A Break in the Chain
No less an authority than Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out that since the Koran is taken as the very word of God —— as opposed to the Bible, which is the work of men inspired by God — no interpretation is possible. (That this in itself is a form of interpretation is something we'll overlook for the moment.) Any questioning of doctrine is a questioning of Allah himself, an act of heresy to be punished as such.
One result is that Islam is the sole religion whose 'reform' movements always end up being reactionary. There has never been an Islamic Reformation or Enlightenment. Muslim 'reformers', ranging from Kharijites to Salafists, have shared the conviction that the days of the early caliphate — the direct successors of Mohammed — comprised a golden age of complete submission to Koranic teachings that must be regained at all costs. Throw in the fact that Sharia, essentially a desert nomad's code, comes under the same religious aegis for no other reason than that Mohammed practiced it, and you have a social tragedy of civilizational dimensions.
So it's welcome news to hear that a formal, government—backed effort at reform is occurring in the Muslim world. Islam Hadhari translates directly as 'Civilizational Islam' but is perhaps better put as 'Progressive Islam'. The concept was proposed by Malaysia's prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
during the last general election in 2004. Acknowledging that Islam had become almost exclusively associated with terror and extremism, Badawi called for a new conception:
It is our duty to demonstrate, by word and by action, that a Muslim country can be modern, democratic, tolerant and economically competitive.
Badawi derived much of his thinking from Ibn Khaldun, a noted 14th—century Tunisian scholar and a pioneer of what later became known as sociology. Ibn Khaldun viewed the development of Islamic society — particularly among the Arabs — as a conflict between the 'Town' and the 'Desert' (an Arab speaker would hear 'civilization' as 'of the town'). Needless to say, Ibn Khaldun was on the side of the town, a representative of the Islamic intellectual tradition most
deeply loathed by the Jihadis.
It's clear that Badawi views the doctrine as a method of inoculating Malaysia against the more extreme Jihadi brands of Islam. With a mixed population of native Malays, Hindus, and Chinese, along with smaller European and Arab minorities, Malaysia has had its uneasy moments. Independence was accompanied by an episode of ethnic muscle—flexing by the Malays resulting in set—asides in business, politics, and education, along with other discriminatory policies. This was shortly followed by an 'Islamic rebirth' propelled by a youth movement practicing dakwah, or preaching and missionary activity, which led to Islam being firmly emplaced as a key element of Malaysian culture.
Both near—crises were overcome though a combination of British—inspired phlegm and the essentially easygoing Malayan character. But in the years since, Malaysia became a kind of pit stop for Jihadi groups ranging from Al—Queda to Jemaah Islamiyah, a place to meet, to hide out, and to recruit. After 9/11, Badawi's predecessor Mahathir Mohamed acted quickly and ruthlessly against Jihadi extremism, closing madrassas acting a centers for Jihadism and jailing the more wild—eyed preachers. (Mahathir's anti—Semitism and anti—Americanism didn't really kick in until he retired.) Through Islam Hadhari, Badawi was taking the next logical step.
Islam Hadhari is in large part an ideological component of a national development program, Vision 2020, intended to raise Malaysia to the level of a developed state. The doctrine is an effort to guarantee that modernity can be achieved without adverse affect on Islamic values.
But at the same time, Islam Hadhari is aimed at benefitting non—Muslim minorities, by protecting their status and enabling them to take full part in Malaysian society. The doctrine's final product will be a modern, multiethnic, multifaith society. It's an enticing vision, certainly one unique in the Muslim world.
The doctrine consists of ten major principles:
Faith and piety in Allah
A just and trustworthy government
A free and independent People
Mastery of knowledge
Balanced and comprehensive economic development
A good quality of life
Protection of the rights of minority groups and women
Cultural and moral integrity Safeguarding the environment
Strong defense capabilities.
At first glance, this seems something close to an Islamic Boy Scout oath, the kind of boilerplate that experienced (not to say cynical) pols stuff their speeches with across the world. But two things need to be kept in mind: Badawi's constituents are not sophisticates. As is true in much of Asia, Malaysia's population is in large part no more than a generation removed from peasantry. For these people, complexity of argument is a luxury. Apart from that there's the danger accruing to any attempt at parsing Islamic dogma. A error of terminology, even of nuance, can raise charges of heresy and ruin the entire effort. Badawi made no mistake in formulating the doctrine the way he did.
That he knew his audience was revealed by election results. Badawi's UMNO coalition gained 65% of the vote, translating to over 90% of parliamentary seats, checkmating the opposition party, Islamic Pas, a stereotype gang of hand—chopping throwbacks.
Islam Hadhari has been subject to considerable discussion since the election. Some critics have dismissed it as club fashioned by Badawi to beat his opponents with, others claim that it amounts to no more than window—dressing. But many comments have been positive. A Kuala Lumpur conference of intellectuals from throughout the Muslim world gave it high marks, particularly its emphasis on 'the humanistic and progressive aspects of Islam', as one speaker put it.
The doctrine has also received support from Karen Hughes, the State Department's chief of public diplomacy, and other American diplomats. Lack of news coverage in Western markets is easily explained by the fact that Muslims hit the news only when they're blowing things up.
Malaysia is not alone. Reform efforts are apparent in other areas of the Muslim world. In India, which allows domestic relations to be regulated by Islamic law, the Muslim Personal Law Board is doing away with the infamous 'talaq' law, which allows a Muslim man to divorce his wife by repeating 'I divorce thee' three times.
Morocco, the Muslim state most exposed to the West (The Sultan of Morocco was one of the first rulers to recognize the infant United States — anything to annoy the British, it seems.) has gone a step further by overhauling Islamic family law completely, making women full partners under the law, with property rights, legal protection, and complete equality. An interesting point lies in the fact that the official commission overseeing the reform discovered backing for every last change within the Koran itself.
Indonesia is in a unique situation in that it possesses two rival religious organizations, the conservative Sunni Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)
and the liberal Muhammadiya, that have chosen cooperation over conflict. Both groups combine the roles of religious and mutual—aid societies, and have immensely large memberships, NU in the range of 30 million, and Muhammadiya just behind at 29 million.
Since 9/11 the two groups (along with a new reformist political party, the Liberal Islam Network) have cooperated in condemning and undermining the Jihadists, particularly the home—grown Jemaah Islamiya. Critical to these efforts is a doctrine called 'deformalization', an attempt to return Islam to its humane essence by doing away with ritualistic conventions that have entwined the faith over millennia.
Many terrorism experts have pondered why Indonesia has not seen a far greater upsurge in extremism. The answer very likely lies in these organizations, suggesting that Badawi's belief that Islam Hadhari can protect Malaysia from similar impulses may well prove valid.
Western secularism has nothing to offer the Islamic world. Muslims looking westward often see only 'alcoholism, pornography, pre—marital sex, gambling and deviant social behaviours, namely homosexuality, prostitution and nudity', in the words to one commentator. Members of the Muslim umma, the worldwide Islamic community, are on the horns of a dilemma. They have nothing in the common with the Jihadis, and need a method of finding their way into 21st century technological society without giving up the values that lend meaning to their lives.
Islam Hadhari offers a solution. While it may prove to be too artificial or lightweight for lasting impact, or too closely associated with Malaysia for easy export, it does provide a model. Other Muslim countries may prove resistant, particularly the Arab states, conscious of their status as protectors of Islam. But at the very least, Malaysia demonstrates that Muslims are aware of the problem, and are taking action. Such developments can give us hope that Islam will not always remain the Sisyphus of religions. This generation of believers may well be the one to push the rock over the hill.
J. R Dunn is a frequent contributor.