Has ‘moderation’ jumped the shark?

NOVEMBER 1 — What does being a “moderate” even mean anymore in Malaysia?

Politically, the concept seemed to have been popularised as a way to bridge the current administration and its predecessor — which championed a brand of Islam it called Islam Hadhari, or Civilisational Islam.

In a way, “moderation” or the notion of a “moderate Islam” points to the ruling coalition’s insistence on adhering to Islamic principles in its governance. But at the same time, the phrasing suggests that Islam will not be put on centre stage — thus avoiding a risk of alienation from the non-Muslims, or being compared with political rival PAS.

Ideologically, being a “moderate Muslim” seems to imply abandoning a “fundamentalist” approach to Islam that tends to accept violence as an integral part of a struggle.

We see Malaysia present itself to the rest of the world as a champion of this “moderate” brand of Islam, distinguishing itself from the strife-torn countries that are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, or the unintended consequences post-9/11.

In a 2012 Huffington Post article, Dr Azeem Ibrahim, a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford University, wrote that being a moderate Islamic country means Malaysia is mainly peaceful, prosperous and law-abiding, without bouts of violent extremism despite being a melting pot.

Of course, the reality on the ground could be much different.

Another country widely cited as a moderate Islamic country, Turkey, has a president — Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who resorts to anti-terrorism laws to crack down and silence dissent, critics and journalists, among other sins.

Malaysia is no more rosy. When recently several Cabinet ministers proudly said that Malaysia guarantees freedom of worship, and does not deny citizens their human rights, many online defiantly scoffed at their gall to claim so.

Meanwhile, the term “moderate Islam” is viewed with disdain by most Islamists and hardline Muslims.

Among others, leaders from Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia claimed in May 2014 that the “moderate Muslim” concept was invented by so-called “enemies of Islam” to exert control over the Muslim world.

According to the group, the concept has been made a weapon to label those who oppose the moderates as conservative and extreme.

For these people, there is no such thing as a moderate or conservative Islam. There is just Islam. And those who jeopardise their faith by subscribing to moderate Islam or liberal Islam are just as misguided as the fundamentalists.

I have never been a fan of the “moderation” concept.

In my experience, many of those who call themselves “moderates” are mere fence-sitters who have too much baggage to commit themselves to fully embrace socially liberal or progressive ideas.

It is a bit like some Malays who abuse the term “agnostic” when describing themselves when they do not like to be constrained by dogma, but are trying to hedge their bets by refusing to denounce their chains.

Similarly, some “moderates” perch atop the fence, demonising not only the conservatives, but also mocking committed social liberals as “extremists”.

Safe in the middle, these “moderates” can say that they are open to hear all ideas, but will never recognise that there are many outdated socio-political concepts that just do not belong in this day and age — for fear of being seen as biased.

Like I said, fence-sitters.

However, to define “moderates”, especially among Muslims, I do not believe they should be judged as the middle point between a devout Muslim and a non-believer. A “moderate Muslim” should not be seen as one who cherry-picks from his faith in order to fit in — although many do exactly that.

If anything, “moderates” should be measured by how closely they stand to the common ideals and values shared by the public. For example, if it is a common value among the society that everybody should be free to practise their religion without interference from the State, then those who believe in that would be a moderate.

Nasharudin Mat Isa. — Picture courtesy of Yayasan Nassar
Nasharudin Mat Isa. — Picture courtesy of Yayasan Nassar

But the term “moderates” might have just lost its novelty — especially when former PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa was elected as the CEO, and subsequently the face, of the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) Foundation.

What does it say when a movement that claims to be moderate is headed by a staunch Islamist who has in the past publicly supported the notion that Christians should not be allowed to use the word “Allah”?

All this while, GMM has failed to foster moderation in Putrajaya, where Islamisation is fast creeping in despite rising opposition in the past year. But then again, maybe it was never meant to succeed.

Despite that, GMM under former CEO Saifuddin Abdullah did make great strides in keeping some space for discourse open among Malaysians.

GMM’s office in Menara Manulife has played host to dozens of great speakers and thinkers local and foreign. I have had many great opportunities to attend its roundtables where attendees can speak up on issues when they usually cannot elsewhere.

But perhaps its patrons have different ideas for GMM now. Even before Saifuddin left, GMM had to cancel its second International Conference of the Global Movement of Moderates originally due this month, citing logistical problems.

It should be noted that Nasharudin is a fellow of the Islamic Missionary Foundation Malaysia, or Yadim, the same body led by senator Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, who was just newly elected as the deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs.

Will this spell a new definition of “moderates” in Malaysia — the strain of nationalistic Islam where the only true interpretation is the one sanctioned by Putrajaya?

On Friday, Nasharudin brushed off claims that he held extremist and conservative views, although explaining that GMM should not compromise on several principles.

He now has big shoes to fill, or “moderation” would just end up as a prop for political play after all.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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