maslahah ) of the nation.
DZULKEFLY AHMAD is strategy director for Parti Amanah Negara.