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The challenges and opportunities facing the Islamic world today: a view from Malaysia

Keynote speech at the World Affairs Council (Majlis Shu’un Dawliyya), Amman, Jordan on 24 March 2015

Your Excellency Dr Abdul Salam al-Majali, President of World Affairs Council and Islamic World Academy of Sciences,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentleman,

Bismillahi rahmani rahim

Assalamualaikum w.b.t. and a good evening,

I am honoured to be given an opportunity to speak at this prestigious institution.

The Islamic world today is facing various challenges. These challenges come from outside and within the ummah. While each Muslim nation faces unique challenges, there are several commonalities. However, at the old saying goes: challenges also present us with opportunities.

The most pressing challenge facing us as a faith community is the dark shadow of the so-called ad-daulah al-Islamiyah, otherwise known as Daish or the Islamic State (IS). This group, as well as individuals claiming to act on its behalf, have committed unspeakable acts of terror in the Middle East and beyond.

For Jordan, this issue is of course of direct importance due to the geographical nature of the crisis. It however also affects other Muslims as Muslims far and near have been attracted to its cause – and brings our faith to disrepute.

Malaysia has not been spared from this unfortunate trend. Scores of young Muslims have joined the movement. We can speculate on the factors that lead them to leave their families and hopes to wreak havoc in distant lands. While it cannot be denied that socio-economic disparities contribute to the rise of extremism, the root of terror in the Muslim world today goes far deeper.

Young men and women are attracted to such causes because they feel disillusioned with modernity. Capitalist economics and modern technology—while important—has not also resulted in more egalitarian societies where social prejudice is eliminated and the dignity of all are protected—regardless of class or ethnic background. In such circumstances, the youth often easily fall under the influence of extremist voices offering a means to seek redress through their grievances through vile acts.

Another challenge that has recently dominated headlines in Malaysia is proposed the implementation of the sharia penal code. One of our states – via the democratic legislative process it has to be said – is pushing for that to be realised. However, this has come under sustained controversy, not least because the implementation of the sharia is regarded with unease by not only non-Muslim Malaysians but also many Muslims in the country as well.

The controversy has exacerbated long-burning controversies in Malaysia: are we religious or secular? What is the role of religion in public life? What is justice? How much debate and dissent is permissible in matters of religion? How do we maintain harmonious societies when consensus on matters like faith, culture and language have broken-down, perhaps irrevocably?

There is a common thread that runs through these issues: how do we live lives that are faithful to our religion, but in such a way that can co-exist and thrive in a modern environment? What position does our non-Muslim neighbours and minorities have vis-à-vis these developments? How can the values of moderation, justice and tolerance as taught by our tradition be realised?

The fact remains that contrary to the visions of liberal fundamentalists, faith remains important for Muslims. As noted by Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra in the Ruins of Empire: from the heydays of European imperialism to the hegemony of American capitalism, Muslims maintained a strong adherence to our faith and traditions. When many fathers of independence in the Muslim world – or the Third World in general – tried to replicate one form of Western model or the other, it failed miserably—simply because such models were the product of the unique historical contexts of their societies. It was out of these deadlocks that the search for a solution from within began to gather momentum.

The challenges of terrorism or literalism however emerge when the desire for a quick fix leads to answers that may appear authentic but are unable to incorporate our tradition of moderation or the challenges of today’s world to its core.

Our task – and opportunity – is to prove both sides wrong. We can prove to the literalists that religion can make a positive contribution to modern, plural democracies. We can also show liberal fundamentalists that religion can contribute to the discourse to reform capitalism and modernity; that the health and happiness of our countries depend on something more than mere socio-economic development.

Let us retell the forgotten stories of moderation to the younger generation – the stories of Salahuddin al-Ayubi and Abdul Qadir al-Jazairi – heroes whose chivalry and dedication to justice made them legends even amongst their foes. Let us celebrate the thinkers and scholars such as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina and al-Khwarizmi whom without their contribution the modern world would have been a very different and poorer place. We can keep being nostalgic about our glorious past, but we must also understand that it came about because we were faithful to our ideals and were intellectually curious to learn and change for the better.

As for the issue of sharia, we must never lose sight of the principles of maqasid sharia (higher objectives of the sharia) and fiqh al awlawiyyat (the fiqh of priorities). The sharia can and must be debated. The process must involve all stakeholders in our societies. Those who criticise the concept must be engaged on an intellectual level, not with threats or attempts to stifle discourse.

I would here like to express our appreciation to Jordan for playing a crucial role in contributing towards a consensus of moderation. Just as Jordan played a crucial role in establishing the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS) by hosting its founding conference in 1986, in 2004 the Amman Message was released, providing an authoritative definition of mainstream Islam. The fact that major scholars representing different schools within Islam – from the Sheikh of Azhar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ayatollah Sistani – endorsed the message was a significant achievement. Indeed, Malaysia for its part was represented by political figures from different spectrums – the-then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and current Opposition Leader and Political Prisoner Anwar Ibrahim.

The task is now even greater with the advent of IS. We must prove that we can be faithful to the tenets of Islam and co-exist in a diverse world. Violence and terror has no place in Islam. This, however, does not absolve Muslims from the need to actively confront extremism in our societies, from the need to defeat those who would use religion for nefarious ends. The Amman Message provided the template, but we need to communicate it confidently and consistently throughout the Muslim world. Most importantly, governments need to adhere steadfastly to the ideals of honesty, justice and fairness that are crucial components of our faith. This is the only way for calls of “moderation” and protestations that “Islam is a religion of peace” will have any credibility.

Beyond this, we need to embrace the treasures of Islamic civilization to provide succour to a world that has realised that contemporary definitions of development have only left us with a broken capitalist system, looming environmental disasters and a disillusioned, apathetic electorate. At the heart of these crises is the search for meaning – and on this, we have much to offer.

In short, this is the opportunity that we must seize.

Thank you.