By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
It was one of those rare moments when something unexpected comes a calling. I was pleasantly surprised when my good friend, Din Merican, texted me to inform me of a talk by one of the world’s foremost Islamic philosophers and thinkers, Tariq Ramadan. Tariq was on a three-day visit to this part of the world recently and was making whistle stops in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta for discourses on Islam.
I jumped at the opportunity to hear a worldly man who has made a niche for himself advocating the study and re-interpretation of Islamic texts with emphasis on the heterogeneous nature of Western Muslims.
Tariq Ramadan, incidentally, is a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. With such credentials Tariq will, without doubt, attract the wrong kind of following, especially in a conservative Muslim country like Malaysia.
Like they say, curiosity kills the cat. I immediately registered myself and my wife as participants for the lunchtime date at Traders Hotel Penang (formerly Shangri-La) on Tuesday, July 17. Coincidentally, I was in the city for an overdue medical check-up. The talk was sponsored by the state government under the ambit of Penang Institute, a think-tank consisting of the brightest brains formed by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng upon his ascension to the state’s highest political post in March 2008.
Tariq, as expected, did not mince his words when he took to the podium addressing the 300-odd lunch crowd consisting of a curious mix of Malaysians – the young, the not-so-young and the old. Interestingly, most of the audience consisted of non-Muslims with a sprinkling of Middle Eastern men and women whom I later learned were Palestinians. There was no shortage of Ipohites who formed a substantial number seated in the hotel’s spacious yet opulent ballroom cum convention hall.
Tariq’s lecture entitled, “Islam, Democracy and Human Rights: The Awakening of the Muslim World” related to things happening in the country, especially in the realm of Islamic jurisprudence. One very pertinent point he raised was on the rule of law or in our context, the rule by law.
Citizens, he reasoned, must struggle within the given framework. They must oppose existing or new laws which are unjust and discriminatory. “You know how many laws in this country need to be reformed,” he said. His statement amused the crowd who cheered him on. “I am not with the Opposition, not in political terms but rather in philosophical terms. I say something which is very true. Your model is not perfect and neither are your mores.”
“In the name of your conscience, as a Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or whatever you are. In the name of the citizenship you have, it’s your duty to stand up for what’s right, if not for your government, it’s for the people who live in your country.”
Tariq had touched a raw nerve and it reverberated in the hall. It resonated with the audience who remained glued to their seats, listening attentively to his every word. I was looking for some government sympathisers in the crowd but saw none. How I wish there were.
To be a good citizen, regardless of race and religion, one must observe three basic fundamentals, said Tariq. “You must obey the laws of the land, you must master the language and, above all, you must be loyal.”
Loyalty, however, has its limitations, he reasoned. “It should be critical loyalty not blind loyalty.” I find this most appropriate given the propensity of the “privileged class” to blindly support whatever that comes from Putrajaya. Civil Service, Police and Armed Forces personnel are among those in this group who not only practise but subscribe to the maxim.
Mohd Sofian Makinuddin, the high-strung Special Branch officer from Bukit Aman is one typical example. His fixation with the Opposition being infiltrated by Communist and Jemaah Islamiyah seems absurd but to him that is the truth. This is the kind of blind loyalty which Tariq abhors.
As if to absolve himself of the tyranny committed by Muslims worldwide, Tariq surmised, rather succinctly,” No community is better than the other just because they’re Muslims.”
One member of the audience, a Palestinian, asked Tariq why he espoused the atrocities committed by Americans on Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo while Palestinians are being routinely killed and maimed by the Zionist regime. “I won’t venture to describe the atrocities committed in Arab prisons. Similarly, I won’t venture to explain the killing and maiming of Arabs by Arab regimes.”
The impact the 49-year old Swiss citizen of Egyptian origin had on the audience was electrifying. He is a true thinker of a different pedigree. Tariq wannabes Ridzuan Tee, Jamil Khir Johari and a horde of our so-called Islamic scholars (ulamaks) can never come close to him, not now not ever.