Friday, 27 January 2012

Movement of Moderates: Global or Malaysian? By Tricia Yeoh

PRIME Minister Najib Razak has for the past two years spoken on the theme of moderation at international platforms. This culminated in an International Conference on the Global Movement of Moderates just last week, at which he launched a Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), as well as an accompanying GMM Foundation.

In his speech, Najib said that the real divide is not between “Muslims and non-Muslims” but between “moderates and extremists”. It is true that extremism, including threats of violence, terrorism and the inciting of hatred of any sort must be opposed.

But surely, for this to work, great efforts must first be reflected on home ground. A culture of promoting religious and racial moderation as opposed to extremism ought to be the flourishing norm within Malaysia itself, first and foremost. After all, charity begins at home.

Organising a conference and an online communication strategy (albeit its rather colourless blog) are probably the easiest things to do. The real challenge is putting these principles into practice. And the question is how effective such a movement would be in reality, given current circumstances and the track record of official government positions taken to date.

First, such a theme is not novel. Under previous prime minister Abdullah Badawi, an institute was also set up in 2008 to counter religious extremist views and to propagate the middle, or civilisational way of Islam: International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies. The IAIS continues to run seminars and dialogues, but has taken on a relatively low profile, compared to what it could achieve if given greater attention and support.

Now, a new Institute of Wasatiyyah is being formed under the Prime Minister’s Office to pursue “respect for democracy, the rule of law, education, human dignity and social justice”. It is hoped that such a body would successfully explore the failed intentions of the previously-planned for Inter-Religious Council, also supposedly placed under the prime minister’s purview.

Second, the government has not necessarily always shown itself to be genuine in defending a moderate position within Malaysia itself. Najib also stated in his speech that “oppression and tyranny can only win out if good men and women stand idly by unwilling to turn rhetoric into action and opinions into deeds”.

But when newspapers linked closely to the main governing political party are allowed to spew statement after statement alluding to hatred, the silence from any official body is resounding. When death threats are consistently sent to selected politicians or leaders of civil society movements, the lackadaisical response from state authorities is disappointing, to say the least.

The increase in such violent threats has not only alarmed peace-loving Malaysians, but what is worse is the way in which they are casually passed off as an expected norm – as if this is the trend of things to come and nothing can be done to stop it.

Third, Najib’s speech (and hence the entire movement itself) seems to be fixated on the question of religious extremism, bordering on the same theory Samuel Huntington expounded in his book The Clash of Civilisations, that the primary axis of global conflict is along cultural and religious lines.

Whilst Malaysia does suffer severely from these divisions, not least owing to political representation crafted along those very lines, the “extremes” in the country are slowly taking on a new label. As such, it is political or ideological hard-nosed positions that are driving even the most rational of Malaysians to polar opposites of extreme ends.

Before we embark on the very ambitious mission of moving global players toward moderation, perhaps it is wisest to focus on what is really taking place at home. Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup is both its bane and its boon. For it to be considered a blessing, all players must unequivocally condemn threats of any kind, including those to defenders of human rights and minority groups. A moderate society does not mean a society that accepts only what is considered to be noble and right by some; it means being willing to rationally consider the perspectives taken by others.

Malaysia must exemplify all of these things first if it were to be taken seriously by our international friends when pushing for a moderate movement. Finally, it is hoped that these new bodies will conduct consultations with stakeholders from as wide a cross-section of society as possible (including minority groups), and take on the very serious and necessary role of nipping all talk and behaviour of extremism in its bud.

Tricia Yeoh wishes everyone a happy Chinese New Year and hopes the year of the Water Dragon will calm our excited political nerves down a notch. Comments:

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