Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk
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
The exaggerated image of Islam as “uncivilised” and “violent” in the Western media has been instrumental in stirring the wave of anti-Muslim racism linked to Islamophobic discourse.
The said discourse has manifested itself in the form of cultural racism before and after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.
Put in another way, anti-Muslim racism has been around for centuries and Muslims living in the West, especially in the US, are feeling the heat of Islamophobia.
It is worth noting that Islamophobia is multidimensional, and that the inferiorisation of Muslims had gone through many phases.
When, for example, the relations between the European empires with the Islamic empires turned from an imperial relation into a colonial relation, Muslims in the late 15th century Al-Andalus were seen as people with the wrong God.
This racist imaginary was then projected and transformed in the post-colonial and post-civil rights era in the form of cultural racist discourses against Muslims.
Today, one of the cultural racist arguments levelled against Muslims is their “patriarchal and sexist abuses of women”.
This is essentially a continuation of the manufactured image of Muslims as inferior human beings in relation to Western peoples.
On their part, Western patriarchs and conservatives have tried very hard to portray an image as the defenders of feminism.
Former US president George W. Bush’s main argument to invade Afghanistan, for instance, was the need to liberate brown women from the atrocities of brown men.
The hypocrisy of this argument is crystal clear for all to see when the Bush administration was actively defending Christian patriarchal fundamentalism, opposing abortion and women’s civil and social rights during the eight years of his administration, while using a women’s rights argument against the Taliban to invade Afghanistan.
The rhetoric of “white men as saviour of women of colour from coloured men’s patriarchal abuses” goes back to colonial times.
It has served historically to conceal the real reasons behind colonisation of the non-West.
We now know that the real reasons behind the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and president Barack Obama’s continuity are due to geopolitical strategic location and importance in terms of its closeness to oil and gas in South Asia.
Immediately after the invasion, occupied Afghanistan provided legal permission to transnational gas and oil corporations to build pipelines over its territory.
Islamophobic representations of Muslims as savages in need of Western civilising missions are the main argument used to cover up global, imperial, military and economic designs.
The colonisation of Islam by patriarchal tendencies is not unique. We can see the same abuses against women among Christian and Jewish men.
We can also find many patriarchal and sexist arguments in Christian, Jewish or Islamic texts.
What is presented in the Western media, however, is solely the image of Islam as sexist and patriarchal while there is a self-censorship on the patriarchal oppression of women as practised by Judaism and Christianity in the West.
It is worth highlighting that Islam is the first religion in the world to grant women the right to divorce. I am saying this not to justify patriarchal abuses of women done by some Muslim men but to question the stereotypical racial representation that highlights Muslim men as the source of abuses against women.
The stereotypical image of Muslim men is false and it only serves Western global and imperial designs.
What we have today is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of fundamentalism and a clash of patriarchies.
The Bush administration defended Christian fundamentalist arguments to characterise the Islamic enemy as part of the crusade wars, while Islamic fundamentalists used a similar language.
The former defend a Western form of patriarchy while the latter defends a non-Western form of patriarchy.
Islamic feminists, however, have argued that patriarchal versions of Islam are inherently un-Islamic and this is primarily due to the fact that the interpretation of the Quran and Hadith were monopolised by men throughout the history of Islam.
The same thing could also be said of the Jewish and Christian sacred texts whereby interpretations that were controlled by the patriarchs became the dominant perspective in these religions.
It is therefore misleading to talk about a single patriarchal system in the world when there are multiples patriarchies in the sense of several systems of gender domination of males over females.
It is therefore important to keep in mind that Western views of Islam are informed by racist exotic and inferior representations.
These orientalist representations of Islam after the 18th century were preceded by 300 years of occidentalism (the superiority of the West over the rest).
Orientalism has enabled the West to construct with authority the Islamic “other” as inferior.
This is crucial because Islamophobia is not exclusively a social phenomenon but it is also an epistemic question.
Unless and until epistemic racism is challenged, Islamophobia will continue to dominate the imaginary of the West.
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, 16 June 2019
The anti-Israel demonstrations that were held recently in London, Germany, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands last week clearly showed that the atrocities committed by the Israeli Defence Forces against helpless Palestinians deserve unequivocal condemnation by the world.
What is really frustrating about the asymmetrical conflict between Israel and Palestine is the fact that the Trump administration, just like its predecessors, remains committed to ensuring Israel’s military dominance in the region.
The entanglement of the US in this protracted conflict has inevitably aggravated the situation by financing and supporting Israel’s settlement programmes in the occupied territories. Put in another way, Israel and the US have never been committed to the peace process. As long as the US provides the support, Israel will use it to suppress the Palestinians.
What Israel aims to achieve is very clear for the world to see, which is to annex the occupied territories, reduce the Arab population as well as to disperse the refugees and crush any manifestation of Palestinian nationalism or culture.
Israel’s policy towards Palestine is consistent with the rejection of any political settlement that accommodates rights of the indigenous population. Clearly, Israel is not in support of a two-state political settlement that would include recognised borders, security guarantees, and reasonable prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. What is more, Israel’s conduct in dealing with Palestinian transgressions has been over the top.
While it is true that certain segments of Palestinian society are equally responsible for soliciting retaliations from Israel by launching terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, the latter, however, has used excessive force in responding to Palestinian provocations and the rate of Palestinian civilian casualties is alarming.
A precursor to the ongoing schism between Israel and Palestine is the setting up of the state of Israel in 1948, the subsequent attack by the Arab armies in 1967 and the 1973 attack against Israel by Egypt and Syria, also known as the Yom Kippur War.
It should be highlighted that the Arabs of Palestine were not in favour of a Jewish state and large-scale Jewish immigration which more often than not had led to dispossession of their lands. The Arabs were not consulted in the preparation of the European plans to facilitate the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
While it may seem natural for the Arabs not to peaceably accept the confiscation of their land, this protest by the Arabs is described as anti-Semitism in certain Western circles. The West tends to accept the position expressed by Lord Arthur Balfour, author of the Balfour declaration of 1917, in which Britain promised a Jewish national home in Palestine, as the natural point of departure.
Arab opposition to Britain’s proposal to establish a Jewish state was an open secret and could be tied to president Woodrow Wilson’s King-Crane Commission findings in 1919 which reported that the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. The commission also estimated that nearly all of the Arab population in Palestine were emphatically against the entire Zionist programme, and warned that to subject them to this programme would be a gross violation of the principle of self-determination and of the people’s rights.
More importantly, the world should be reminded that the establishment in Palestine of a national home of the Jewish people was premised on the condition that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. What has happened is anything but respect for Palestinian rights.
The rape of Palestinian human rights is very well documented. President Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is an excellent rendition of Israel’s systematic discrimination against Palestinians. Under this oppressive system, Israelis are totally dominant and tend to suppress violence by violating Palestinians’ basic human rights. Palestinians are being herded into places that are surrounded by walls, fences, and Israeli checkpoints reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s Auschwitz concentration camp.
But over the years, many Arab states have come to accept the sovereignty of Israel. Despite the many road maps to peace that were brokered by the superpowers, peace between Israel and Palestine remains elusive. One of the many contributing factors for the continued conflict is the Israelis’ thirst for Palestinian land.
The growing conflict between Israel and Palestine is also related to the condoning of illegal actions of the former by a pliant American administration, and Israel’s continued defiance of United Nations Resolution 242 which is still the binding law that condemns the acquisition of land by force and requires Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories.
On their part, the Palestinians have to stop honouring suicide bombers and targeting Israeli civilians.
Most of all, both conflicting parties have to be willing to give peace a chance.
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, 19 May 2019
Brunei’s decision to implement syariah law was met with intense criticisms by not only the West but liberal leaning Muslims as well.
Such a negative reaction and notion by these parties is only to be expected. This is due to the fact that accolades from the West on anything Islamic are an exception and not the norm.
Brunei’s implementation of syariah law has also solicited the ire of Hollywood celebrities ranging from Elton John to George Clooney. These Hollywood superstars have called for a boycott of Brunei-owned hotels. The condemnation of the Brunei move by the celebrities is a reflection of how prejudice and stereotype figure into our ill-informed judgments.
To be clear, fears about syariah are a manifestation of Islamophobia, and these fears are purposely fanned by certain segments of Western society.
Syariah law has been described by the Western press as inhumane, barbaric, and cruel. Syariah, according to the West, promotes an eye for an eye justice.
The coverage of syariah in the West usually focuses on the criminal justice provisions, known as hudud, developed in the seventh century. Theft was said to merit amputation of the right hand, fornication earned a hundred lashes, and falsely accusing someone of the same offence was punishable by eighty strokes.
The gravest crime, the waging of war against Islam or spreading of disorder in the land, was attended by an entire battery of punitive possibilities: exile, double amputation, suspension from a cross, and decapitation.
In the case of other acts of violence, a victim of the next of kin was formally authorised to act.
These punishments look distinctly pre-modern from a twenty-first century perspective, but it would take either naivete or ill will to characterise them in terms worse than that.
Corporal punishment was a feature of the age, while crucifixion owed its popularity in the Middle East to centuries of Persian and Roman practice and among Muslims, at least in later years, it was intended to be a non-fatal means of humiliation rather than a method of execution.
Torture, which was routine under Christianised Roman law of Byzantium, found no place in the Quran. As a matter of fact, the Quran was suffused with more general concepts of mercy. Repentance was often reason enough to exclude punishment for hudud.
Where an offence gave someone a right to seek vengeance, retaliation was limited by the original crime, and victims were urged to accept compensation or exercise mercy instead.
The rules, for all their rigour, also reflected the ancient notion that responsibility was a matter of honour, and less was expected of those lower down the social pecking order: someone who had unlawful sex having never before been married was subject to lashing than stoning, and the number of strokes inflicted for adultery and intoxication was halved if the convict was a slave.
The most striking fact of them all is the one that today is most likely to be overlooked — physical punishment was authorised just five times in the entire Quran.
The system’s relative leniency is paradoxically illustrated by its harshest prescription — the stoning to death for a married or divorced person who had sex out of wedlock. The penalty itself had been known since at least 2,350 Before Common Era when the king of Mesopotamia stipulated in the world’s oldest known laws that promiscuous women should be executed with rocks bearing their names, and the Israelites notoriously adopted the punishment to kill adulterers as well as blasphemers, witches, wizards, and disobedient sons.
Islamic procedures were novel only in so far as they made it harder to impose.
In order for fornication to be proved against a defendant who denied guilt, four witnesses had to attest to the actual act of penetration in explicit terms and the evidential hurdle was as challenging as it sounds.
Put in another way, the narrative on syariah has to focus on mercy and restraint as opposed to punishment.
As a legal instrument, syariah is constituted by moral law. Unlike the Western legal system, syariah is a moral system in which the law is a tool and technique that is subordinated to and enmeshed in the overarching moral apparatus, but not an end in itself.
In syariah law, the legal system is the instrument of morality and not the other way around. Being constituted by ethical and moral values, syariah strives towards the realisation of moral ends.
While syariah aims to achieve certain ideals, it is not almost always fully achieved in the real world. But rather it appears as benchmarks against which reality is not only measured but pressured.
Syariah law was promulgated within an ethical conception of the world. The premise underpinning syariah is that human beings live in the world not beyond it. The Islamic juridical system is therefore a clear reflection of how Islam conceives the world and its relations with humans.
In syariah, humans are charged with custodianship of this world, and are bound by moral and ethical duties and not rights.
Published in: The New Straits Times, 22 April 2019
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad made an important point recently with regard to democracy promotion in the Middle East. He did not mince his words, saying that democracy in the Middle East cannot be promoted over the dead bodies of Yemenis, Syrians and Iraqis.
Most citizens in the developing world are aware that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, liberal democracy and market capitalism are being actively promoted by the West to all corners of the globe as a package to utopia.
What is hypocritical about democracy promotion by the West is that their policymakers find it convenient to ignore that it took more than a century for democracy to consolidate there. What is more, many Western countries still fail to protect the rights of minorities in their society. Even though the patron saint of democracy in the West, the late Harvard professor, Samuel P. Huntington, had cautioned that democratic consolidation required cultural requisites, Western leaders still insist on exporting democracy to fragmented societies.
There is no doubt that constitutional government with the maximum participation of as many citizens as possible is the political objective at which we ought to aim, but the world today needs such drastic political and social changes urgently.
The discussion of democracy promotion by the West must include debates on Islamophobia and the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. A coterie of experts on Islam has been assembled by the West and their main task, it seems, is to assert that “traditional” Islam is incompatible with democracy. This is a revival of the orientalist discourse, where the othering of the political system in Islamic and non-white societies is taken as an accurate representation of what is known as oriental despotism.
What is less known is that discussion on Islamophobia is premised upon epistemic racism and its derivative Eurocentric fundamentalism. Western social theories’ discussions on human rights and democracy seem to suggest that non-Western traditions have nothing of value to the human rights and democratic discourses.
Non-Western epistemologies that define human rights and dignity in different terms than the West are considered inferior and are excluded from global conversations about these questions. If Islamic philosophy and thought are portrayed as inferior by Eurocentric thinkers and classical social theory, then the logical consequence is that they have nothing to contribute to democracy and human rights and should be not only excluded from global conversation, but repressed as well.
The underlying Western-centric view is that Muslims can be part of the discussion as long as they stop thinking as Muslims and take the hegemonic Eurocentric liberal definition of democracy and human rights. Any Muslim who attempts to address these questions from within the Islamic tradition attracts suspicions of fundamentalism.
Western social sciences propose that Muslims are irrational and fatalistic and therefore, no knowledge can come from them. What is the epistemology that underlies the latter proposition? The orientalists’ epistemic Islamophobia often repeats the German sociologist Max Weber verdict on Islam in that it is only Christian tradition that gives rise to economic rationalism and thus, to Western modern capitalism. Islam cannot compare to the superiority of Western values in that it lacks individuality, rationality and science.
Rational science and its derivative rational technology are, according to Weber, unknown to oriental civilisations. These statements are problematic because historical facts have shown the influence of scientific development in the Islamic world.
Rationality was a central tenet of Islamic civilisation. While Europe was in obscurantist feudal superstition during the Middle Ages, the school of Baghdad was the world centre of intellectual and scientific productivity and creativity. Weber’s and the orientalist’s view of Islam reproduce Islamophobia, where Muslims are seen as incapable of producing science and of having rationality.
The incompatibility of Islam and democracy has, at its foundation, the epistemic inferiorisation of the Muslim world views. Today an artillery of experts in the West talks with authority on Islam with no knowledge of the Islamic tradition. The lies repeated over and over again in Western press end up like in Goebbels’ Nazi theory of propaganda, being believed as truth. The circulation of these stereotypes contributes to the portrayal of Muslims as inferior, violent creatures, thus its association with terrorism.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Sunday 3 March 2019
An important and timely book has eluded the attention of the thinking public. This could be attributed to the fact that the book was not given due coverage by mainstream media or poor marketing by the publisher.
Dominance of the West over the Rest by Citizens International is a must-read book not only for intellectuals and academics, but also the masses. The compendium of essays in this book aims to raise critical consciousness by deconstructing the Western knowledge system.
As most of us are aware, the Western knowledge system was transplanted by the West over the rest during colonialism. From resisting Western intellectual discourse to confronting conspicuous consumption, the book offers an insight into Western hypocrisy.
In devouring the book, one is reminded of what Frantz Fanon had written in The Wretched of the Earth: “Colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverse logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts it, disfigures and destroys it.”
Apart from boasting a list of impressive contributors, the book is a rarity mainly because few intellectuals in Malaysia challenge the Western knowledge system.
Our universities, for example, tend to accept knowledge from the West uncritically.
The same knowledge is then passed on to students. Herein lies one of the strengths of the book: it urges the reader to question major Western paradigms, such as modernity, globalisation and neo-liberalism, which together are packaged as the necessary ingredients for a trip to the promised land of happiness.
Yet, when people do not buy it or have other ideas on how the economy and society should be organised, they become subject to direct and indirect violence. The crooked rhetoric that naturalises dominant Western paradigms as a universal global process and as something that developing countries should emulate hides its darker side, the constant reproduction of coloniality.
To uncover the perverse logic that acts as the underlying philosophical conundrum of modernity and the political and economic structure of colonialism, the book argues that we must consider how to decolonise the mind and the imaginary. Since the mid-1970s, the idea that knowledge is also colonised and therefore needs to be de-colonised, was expressed in several ways and in different disciplinary domains.
In the Malaysian context, the pioneering works in decolonising knowledge were laid out by one of its leading public intellectuals, S.M. Idris through Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and Citizens International. Dominance of the West over the Rest is just one example of the many publications by CAP and Citizens International that aims to decolonise knowledge.
Decolonisation is a double operation that includes colonised and coloniser. The colonised do not have epistemic privileges of course. The only epistemic privilege is in the side of the coloniser, even when the case in point are emancipating projects such as liberalism or Marxism.
Colonised knowledge simply refers to Eurocentric categories of thought that carries the seed of emancipation and the seed of regulation and oppression.
A book such as Dominance of the West of the Rest reminds us of the importance of keeping the memories and histories of coloniality alive. We should not lose sight of the wounds and humiliation that were brought about by colonialism. In confronting the demons of colonialism, decolonial epistemic and political projects are absolutely essential.
Decoloniality means working towards a vision of human life that is not dependent on or structured by the forced imposition of a single ideal of society on those that differ, which is exactly what modernity does, and hence, where decolonisation of the mind should begin. Dominance of the West over the Rest tries to change the terms and the content of the discourse on, among others, modernity.
One might ask why do we have to change the content and terms of the prevailing discourse on modernity.
The answer lies in the fact that the discourse has been changed in the colonial world by liberalism and Marxism. Decolonising requires that economic, political, philosophical and ethical conceptualisation that makes Adam Smith and Karl Marx necessary (because Western categories of thoughts have been globalised through the logic of coloniality and the rhetoric of modernity) but highly insufficient.
Dominance of the West over the Rest explores the different politics of knowledge organising the darker side of modernity, the irrational myth that justifies genocidal violence within the layered historical frame established the process of emancipation, liberation and decolonisation.
By changing the terms and the contents of the discourse that heavily rests on Western categories, we will be able to delink from the hegemonic ideas of what knowledge and understanding are and, consequently, what economy, politics, ethics, philosophy, technology, and the organisation of society are and should be. Dominance of the West over the Rest has fractured the hegemony of knowledge and understanding that have been ruled since the 15th century and throughout the modern, colonial world by Western categories.
The writer is director of Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Sunday 25 February 2018