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Slamming door on religious extremism debate another lost opportunity

COMMENT Granted, as largely anticipated, the much-awaited debate between Perlis mufti Asri Zainul Abidin and ustaz Zamihan Mat Zin, the president of Pertubuhan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah Malaysia (Aswaja), has been called off at the eleventh hour.

Be that as it may, the discerning Malaysian public, particularly the thinking Muslim constituencies, are not amused, but rather extremely baffled by the decision of the home minister to call it off.

Let it be said again that the debate was least concerned as to who would finally be declared winner or loser; right or wrong. Similarly the debate was no longer about who was first in levelling accusations. That is a moot point, much as it is frivolous.

But much to the chagrin of the public, an opportunity was lost to listen to the depth and breadth of the debate or discourse on the subject of religious extremism in Malaysia. The hope to be enlightened was again dashed by this decision.

The various connotations and practices of religious extremism as it is peculiar to and endemic in Malaysia, has again escaped the troubled Malaysians across the various ethnic, religious, cultural and political divides. While no one could deny the potential threat from Islamic State (IS or Daesh) ideology, another variant of religious extremism is equally virulent and potentially explosive in Malaysia.

The existence of a genre or variant of religious extremism i.e. the ease and impunity with which individuals, right-wing organisations, even political parties and now, unfortunately of religious authorities, in name-calling others as Wahabis , liberals and even being called kafir or hereticals ( sesat ), is a Malaysian brand of religious extremism.

On that score, Zamihan's latest urging for the establishment of a centre to counter the IS threat is arguably valid but misplaced.

‘Kafir mengkafir’ Season 2

The penchant for labelling those that are not in agreement with or opposed to one’s conviction and practice, is indeed both extremely regrettable and deplorable. This religious tendency could very well tear apart the Muslim society particularly, and causing grievous disharmony in the nation as a whole.

That should have been the crux of the debate; that is, of whether such intolerant stance of managing differences and dissent is advocated by Islam. Or is it, in actual fact, very opposed to the spirit and practice of at-tasaamuh or tolerance as exemplified by earlier celebrated great jurists or ulama - fuqaha , even in the matters of differences in the legal school of jurisprudence or mazahib ?

But why the illiberal and very rigid-narrow stance, typifying the IS ideology right now in Malaysia?

Zamihan's accusations and the recent banning of some salient religious personalities to lecture/preach in the state of Johor by the Johor Religious Department (MAIJ), are illustrative examples of the troubling form of an emerging religious extremism as their teachings are regarded as 'deviant' and not in tune with the Sunni school of thought ( Ahli Sunnah wal Jamaah ).

Both Zamihan as well as the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Shahidan Kassim, incidentally implored that the deputy prime minister's decision to call off the debate be respected.

But why must the decision be respected? On the contrary the DPM owes an explanation to the entire rakyat. The onus is now on the DPM to urgently explain as to why the debate was called off. The cancellation has undoubtedly denied an opportunity to address the many issues of religious extremism and its serious untoward consequences if left unattended and worse still, perceived as being promoted and defended.

How will PM fight extremism?

More importantly, could the PM and his deputy promise a better Malaysia that will keep religious extremism and narrow sectarian practice of Islam at bay?

Could the PM and his deputy ensure that religious authorities, embody the much avowed wasatiyyah of Putrajaya? True wasatiyyah enhances and endears the Brotherhood of Man and Brotherhood of Believers. But very unfortunately, the state of both ethnic and religious divides witnessed in Malaysia is extremely alarming and potentially explosive.

Empty rhetoric without true embodiment breeds contempt and distrust.

DZULKEFLY AHMAD is Parti Amanah Negara strategy director.

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