Will our handling of Islamic affairs really be reformed?

Will our handling of Islamic affairs really be reformed?
By Zan Azlee

Jakim, the Islamic Development Department, has always had a bad reputation for decades. They have been accused of being archaic, barbaric, backwards, intolerant, exclusive and close-minded. Basically, it was the government agency to hate.

There were many instances when Jakim came under fire from progressive Malaysians over decisions they had made. Decisions that were usually against individual human rights, oppressive and which disregarded many different segments of society.

One example, which I had covered extensively in 2011, was the time when then director-general of Jakim made a statement saying that everyone in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) community needed to be treated harshly. His statement was on the verge of inciting violence against that community.

In my own coverage, I had interviewed several other people who were considered experts in the field of religion and they were of a different opinion. Nizam Bashir, prominent human rights and syariah lawyer, said that it didn’t matter if identifying as LGBT was a sin or not.

What was more important was the fact that human beings must not judge and that there are verses in the Quran that clearly show that there is to be no compulsion in Islam. Nizam also added that it goes against Islam to call for the harsh treatment of others.

Another example was during the “Allah” debacle. Jakim and the authorities supported a ban on the word “Allah” for non-Muslims. This when churches around the country had always conducted their services in Bahasa Malaysia using the word “Allah” for God.

Even their newsletters, leaflets, etc, that were published in the national language had been using the word “Allah”, and now that all had to stop because it was felt that “Allah” was an exclusively Malay-Muslim word.

They failed to realise that throughout the Arab world, the different religious communities – yes, even Christians – had used the word “Allah” to refer to God. In fact, “Allah” is an Arab word that literally means God. It isn’t an exclusively Islamic word.

Annoyed, irritated, angry

There are many other examples that can be pulled from the archives to show the ineffectiveness of Jakim such as the unnecessary raids that they organise to catch Muslim couples in hotels and such. But the two I gave above are the major ones.

Jakim was fast to accuse people of being un-Islamic and this scared a majority of the Muslims in Malaysia into submission while it just made everyone else, other sane Muslims included, annoyed, irritated and angry.

All that created the reputation that Jakim suffers from today. They are regarded as a bad representation of Islam because their actions disrespect all who do not follow them blindly. And worst, they are seen as a tool used by the former government to create fear to allow for a divide-and-conquer rule.

Today, with a new administration taking over Putrajaya, it seems that there might be some form of change coming to Jakim. A new director-general, Mohamad Nordin Ibrahim, has been appointed and several days ago he said that Jakim will handle Islamic matters in a more tolerant way.

He said that Islam shouldn’t be seen as a harsh religion that was only concerned with punishing sin. Instead, it is a religion that is tolerant and “brought blessings to all”. In fact, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had before this expressed that Islam needs to be seen as progressive.

On Jakim, Mahathir was reported to have said: “We will ensure that it will not portray Islam as a cruel and inconsiderate religion. That is not what Islam is”. Interestingly, Jakim was formed during the first tenure of Mahathir as prime minister.

Even more recently, the new Islamic Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa confirmed that his department has initiated plans to end child marriages. After the outrage that surfaced over the news of a 41-year-old man marrying an 11-year-old girl came to light, this is much welcome.

All this is great news and I am very hopeful that things will change for the better when it comes to Jakim and Islamic affairs in the country. However, the residual trauma of decades under such archaic decisions has made me a little bit sceptical.

So I hope these new developments do not remain just talk. I would like to see action being taken and actual reform happening.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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