Rising conservatism in Muslim Southeast Asia?


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Rising conservatism in Muslim Southeast Asia?
By Zan Azlee

Early this week, I worked on an article for CNN International exploring the issue of the hudud bill that was introduced by Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, the president of Pas.

If you would like to read the article and get some context, you may do so here: Push for hudud law raises tensions in Malaysia.

So while working on the story, I interviewed a slew of subject matter experts to help me shed some light on the issue.

And one of the matters that really interested me is the rise of Islamic conservatism in the Southeast Asia region.

“It is true that there is growing conservatism in the country and it is driven by politics. It used to be very subtle but now it is getting bigger,” says Datuk Zaid Ibrahim.

The former law minister explains that conservatism is definitely a growing trend, not just in Malaysia, but Southeast Asia as a region.

However, he adds that, unlike Malaysia, the other countries in Southeast Asia have good buffers and he cites Indonesia as an example.

“Indonesia has a good Constitution and is a strong democracy. They can mobilise the people to protest if need be. In Malaysia, if you question, then you would be accused of insulting Islam,” he says.

The prevailing consciousness of Islam, whether in this part of the world or elsewhere, seem to give much focus on rules, rituals, prohibitions and punishments.

According to Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, activist and president of JUST, this ‘2P’ approach in Islam is very simplistic and does not delve deeper to understand the inner meaning when it comes to the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s life.

“Basically, the cause is the spread of Wahhabism which began in the late 1970s. It is the Saudi’s reaction to the Islamic revolution. It is the spread of a narrow Islam,” she says.

“They used their money to finance madrasahs around the world, including Indonesia.”

Syariah and human rights lawyer, Nizam Bashir, chooses to be more hopeful when it comes to Islamic conservatism in the region because he believes that Southeast Asia is too diverse.

“Our region is not homogenous and there many other communities living with us. That will force us to avoid being too literal in interpreting the religion,” he explains.

And with hudud being a prevailing shadow looming over Malaysia – it is already implemented in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Brunei and Bandar Acheh – it is something of a concern.

When it comes to hudud, syariah law and Islamic jurispudence, it really boils down to the interpretation of the religion. And that means, it depends on who you ask.

“A conservative would say ‘yes’. But more progressive Muslim scholars believe that there should be a moratorium for punishment when it comes to hudud offences,” answers Nizam.

He adds that the underlying objective should not be just to punish. It needs to reform. Hence, the kind of punishment meted out for these offences need to be considered.

The thing about modern society is that everything can’t be defined and interpreted as clearly as black and white. And the problem is that conservatism is inclined towards simplifying things too much.

“We must recognise that society is a bit complex and we cannot be too literal in some of our approaches,” concludes Nizam.

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