23 Jan – Penang Institute is proud to have organised countless programmes on Islam and Muslims in the past few years, featuring speakers from a wide range of backgrounds including Prof Tariq Ramadan, Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, Dr Syed Farid Al-atas, Dr Anas at-Tikriti, Ahmed Keeler, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Prof James Piscatori, Dr Maszlee Malik, Dr Nader Hashemi, Mustafa Akyol, Prof Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Prof Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid and Dr Azhar Ibrahim.
Given the importance of Islam and Muslims in Malaysia, it is only right for a think tank funded with state fund to organise intellectual discourse on this topic alongside others. We categorically reject any suggestions to side-line or “leave out” Islam and Muslims in our programmes because Islam and Muslim are an integral part of Penang. Historically, Penang played an important role in the transformation of Islamic thoughts as a key base of the Kaum Muda. Just like the Penang State Government’s generous fiscal support for Islamic and Muslim institutions, Penang Institute’s programmes on Islam and Muslims are part of the state’s commitment of an inclusive Penang.
Unsurprisingly, we have been attacked by some quarters for supporting and promoting intellectual discourses on Islam and Muslims. For all who are concerned, let us offer an analysis of charges and allegations against us. We are attacked for three reasons.
First, we feature Islam and Muslims from a universal rather than sectarian angle. We categorically reject the antagonistic or segregationist world views that Muslims and non-Muslims live in separate worlds that at best Muslims should be protected by segregation and at worst Muslims and non-Muslims have to engage each other in bitter and zero-sum competitions.
Second, we believe in reason instead of dogmatism. We seek essences rather than forms. Hence, we organise forums on Maqasid Syariah, the higher purposes of Syariah. We believe Muslims’ quest for a more religious way of life and the universal ideals of democracy, human rights and rule of law can converge if we focus on essences instead of forms.
Third, we believe in diversity and personal choices. Hence, we seek dialogues instead of monologues. We never pretend that we have any monopoly or unquestionable authority of knowledge on any matter. Rather, we seek to understand more, ask relevant questions and are prepared to be corrected on any matter we study. If we are seen to have asked too many questions and sought various answers, that is because we have to be humble and inquisitive. That attitude is in fact what every research institute should and must have.
Do all these make Penang Institute “liberal”? Let us unpack the word “liberalism” and some quarters’ ideological holy war against it.
First and foremost, we must allow all ideologies and discourses to be articulated, scrutinised and challenged as long as these are done peacefully, rationally and rigorously. Only then, we can make informed choices at personal and collective levels and forge a progressive, developed and scientific nation. There is absolutely no reason for us to fear any ideas and thoughts that employs no coercion. As aptly put by the Malay proverb, “berani kerana benar, takut kerana salah.” If we know that we are right, why should we fear intellectual engagement?
Second, the attack on liberalism is in fact a thinly-disguised attack on the modern world order much shaped by the Enlightenment Movement in
18th Century which promotes reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Stemming from rejection of tyranny, liberalism has enriched the world with the ideas, institutions and practices of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property right, rule of law, and other liberties. These are now part of the contemporary world order of democracy, market economy and science. While none of them is sacred and beyond critique, where would a blanket demonization of “liberalism” lead us to? Are we going to be a hermit kingdom like North Korea, only decorated with religious fervour?
Thirdly, if our approach to Islam and Muslims that promotes peaceful co-existence, reason and diversity is seen as inspired by Western liberal thoughts, allow us to share our other inspiration:
“And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah, and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.” (Surah Yunus: 99-100)
Reason and respect for diversity are an integral part of Islam. That was why the Ancient Greek philosophical thoughts were preserved by Muslims when the Christian Europe was still caught in its Dark Ages. Many ideas widely misunderstood as exclusively Western have much influence from the Muslims.
We at Penang Institute believe that Islam is cosmopolitan and can be the civilisational basis of Malaysia’s diverse society with its promise of “rahmatan lil alamin” (blessing to the universe). We will continue to promote intellectual engagement on Islam and Muslims in our pursuit of an inclusive, rational and plural Malaysia.
We welcome our detractors to engage us in forums or through scholarly endeavours. We are only humans and stand to be corrected by advancement in knowledge. We however would not respond to conspiracy theorists’ fantasies that seek to associate us with any imaginary villains, whether it is Martians, Hydra, or, the Illuminati whose myth is debunked even in Dan Brown’s novels.
* Dr. Mustafa Kamal Anuar is the Head of the Nusantara Studies, at Penang Institute.