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COMMENT | If this country truly wants to be fair and just to all its people, regardless of their religion, then we must first agree that we need to have a common understanding of what constitutes fairness and justice.

If we were to ask any man or woman in the street anywhere in the world, they would probably say that it means treating others the way one would want to be treated. If this simple test were applied in our daily lives, then we could have peace without much difficulty.

Unfortunately, we neither subscribe to nor believe in that ethical proposition any more. The Muslim leaders who run this country, whether they are political or religious, have disregarded this notion of equality of treatment and reciprocity of good behaviour for some time now.

Their absolute control of political power enables them to distort the ordinary meaning of “fair and just”. To them, it is no longer an ethical principle that stands on its own. It is only relevant and applicable only if they decide it is. When they disagree with what you say or do, they cry foul and say these acts or statements are against Islam and are therefore prohibited or unlawful.

These leaders play God every day in their speeches and statements. They make hate speeches with impunity and they are untouchable. They seem to know everything there is to know about sin and punishment, and about how God will judge our actions and behavior. They - and only they - know everything that is good, fair and just.

I call this religious bigotry, which unfortunately has become our national ideology. We cannot even suggest that the simple ideas of the Rukunegara can be used as guiding principles to govern this country, for even these ideas have suddenly become subversive and a threat to Islam.

It’s not enough for them that Muslims make up the majority of the population and are still growing in number. It’s not enough for them that Islam already has a special place in the country. It’s not enough for them that the Malays Rulers are custodians of Islam. It's not enough for them that billions of ringgit are spent every year on the promotion and propagation of Islam and the welfare of Muslims.

It’s not even enough that they pay less income tax to the extent of the amount of zakat they pay.

Like Mick Jagger, they can’t seem to find any satisfaction. Every day they talk about threats to Islam and how the enemies of Islam are everywhere. They think the war against Jews and the Crusades are still not over. What good does it do for Muslims? None, except give them a false sense of superiority which ultimately does nothing to make their lives better.

Positive side of humanity ignored

These leaders completely ignore the positive side of humanity and the values that bring progress to all of us. They only emphasise sin and punishment, as if they are perfect Muslims. They don’t seem to care if Muslims in this country are still poor or are lagging far behind the others in education, the economy and in areas of skill development.

They just want to dominate, control and disseminate fear in people's lives, including Muslims who disagree with them. They represent medieval values of morality that are inimical to human progress.

This is the reality we now live in. Fair-minded Muslims who still subscribe to the old-fashioned values I alluded to above, peace-loving Malaysians and the believers and practitioners of other faiths must today sit up and decide what they want to do about it. If they think - as I do - that religious bigotry and extremism will imperil peace and stability in this country and ultimately destroy it, then they have to act now.

You can say you are men of God and cannot be activists who seek change. You can also say you don't want to get involved in politics for fear of reprisals. But then these leaders will continue to rule undisturbed. We are now a Taliban country, the only difference being that our ministers wear Brioni suit and designer watches.

As a Muslim, I find this perversion of my religion unforgivable. We are here on earth to do good and to fight for justice for all mankind. I see Islam as a liberating religion, one that puts justice and compassion above all else. So ladies and gentlemen, we have a fight on our hands. If you want justice and fairness and if you want them to respect your religion, then you have to join this fight. You have to fight for what you believe in - no one else will do it for you.

If we tremble with indignation when an injustice is inflicted on another human being then we must be willing to pay the price to correct that injustice. If we want to return this country to what it was like before, when religious freedom was accepted and when we lived together without recrimination and distrust, then we must fight together for change.

We must return to the days when good government with good people ran the country. We do not need those who play God with people’s lives. In the earlier years of this country’s independence life was undeniably hard, but at least we had dignity and respect because everyone knew what those words meant.

What do we do if we want change? The people of this country, especially those who fear God, must do more than what they are doing now to effect change. I am not urging you to emulate Che Guevara or to give your life for the cause you believe in, but I am asking you to do more. Stand up to bigotry and extremism and all forms of injustice. Don’t be afraid to speak the truth. This is our country and no one should be allowed to divide us.

We cannot say we want to be impartial or non-partisan. That's the excuse people give when they don't want to dirty their hands. Religious people always tell us that the great prophets of God - whether it was Moses, Jesus or Muhammad - paid a heavy price for our redemption and salvation. That may be true, but we can also take the long road to heaven by taking on some risk ourselves, and assuming personal responsibility for correcting what is wrong with this country.

Don’t play with fire

Do not lose hope. Many Muslim countries grappled with the same phenomena we experience here, and they succeeded in becoming modern and progressive. Turkey is well ahead of us in providing the amenities of a developed country to its people. A form of representative government is well embedded there. Religion is central to the lives of the people but their deep understanding of Islam does not harm the country.

Morocco and Tunisia are Muslim countries, too, where the administration of Islam does not hinder freedom, democracy or the development of its people. Islam coexists with the institutions of the state and provides the people with religious spirituality without the state becoming the enforcer of God’s commands.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country and the forces of extremism there are strong and loud. But the defence of Jakarta’s Christian and ethnically Chinese governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known by his Hakka nickname Ahok, in an ongoing blasphemy trial shows us that Indonesian scholars are not timid souls.

Ahok’s defence is being carried out by Masdar Farid Mas’udi and Ahmad Ishomuddin, both well-known ulama from Nahdlatul Ulama, and Hamka Haq from Tarbiyah Islamiyah. These scholars are fighting for the soul of Islam and for the people of Indonesia.

They opined that verse 51 in Surah Al Maidah must be read in context of verse Al Mumtahanah verse 60. They argued that Islam permits the election of a non-Muslim leader because the law of the country allows for such an election. These scholars are fighting for the rights of a non-Muslim because they do not want religious bigotry to rule. We must do the same.

I still believe that Malaysia can be saved, but only if the people of this country act without fear. If an injustice has been done then non-Muslims must come to the defence of Muslims and vice versa. They must not accept this notion that they must not ‘interfere’ with so-called Muslim affairs.

Anything unjust that happens to another human being is our collective responsibility. If we think child marriage is cruel to children then we must speak out, even if the majority of cases of child marriage involve Muslims.

This year we may have a general election and change by electoral process is what we want. In fact, it's the only way we can make this country better. Do I talk politics to the men of God? I do not, because the issues before us are bigger than politics. It’s about our lives, our beliefs and our future. You can abandon your dream and choose not to get involved or you can make sure, by collective effort, that we elect good people to run the government.

It's your choice after all - in life we reap what we sow and nothing will change unless we desperately want the country to change.

There are many Muslims who are unhappy with the present trend. They may not want their voices to be heard for fear of being ostracised or of having their akidah or faith dislodged from their heart. But I urge them to have more confidence in themselves.

If you truly want Islam to serve as a light that will eradicate the corruption and depravity that can be found in great abundance in this and a great many other Muslim countries, then you must stay clear of these religious extremists. They have contributed nothing to human advancement, in this country or elsewhere.

There are billions of Muslims in this world, but too many of them are poor and equipped with little or no education. They kill each other and glorify violence. In our country, the violence has so far been confined to verbal abuse and the kind of tough talk that stems from a false sense of superiority, but I urge all parties concerned not to play with fire. If the present trend continues unabated, we will see sectarian and religious clashes that we may not be able to control.

We need to take a more positive outlook and expend our energies on constructive pursuits, such as producing more world-class scientists and engineers. Let's have a truly superior Islamic education or economic model that works better than the conventional ones.

We will not achieve this if we remain fascinated by people such as the so-called Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, whose contribution to the ummah is to talk about why Christianity or Hinduism, in his view, are flawed. We will not achieve success if we embrace laws that punish women but do nothing about grand theft and daylight robbery.

Malaysians of all religious beliefs must speak out strongly and be unafraid to defend the rights of all Malaysians. We must stand together to preserve freedom, democracy and an individual’s right to practise their faith. They must not shy away from shaping religious discourse in the country. They must speak about ethical values which form the bedrock of our institutions and policies.

While Islamic law is applicable only to Muslims in the syariah court (for now at least), national ideology and public policy affect us all, ‘infidels’ and ‘bad Muslims’ included. So don’t be afraid to be an active participant in determining policies and the laws of this country. Get involved and do more than what you are doing now.

ZAID IBRAHIM is a former law minister. This article was first published on Zaid Ibrahim’s blog.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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