South-east Asia fights against the schism

NOVEMBER 5 — For as low as RM3,777 per head, you can book a twin room on the Malaysia-based Islamic Cruise which promises a “spiritual voyage” where one can learn “how to navigate towards paradise and be among the successful ones in the hereafter”, according to its website.

Of course, if money is no object, you can pay RM9,277 per head (RM8,777 after discount) for an exclusive suite with ocean view — complete with complimentary breakfast served in your cabin.

Now in its 25th edition, this four-day cruise will bring you from Singapore to Banda Aceh, situated in the only province in Indonesia where Shariah law applies in full, including the controversial penal law of hudud.

Organisers claim that part of the proceeds from the cruise will “also be donated to the Muslim community” there, although it never specified how much.

While the cheapest promotions are sold out, it remains to be seen whether more people will fork out their money when two of the more popular preachers slated to join have been denied entry to Singapore, meaning they cannot join when the cruise sets sail.

Its main draws now include among others Islamic boyband Raihan, who last released an album a decade ago, and Mohammad Hafiz Abdul Kadir, a finalist of the 3rd season of Islamic reality TV show Imam Muda.

Zimbabwean Ismail Menk, popularly known as Mufti Menk, and Malaysian Haslin Baharim, with his moniker Ustaz Bollywood, have both been denied their Miscellaneous Work Pass to preach, the republic’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced earlier this week.

They were accused of segregationist and divisive teachings, and promoting disharmony between Muslims and others. The decision was supported by the the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

“Such divisive views breed intolerance and exclusivist practices that will damage social harmony, and cause communities to drift apart. They are unacceptable in the context of Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society,” said MHA.

A poster of the Singapore-Aceh cruise operated by Islamic Cruise. — Picture from Islamic Cruise Facebook.
A poster of the Singapore-Aceh cruise operated by Islamic Cruise. — Picture from Islamic Cruise Facebook.

It was not the first time Menk has been denied entry. He once cancelled his appearance in an Islamic conference there back in November 2015.

In response, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Singapore’s Parliament in January 2016 that foreign preachers who are intolerant of other religious faiths and practices will be barred from the city-state.

“Freedom of religion is guaranteed under our Constitution. But any religious group, whether registered or informal, that preaches values or promotes actions that are directly contrary to our social harmony, or threatens our safety, will be treated as a security risk,” he reportedly said.

In September this year, Shanmugam had listed Menk and Indian televangelist Dr Zakir Naik — currently on the run from terrorism and insulting religion charges — as examples of such foreign preachers.

In June, Singapore even banned its own preacher Rasul Dahri and his nine books for extremist views.

Observers have noted that these decisions are part of Singapore’s effort to address growing terrorist threats within its borders, and the region — using the powers granted by its Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

Some critics forgot that Singapore had previously banned problematic foreign Christian preachers as well — although their identities were not made public. In September 2017, MHA said the preachers had among others denigrated Muslims and Buddhists, and described Islam as “evil.”

Singapore is not the only country in the region that has recognised the dangers of divisive Islamic teachings that often denigrate other religions as false, in addition to rejecting pluralism to demand the supremacy of Islam.

In July this year, Indonesia president Joko Widodo signed an emergency decree that will ban any organisation deemed to oppose the country’s Pancasila, the five principles that act as the backbone of the country — among others pledging unity, democracy, and a belief in God.

The law was passed by its Parliament last month.

It was previously used to disband the Indonesian chapter of Hizbut Tahrir (HT), a group striving for a worldwide, pan-Islamic caliphate — although through non-violent means. In Malaysia, HT is currently banned in at least two states, Selangor and Sabah.

Now, other groups such as the incendiary Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are feeling the heat. The group received further prominence during the Jakarta gubernatorial election, where it wielded religion as ammunition against incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, who is not only Christian but also ethnic Chinese.

In both Indonesia’s and Singapore’s cases, the long arm of the law was chosen as the most effective way to curb preachers and groups that espouse such views. Inadvertently, such a rigid method would make civil society anxious... and ultimately create a dilemma.

Would they first come for the fundamentalists, and later for the progressives? Who decides who is considered problematic? Is an iron fist a worthy trade-off towards racial and religious harmony?

By now, the state of Johor has followed its neighbour Singapore in banning Menk and Haslin, after a royal decree. The state had previously cut off ties with federal Islamic agency Jakim after the latter’s employee Zamihan Mat Zin was accused of criticising the Ruler’s decision to crack down on a Muslim-only laundry.

Although Zamihan has been branded a “liar” by the Sultan, he has yet to be formally banned in Johor. He has however been banned in Selangor, also following a royal decree.

As Islamic affairs is under the jurisdiction of each state, all eyes are now on how the rest of the country reacts to other divisive and inflammatory preachers, and the Islamist lobby which has for years insisted on relegating non-Muslims and their practices to the bottom.

The region will watch closely how Malaysia deals with the fugitive Dr Zakir who has been charged with influencing recruits to join Islamic State, and yet accorded unfettered freedom here.

While Indonesia and Singapore have relied on legislation, they too have a strong grassroots movements of progressive, inclusive and proudly liberal strain of Islam. The stick and carrot work in tandem. Malaysia can definitely learn from its peers — who deserves rebuke, and who deserves reward.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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