It is Dr Tariq Ramadan’s sixth visit to Malaysia in over a decade. The acclaimed Islamic scholar warns there are risks here, especially when politicians or religious leaders play with people’s emotions.
WISE politicians, courageous religious leaders and a dose of good luck these are what Malaysia needs, says Dr Tariq Ramadan.
Building a state, he says, is not the same as shaping a nation.
While there are calls for “equal citizenship”, he points out, what is missing here is a “common narrative.”
“If you care only about power, you are not shaping the nation. You are only running for the sake of power,” says the Islamic thinker and professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University who is acknowledged as one of the world’s 100 most influential individuals.
Dr Tariq, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently as a guest of the Islamic Renaissance Front, believes there are risks for Malaysia, particularly because of its racial and religious mix.
“It is a fragile situation because anyone who is a bit of a populist and knows how to play with emotions can play the identity politics in a very bad way and drive this country into division.
“Malaysians can end up following trends driven by emotion more than reasonable political commitment,” he cautions.
Dr Tariq, who is a Swiss national, says that in Malaysia, Islam has been used as a religious reference as well as a political reference.
“Political parties which were not so keen on making Islam a priority in the past are coming to terms with the fact that you can’t deal with Malaysia if it doesn’t have within its political equation the Islamic reference in one way or another.”
The point, he stresses, is whether this is inclusive or exclusive.
He sees contradictions as parties try to be inclusive and open up to society (especially non-Muslims) as this can attract voters for the election but at the same time, there is an opposing move which is the “narrowing down of the religion” and “reducing it to symbols”.
“If you say you are going to implement the hudud (Islamic penal code) , you are playing with symbols and not the meaning (of the religion) by narrowing down the Islamic reference. But the Islam reference is in fact justice for all, equal citizenship, equal treatment, transparency and not only for Muslims.”
He cites the controversy here over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims as another example of playing with and instrumentalising symbols.
He says when people play with such symbols, the media is quick to jump on it and create controversy on the issue of whether we can use the word “Allah” or not and this is not a good thing for the country.
Dr Tariq also says the evolving trends among Muslims in the country do not help either.
With reformists and rationalists on one end and literalists and dogmatists on the other, he points out, there are naturally tensions within.
“It could be fragile. With elections coming, populists could play around with symbols and this can be dangerous. Do you use it to play with emotions ? Or do you settle down with reasonable political approach ?”
He says this country “is in need of wise politicians for the future.”
“There are two choices. Either you are in politics to change for the next generation or you are involved in politics just because you want to win the elections.”
For Dr Tariq, things seem a little different now than five years ago.
He observes that the people are ready and want something to change they seem to be in the mood for transparency, justice and consistency.
He feels that it is obvious the people in power know that if they want to remain in power, they have to reform and change.
“So both sides agree on reforms one to remain and the other to take over. On both sides, if someone feels that they can lose, they can use anything (including religion).
“The situation now is more fragile for the people who are running the country and they know that. Everybody knows that. It is a critical time.”
He says this might come across as being critical of the present government in power.
“But when I meet people in the opposition, I tell them if you are in charge and I see things that are wrong, I will be against you’. So don’t take my constructive criticism against the power now as something that is celebrating your cause !”
Another problem Dr Tariq has noticed is that when Malaysian students study Islam in Arab countries where there are literalists, they “come back with not only Islamic principles but also an Arab way to deal with the Islamic principles” and they try to project that culture here.
“It is important for Malaysia to celebrate their culture and not to think that because you are an Arab, you are a better Muslim. It should come from something which is within,” he says. But, he adds, he has met some interesting scholars here who understand and celebrate the local cultures.
Touching on sectarianism in Islam, he says it is a “dangerous game”. He points to the Middle East and says sectarianism is dividing the Muslims there.
In Lebanon, when the people resisted Israeli aggression, the (Sunni) state-backed muftis brushed this aside saying that because they are Shiites, their cause cannot be supported.
This type of sectarianism, he says, is now being used everywhere.
Like in Syria, he says, when people say they have to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad because he is a Shiite (Alawite) and he is up against a Sunni uprising in the country. It is also happening in Bahrain where some will not support the uprising purely because the protesters are Shiites who are rising up against a Sunni leadership.
“This is not acceptable. There are differences and disagreements on some issues but we are both Muslims. We should not use this division to colonise’ our way of dealing with Muslims because that would be creating division and by creating divisions we are promoting discrimination and nurturing trouble.”
Malaysia, he says, needs religious leaders with both knowledge and courage and some good luck so that it does not tread the divisive Sunni-Shiite path.
The painful thing is that Muslim countries do not need Israel or some foreign power to sow discord among the Muslims because “we are doing the job ourselves.”
“If I were an Israeli leader, I’d just sit and wait because the Muslims are doing it themselves. Are they pushing on one side ? Of course. Are the Americans pushing ? Yes. What they did in Iraq was to create a divide between Sunnis and Shiites. If you are colonising, then you divide and rule.
“But don’t blame the powerful for using your weakness against you. It’s coming out of your own weaknesses. So it is better that you deal with your weaknesses instead of blaming them and their power.”
On the Arab Spring infecting countries in the Middle East, Dr Tariq is “cautiously optimistic”.
He believes people are focusing too much on the massive demonstrations to remove dictators but not enough on coming up with a comprehensive approach which would include economic re-distribution.
He points out too that one should not forget that United States President George W. Bush was dead serious during his term in office about working at democratising the Middle East and the Americans were training bloggers and others to do just that.
As there are new players China, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, India in the Middle East, the Americans know that if they keep the same policy there, they would lose the game, he says.
“I am not going towards a conspiracy theory but I think the West pushed (in favour of the uprising) because they (the West) needed to change their policy (in the Middle East),” he adds.
The sceptical Dr Tariq says that if every single Arab country goes for a true democratic process, the only sure result would be a strong opposition to Israel.
And countries like Russia, Brazil, South Africa, China and India have a completely different relationship with Israel and are ready to talk with Palestine so they stand to gain.
Which is why, he says, the West (the US and Europe) has to control the political game (to stop that from happening) and secure an agreement from the Islamists should they come into power in these countries to keep its agreement with Israel.
“There is something moving behind the scenes,” he adds.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi won the presidency.
But Dr Tariq, who is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, one of the founder members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, says what has happened in Egypt looks more like a military coup than any real change.
“The army removed the president’s powers. If you choose and there is no power, then that’s not really a choice, is it ?”
He notes that it is significant that the new Egyptian president met with the Saudi King and US state secretary Hillary Clinton first and stated that Egypt would stick to its peace agreement with Israel before recently meeting with the Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh.
(Hamas is considered an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and the US has been wary of both and declared Hamas, which is fighting against Israeli occupation in Gaza, a terrorist organisation.)
Dr Tariq says Morsi’s meeting with Haniyeh is symbolic in that it is meant to show Muslims that while it respects the peace agreement with Israel, it also sticks to its principles.
He believes that while thousands are being killed in Syria, there is deep disagreement between US-Europe and Russia and China over how to handle Syria because the latter had already lost ground on Libya (when Nato backed the Libyan rebels, supplied arms and carried out air-strikes against the then Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi’s forces).
And those countries that backed the rebels are now taking over Libya’s resources, he says. Which leaves Russia and China in a difficult position.
Another unfortunate thing about the Arab uprising, he says, is the negative impact it has had on Palestine.
“People are talking about Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and all these other countries, but not Palestine.”