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We Are Not A Tribe Called ‘Muslims’ Jun 8, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. Noor

How long can a country be at the crossroads of its history? It seems that Malaysia in particular has been stuck at some empasse and has not been able to move on; a situation that has been aggravated by the culture of communitarian, sectarian politics that is rife in the nation, and which has been elevated from the racial to religious register.

The stagnant state of Malaysian popular political culture was demonstrated recently over the case of the Malaysian citizen Lina Joy, who was born a Muslim and who has, for the past several years, been appealing to the justice system of the country to allow her to be recognised as a Christian after her conversion many years ago. Lina Joy’s is not the only case in the troubled land: At present several other cases are likewise trapped in the imbroglio that is the Malaysian legal system. Now there is also a case of a Malaysian who was accidentally switched at birth and brought up by a Malay-Muslim family, who is claiming the right to be correctly recognised as a Malaysian of Chinese origin and who wishes to return to the faith of his original family… 

What is most troubling about all these cases is how Malaysian citizens like Lina Joy have been summarily denounced, demonised and vilified by conservative Malay-Muslim groups and movements in Malaysia as a ‘traitor’ to her race and religion. Yet we forget that the figures point to the opposite: That despite everything, there are actually more non-Muslims converting to Islam on a daily basis than the opposite. Yet oddly enough few of these new converts to Islam are denounced as ‘traitors’ to their race and religion. So why the double standards? And why do the right-wing conservatives in Malaysia bemoan the insignificant ‘loss’ of one of their members, while celebrating the conversion of others?

Lina Joy has now been forced to leave Malaysia in search of asylum elsewhere, for fear that her life may be in danger. There is ample justification behind this move, for indeed her life has been threatened by mail mails, death threats, and public declarations of moral outrage by the right-wingers. Lina’s photo was circulated in the internet, her name and reputation have been torn to shreds as a result of a malicious hate-campaign spread through cyberspace, sms-es and public demonstrations. Yet the very same right-wingers who have preached a discourse of hate now demand that she returns to Malaysian to stand before a Shariah court, in order to criminalise herself by declaring herself to be an apostate. Skewered justice indeed.

Beyond the courtroom debates and legal fine-points, we often forget that at the heart of the matter is a plight of a Malaysian citizen, who, for reasons best known to herself, has made what has to be a difficult decision to change her belief. It has even been suggested by some that Lina Joy’s conversion was something done at a whim, as if converting from one religion to another is akin to choosing between Coke and Pepsi. To add insult to injury, this lonely Malaysian who was the subject of so many hate campaigns is now being treated in the most patronising manner.

Yet I write this as someone who has several Muslim friends who are converts to Islam, and I know very well how difficult the choice was for them. In the four cases I know, conversion to Islam led to ostracisation and alienation from their former relatives and friends, and the lingering suspicion of their motives. Their commitment to the religion of their choice, however, remains steadfast and we commend them for their courage and commitment- So why cant Muslims demonstrate that same understanding for those who leave Islam for another creed? Why is the anguish of converts to Islam more legitimate, more real, more authentic, compared to the anguish of those who convert from Islam?

This reminds me of the words of the late Nurcholish Madjid, the most prominent Muslim intellectual of postcolonial 20th century Indonesia. He once said that “we Muslims still cannot go beyond the logic of tribalism, and we think that being a Muslim is like belonging to a tribe called ‘Muslims’. Muslims still think in these parochial, tribalist terms, and that is why when one person leaves Islam he or she is denouced as a traitor to the tribe. But Islam is not a tribal entity. Being a Muslim is not like belonging to the Blue Tribe or the Green Tribe; it is a state of mind, an existential state of being.”

Whatever the circumstances may be at present, and despite the legal-political obstacles placed before her, Lina Joy is a Christian and she has been a Christian for the past several years. No ammount of slander, abuse or threats of violence will change that. She also happens to be a Malaysian and as Malaysians we should be ashamed that one of our number has been forced to flee into asylum as she can no longer live in her country.

The right-wing hate-mongers and demagogues who have threatened her safety have done so partly on the grounds that she constitutes a threat and a danger to the Muslim community. But in their hate campaigns that have divided Malaysia’s multi-religious nation so clearly, one can argue that these communitarian and sectarian bigots are the real peddlars of anti-Malaysian and un-Malaysian ideas and sentiments. Who is the real victim and who are the real culprits then?

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