Reforming thought via the Internet

April 8, 2012

New Muslim groups are embracing the new media in an attempt to foster greater discussion of various issues. SANTHA OORJITHAM gauges the impact of three of these groups.

YOUNG Muslims Project (YMP) members gather for “open circle” sessions at their homes or somewhere comfortable.

Groups of 20 to 50 sit on the floor and listen to a short talk — by a former heavy metal artist, for example, on a topic such as, “So you wanna be a rock star?” Then they join in the discussion.

The 17- to 30-year-olds do social work through groups such as Viva Palestina Malaysia and the Soup Kitchen Project, and hope to have joint activities with youth groups of other faiths in the future.

And they have “funtivities” such as hikes, picnics, barbecues, treasure hunts and movie screenings. In July, they showed Deen Tight, a documentary about the influence of hip-hop on Islam and Muslims, and vice-versa.

YMP is one of the new groups which Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, founder-director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, compares to the Islamic revivalism, or political Islamism, of the 1970s.

That revival took the form of “greater religious piety and community feeling, separation of sexes and women covering their heads in a growing adoption of Islamic culture, dress and terminology,” he says. “There was a growing universalistic Islamic identity, the global ummah, through the rise of transnational Islam.”

Today’s contemporary forms of revivalism, he says, use “a powerful new platform, the new media in Malaysia, which enjoyed so much success in its impact during the 2008 general election”.

YMP was formed in March 2007 “to break away from the dogma that comes with anything Islamic”, according to its blog. “We want to propagate that it’s OK to be a practising Muslim in today’s time.”

The Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), a think tank launched in December last year, is “an Islamic group promoting reform and renewal, focusing more on reforming thought itself”, says its research fellow Edry Faizal Eddy Yusof.

And then there’s the Agenda Liberal Melayu (ALM) Facebook account which Datuk Jema Khan, the former head of Umno Youth in Sabah, opened in March, “to bring out the liberal constituency, especially within the Malay and Bumiputera community”.

YMP is a mix of Malay and non-Malay Muslims which is very open to converts, with a “totally internationalist outlook and interest in the arts”, Shamsul says.

IRF, a registered company set up by Muslim professionals, “pushes ideas on the web of an Islamist political nature”.

ALM, on the other hand, “is on its own, a web-Rambo”, says the academic. “It is a mainstream Malay, right-of-centre voice, not an Islamist one. There is no bridge-building, just voicing opinions.”

They have had varying degrees of success. YMP, which reaches out to “the scarfed ones to the pierced ones to the inked ones”, now has over 4,000 “friends” on Facebook.

Founding member Nik Nur Adzuan Nik Abdullah says her Muslim friends at university “had questions and didn’t know where to go for answers”. These urban youths wanted “a place where they would not be judged by what they wore or their lifestyle”.

YMP is “for people who would not normally go to a religious class”, says the 26-year-old. “It’s not that we have all the answers, but we will try our best to direct them to more learned people, books and resource sites.”

The young people are encouraged to ask questions — and to go out and look for the answers themselves.

“It is my responsibility to take in and compare, to see whether something is right or wrong based on evidences from the Quran and the Hadith,” Nik Nur Adzuan says. “I can’t accept something just because someone said it.”

That’s something the IRF could agree on. “We are faithful to the text but looking at it from a new perspective in the light of modern times,” says 25-year-old Edry Faizal.

“As an open society, we should allow people to challenge views. Ulamas not being challenged are like a democracy without checks and balances.”

Its 30 associate members are mainly in their 20s and include professionals, a few ustaz and an Islamic banker. (Its Facebook group is “closed”, with 146 members.)

IRF has monthly book dissections and has organised lectures in the past with audiences of about 200. It has also collaborated with “Friends in Conversation” on a forum about diversity.

Like ALM, whom Edry Faizal follows on Facebook, “IRF holds common universal values, such as freedom of expression and individual rights. We try to approach things from the Islamic framework, looking back at the source. But we agree on a lot of the principles”.

ALM’s focus has been human rights, especially those enshrined in the Federal Constitution, says Jema.

“The civil courts need to interpret the Constitution and must not shy away from issues of religion or freedom of speech,” he says. “Certainly those are the main ambits of our democracy. If we have exceptions to that, the exceptions cannot be the rule.”

The 45-year-old now has over 1,100 “friends” on the ALM Facebook account. His aim was to generate a discourse and the responses have generally been constructive.

“To some extent I’ve achieved what I wanted to, in that there is a liberal voice in Malaysia, though it’s small, and it’s becoming a bit more vocal.”

YMP, IRF and ALM are all “breaking away from the norm and changing or modifying the way things are done in their respective areas”, says YMP’s Nik Nur Adzuan. “But all three have different agendas with different sets of objectives.”

IRF and YMP focus on “a new way to see religion,” says Azrul Hisyam Wakichan, a 32-year-old researcher with the International Islamic University of Malaysia’s Development Division.

ALM, on the other hand, addresses economic and social issues. “It’s growing, but is still a very small group, mostly urban.”

Edry Faizal says that in promoting freedom of expression and religion, groups like IRF are also in the minority. “All we can do is try to influence and provoke thought.”

“And any minority can become the majority one day.”