Wednesday 1 June 2011

Moderates and extremists: That thin line

by Tricia Yeoh

IT was a rare moment when I nodded my head in agreement on reading an excerpt of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s speech at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies recently: “The real divide is not between East and West or between the developed and developing worlds or even between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is between moderates and extremists of all religions.”

This is certainly the case in Malaysia, but the problem seems to be defining what “extreme” means on either end, and then implementing serious measures to nip it in the bud.

Recent incidents have left Malaysians – both Muslim and non-Muslim – frustrated and disappointed. Frustrated because we know these have stemmed from a gross misunderstanding of those not belonging to our own kind, whether ethnic or religious, and disappointed because we feel there would be a better way of resolving it.

After a Malay daily accused Christian leaders of working with the DAP to make Malaysia a Christian state and installing a Christian prime minister, the Home Ministry issued it with a warning letter for publishing an unsubstantiated report.

Although the prime minister has met with Christian leaders who pledged to respect Islam as the religion of the federation, the home minister has said there is some basis to the reports.


Since so few of us in the public domain would actually be able to ascertain the veracity of what took place that day – I am in no position to say “this” or “that” was uttered – perhaps it would be more important to address the underlying motivations driving these actions on both sides.

Adherents of a particular religion may desire others within their same faith to occupy positions of power and decision-making. This is most particularly visible when they form the minority in a certain country.
Now this is an interesting phenomenon to examine. Why do people want their “own kind” to be in positions of authority? This automatically assumes that all people within a certain group subscribe and adhere to the same set of rules, norms and values – after all, this is what organised religion is about. And these natural assumptions also mean people can more likely rely on the judgment of one of their own when making policy decisions that affect their lives intrinsically.

To illustrate this, Muslims may desire other Muslims to be in a particular committee in order that decisions can be swayed in a way that promotes “Muslim values”, much in the same way Christians would encourage other Christians to work in the public space to advance “Christian values”. Again, this assumes that there is a universal set of values that followers of a doctrine would believe in.

In reality, these may be a lot more tempered by situational conditions, political negotiations, economic trends and other variables that shift accordingly, rendering this “value set” fluid and amoebic. In reality, how likely is it that the person you vote in because of his or her religious tag would behave in accordance with your values?


More ideal would be for those religious values and beliefs which matter most to be considered part of a growing common language between the religions of Islam and Christianity, as well as that of all religions – and then to support the people who demonstrate these instead.

And what is this belief system that is most logically advocated? It would be one representing justice, fairness, kindness, truth, honesty – the application of which is universal for the common good and collective wellbeing of people of Malaysia.

In the meeting between the prime minister and religious leaders, the same old statement of promoting tolerance, harmony and peace in Malaysia was repeated. Sure, all that is well and good, but how about some concrete initiatives to draw the moderates together?

It would do us all a whole lot of good if religious leaders of all faith groups could pro-actively join forces in fighting corruption and domestic abuse, cleaning up rivers, advocating women empowerment, and encouraging those from different faiths to learn about each other in a deep and meaningful way, ie not merely celebrating cultural festivals.

Although the great divide is between the moderates and the extremists, there is some serious self-examination that must be con-ducted by us all, regardless of what we think of ourselves. Once both parties stop believing they are under siege from the other’s wily tactics, calm and reason would emerge as victor.

Of course it would make no sense for our leaders to simultaneously promote religious harmony and moderation, and in the same breath harness the convenient extremist tools for their own political ends. And it is this the people must recognise and not fall prey to.

The prime minister has a tough battle to fight, but in doing so he must be willing to recognise the extremists for who they really are, and deal with it accordingly. Failure to reprimand the real extremists would render his statements of religious harmony futile and ultimately, hypocritical.

Tricia Yeoh is director at a market research consultancy, having worked in the think-tank and public sectors previously. She writes on national and socio-economic issues.

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