Zaid Ibrahim

Clerics must fight extremist views with arguments, not force

Many young Muslims from economically developed countries are fighting in Iraq and Syria for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A sizeable number of these militants come from the United States, Britain and Malaysia. Their mission is to create a pan-Islamic caliphate by overpowering Western powers and their allies.

Western leaders have decided that bombing the militants will contain the spread of ISIS, but it is difficult to see how bombs can kill and contain ideas and beliefs.

Britain has just announced the need for legislation in the coming months to curb the proliferation of British-born extremists.

Containing extremist ideas will be the top priority, as it is no longer feasible to be tolerant of intolerance.

It is true that every country has to find the right balance between freedom of expression and national security. We in Malaysia are no different.

Finding the right balance is the challenge that Malaysia's political leaders have to strive for continually. The search for the right balance, however, has to be carried out with wisdom and a sense of responsibility. It is always tempting to assert power and suppress those who oppose established points of view.

Today I am not discussing how to find this elusive formula for the right balance. I am more interested in finding ways to make Muslims in this country more moderate and less interested in radical ideas.

It is in everyone's interest to distance Malaysian Muslims from destructive, ISIS-type ideas and encourage them to embrace positive and creative ones instead.

The first step in the process is to encourage Muslims (especially their leaders) to believe that the way of the syariah - that complete and perfect system of living as ordained by God - cannot be achieved by compulsion or use of force.

In other words, Muslims must believe that in their fervent desire to implement the syariah, they can transform individuals and societies only through peaceful means.

Superior governance, education, ethics and moral conduct is a better way to change the world than by force. The world is, after all, full of injustices and imperfections, and many non-Muslims and "wayward" Muslims are ever willing to embrace the perfect way - but they will not do so by force, conquest or compulsion.

Force will be met only by force. Defending the use of force and compulsion by saying that such actions are ordained by God makes no difference to the outcome.

Muslims will not emerge victorious by using force or other military means, no matter how brutal they are willing to be in their fight against the West's powerful resources.

Only greater spiritual strength, as guided by Allah, can help them meet their goals. Emulating the forceful tactics of groups like Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood will achieve only the same results they did, which was to make Muslims more militant and angry, and nothing else.

The understanding of jihad, for example, has to be explained properly. More progressive-minded Muslims say jihad is the human struggle to improve ourselves and the ummah, which can be taught only by teachers and preachers who are familiar with the falsafa, or philosophy, of classical Islamic doctrine.

In Malaysia, we must make every attempt to find an answer to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's excellent question: What role do we give our clerics and religious preachers in stemming the tide of extremism in Malaysia? It is not possible to manage extremism without their involvement.

In fact, the growth of Islamic bureaucracy grew during Tun Mahathir's administration, but he did that for political and not religious consideration. However, the political leadership was strong enough then to manage any wayward bureaucrats.

Some of these clerics are directly responsible for the growth of extremism in Malaysia in the last 30 years. Their misfortune is to believe in their own infallibility.

If others say their understanding of the religion is wrong, they resort to punishment and ridicule, instead of engaging in proper discussions, which is the hallmark of a moderate society.

They are quick to accuse those who disagree with them of questioning God's laws. Since they are mostly in Umno or Parti Islam SeMalaysia, or PAS, (the two political parties with the most number of religious clerics), it is incumbent on these two political parties to temper the ulama and get them to moderate their ways.

They must not be uncomfortable about participating in public discussions or engaging in debates on religious issues on television with those who are equally qualified to speak. True ulama do not issue threats: They challenge your knowledge and understanding of the religion.

It is dangerous to allow these political clerics to assume that their understanding of God's laws is perfect and infallible, because there lies the root of extremism.

After all, the Prime Minister has made it clear that Malaysia will not support extremism and has taken the road of moderation. Malaysians are entitled to assume that both political parties support the PM on this very important matter.

Let's see everyone moving forward. Political leaders who are concerned about defending the sanctity of Islam must also be willing to play their part with responsibility. No one questions such noble political aims, but what counts is determining how best to do it for the benefit of Muslims and the country.

Using laws and threats of force to defend Islam will generate the kind of culture and aggressive behaviour that these ISIS brigades have shown. We will breed only more young Malays like these militants.

Violence is not manifested just by having public executions and beheading foreign journalists and aid workers.

Violence can also take the form of denying others their legitimate rights, and using the court of law and enforcement agencies to compel obedience even when an injustice has taken place. Malaysia must be more sophisticated about nurturing the Muslim mind than, say, Saudi Arabia.

Unless the country takes steps to consider the above, it will be difficult for the people to accept that Islam is the religion of peace and of compassion. They might think that it is in fact the reverse, that is, that Islam is the religion of laws, compulsion and force.

Leaders must do more than make speeches and issue sermons about Islam. The practical application of the syariah must be seen to bring light to the darkness, not with force and compulsion, but through true compassion and peaceful means.