Sunday, 07 July 2019 11:47

Islam compatible with human rights, democracy

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A typical narrative on the relationship between Islam and freedom in the West will undoubtedly focus on how draconian and inhumane Islamic laws are.

Islam is said to be incompatible with human rights and democracy, and the benchmark used to make this assessment is almost always Eurocentric.

In the Malaysian and Indonesian context, for example, uneasy co-existence between syariah and the civil courts has solicited much criticisms not only from the West but by human rights organisations as well.

A case in point is the punishment meted out to Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a part-time model, by the syariah court in Pahang.

In July 2009, Kartika was sentenced to six strokes of the rattan cane and fined RM5,000 for drinking in public.

After much protests from the public, the sentence was reduced to three months of community service. In the Malaysian legal system, caning may be meted out as a punishment for particular breaches of syariah law, including adultery, the use of intoxicants (such as alcohol) and apostasy.

At present, three states — Pahang, Perlis and Kelantan — have implemented such punishments.

Hudud (in Arabic, hadd, which may be defined as a limit or prohibition, is a punishment fixed in the Quran or Hadith for crimes considered to be against the rights of God) laws were first formulated in Kelantan (1993) and Terengganu (2002), where the Islamic party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia , formed the state governments.

A similar pattern can be observed in Indonesia where local governments have created a range of syariah-inspired by-laws, most of which are directed at matters of public morality.

In the province of Aceh, where the right to implement syariah law was part of a broader autonomy package intended to put an end to a decades-long civil war, an Islamic criminal code has been implemented since early 2000.

From a Western perspective, these developments can be interpreted as a sign of the increasing strength and appeal of political Islam, in combination with the influence of transnational organisations and networks, or explained as a result of the growing anxiety about religious identities.

But they also indicate changing interpretations of the “proper” relation between state and citizen. The implementation of syariah-based laws in Malaysia and Indonesia amounts to conceptualisation of the positions of the individual citizen vis-à-vis the state and other citizens.

From a liberal secular perspective, they amount to a massive infringement of personal freedom, an attack on women’s rights, an unwarranted foray of state institutions into religious matters, and an intrusion of the state into the private sphere.

From forbidding women from going out after dark, punishing homosexuals and penalizing extramarital sex to banning alcohol and prescribing modest dressing, they do not just impose physical punishments for moral transgressions but also aim to regulate several aspects of people’s private lives. As such, they institute a form of differentiated citizenship, imposing different behavioural standards on Muslims.

Increasing Islamisation in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei is seen by the West as something retrogressive and as going against Western ideas on the rights and duties of individuals vis-à-vis their communities.

The discourse that gives a high priority to Western ideals will naturally always privilege Christian and Western beauty, knowledge, traditions, spiritualties and cosmologies while deeming as inferior and subaltern the non-Christian and non-Western beauty, knowledge, traditions, spiritualties and cosmologies.

Those subjects rendered inferior and subaltern by these hegemonic discourses will develop their own “identity politics” as a reaction to racism by the former.

The dominant discourse at the global stage also paints the image that European tradition is the only one that is naturally and inherently democratic, whereas the non-European “others” are presumed to be naturally and inherently authoritarian, denying democratic discourses and forms of institutional democracy to the non-Western world (which is, of course, distinct from Western liberal democracy), and as a result, supporting the political authoritarian racism of the former.

This process is necessary as part of a process of self-valorisation in a racist world that renders “the other” inferior and disqualifies their humanity.

We will fall into this vicious trap should we accept the Eurocentric fundamentalist false premise that the only democratic tradition is the Western one.

This merely reproduces an inverted form of Eurocentric essentialism.

As with syariah law, the hudud in particular, the so-called “cruel and unusual” punishments that are often tied to it should be seen in a broader context of a just and credible legal system that places a stringent requirement on witnesses and the evidence adduced.

Put in another way, the continued inferiorisation of syariah law is nothing but a case of epistemic racism whereby the thinking and practices of the non-West are considered unworthy of emulation.

Epistemic racism allows the West to unilaterally decide what is best for Muslim people today and obstruct any possibility of serious inter-cultural dialogue.

Islamophobia as a form of racism against Muslim people is not only manifested in the labour market, education, public sphere, global war against terrorism, or the global economy, but also in the epistemological battleground about the definition of the priorities of the world today.

Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is the director of the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia

Published in: New Straits Times, Sunday 7 July 2019