Forget the 'moderate' label, judge consistency of thinking

Recently, the Malaysian public was divided on the government's decision to allow a controversial Mumbai-born Islamic preacher, Dr Zakir Naik, to speak in the country.

Some alleged that in 2006, he openly expressed support for Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, though he later claimed that his words were taken out of context. Despite initial scepticism, the Malaysian government not only allowed Dr Zakir to speak in Kuala Lumpur, Terengganu and Malacca, but he also had an audience with Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Some Malaysian ministers regarded him as a "wise" scholar and a "voice of moderation". In fact, so persuasive was Dr Zakir during his talks that several non-Muslims converted to Islam after listening to him.

By contrast, human rights activists and academics cautioned that Dr Zakir is capable of stirring hate towards non-Muslims in the country. Some have even called for the charismatic preacher to be deported. The label "moderate" is akin to a passport for a theologian to speak in public in Malaysia. But how does one define a moderate, and is the definition in use accurate?

Given the global ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) threat today, many have spoken up against terrorism, and they are referred to as moderates. The term "moderate" has gained so much currency that in Malaysia a foundation named Global Movement of Moderates Foundation was formed. The patron of the foundation is none other than the Prime Minister himself, and its chief executive officer, Mr Nasharuddin Mat Isa, the former deputy president of PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia). In many Muslim countries today, even many of the most conservative Muslims have joined the moderates' bandwagon simply by declaring ISIS un-Islamic, even though they may also be the ones, in other instances, discouraging the participation of women in the public sphere, belittling the West as a civilisation in decline, denying religious minorities their right to practise their faith, and demanding - in place of secularism - a separate Islamic way of life.

The site of the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in the Syrian city of Palmyra after it was destroyed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists. Just denouncing the ISIS as un-Islamic does not make a person a moderate. One must also evaluate the consistency of that person's actions. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Defining moderation is a complex matter. Therefore, one should not label a person moderate just because he condemns ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to do so, regardless of other prejudicial statements the person may have said or written in the past.

The criteria for "moderate" Muslims must be expanded, so as to evaluate the consistency of a person's ideas. For example, a person who has published a scholarly piece condemning terrorism, or highlighting the problematic nexus between jihad (struggle) and holy war, can be considered a moderate in this regard. He is moderate for upholding the value of human life. Yet, we should also ask if the same person showcases similar respect for sexual minorities, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons? What is his position on freedom to believe? Does he resort to hate speech? In other words, a moderate is correct to condemn terror, but he must also not be sectarian, racist or chauvinist.

In addition, a moderate person must be concerned not only about human-to-human relations; he must also demonstrate high regard for the environment and property. Therefore, a moderate must be judged by virtue of upholding Islam's universal values, and that encompass security for all citizens, freedom of belief, and security of private property. He is not a moderate if he exploits his subordinates at his workplace or enriches himself with personal wealth at the expense of the poor.

A genuine moderate is a person who respects diversity of opinions. Muslims have to accept that there are different views on matters of theology. If a theologian claims that only his view represents the essence of the Quran, then one should listen to his ideas with a pinch of salt. In Islam, no one should claim to have exclusive rights to interpret Islam's holiest book. Someone claiming exclusive rights to interpret religious texts may end up belittling other interpretations or religions. For example, while Muslims believe in one God, a moderate must not deny the rights of others who trust in many gods, or even those who believe that no God exists.

It is also in the spirit of moderation that I think the Malaysian government was correct in not banning someone as controversial as Dr Zakir from speaking in the country. Curtailing him could mean denying freedom of expression, especially when he steered clear of hate speech throughout his stay in Malaysia. Genuine moderates should instead take Dr Zakir to task and engage his ideas, rather than lobby for him to be banned.

All in all, a moderate Muslim should not only possess noble qualities within his own circles, but must also gain a respectable reputation among non-Muslims, regardless of their race, gender or age. It is only befitting to confer the term "moderate" on someone whose qualities encompass all that is good in Islam.

• The writer is a fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and researches on Malaysia and Indonesia politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Forget the 'moderate' label, judge consistency of thinking'. Subscribe