Islamic think-tank a liberal anomaly

November 17, 2012 by Teo Cheng Wee, Regional correspondent for the Straits Times Singapore

Malaysian group’s stance provides rare challenge to govt’s conservative position

By Teo Cheng Wee, Regional correspondent

KUALA LUMPUR – Among Muslim groups in Malaysia, the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) stands out as something of an anomaly.

In the three years since it was formed, the small think-tank has declared support for a secular state in Malaysia and defended an annual festival on sexuality and gay rights, among other things.

Its liberal stance – in a country where Islamic views are generally conservative – has caught the attention of the public, providing a rare challenge to the central line propagated by the government and religious authorities here. The revival of conservative Islam in many countries since the 1970s has been intensified in Malaysia by competition between Malay parties Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia for Islamic credibility.

Today, the IRF is perhaps one of only two liberal Muslim groups here, the other being women’s rights group Sisters In Islam.

Such voices are rare because the Islamic agenda is tied closely to the Malay political agenda, noted political analyst Joseph Liow, an expert on Islamic issues. “Anything that can potentially be viewed as ‘compromise’ is often shunned because it is viewed, and portrayed by self-appointed guardians of the faith, as undermining Islam and a threat to the Malay race.”

Recently, the IRF waded into the debate over religious freedom for Malays, after opposition politician Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Muslim who wears a headscarf, reportedly said at a forum that “there is no compulsion in religion”. Though she was quoting from a verse in the Quran, her comment sparked an uproar.

Umno-owned Malay daily Utusan Malaysia alleged that she was encouraging apostasy, which is viewed as a grave sin by many Muslims. Ms Nurul – the daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – clarified that she was referring to non-Muslims only.

But the IRF, which was one of the forum organisers, issued its own statement, saying that forcing someone to believe in something he does not want to “contravenes a clearly stated principle in the Quran which calls for the freedom of conscience”.

IRF founder and chairman Ahmad Farouk Musa concedes that his group’s liberal views are in the minority in Malaysia. But he believes they will gain traction with time, especially among the young.

A cardiothoracic surgeon by training and currently a private university lecturer, Dr Ahmad told The Straits Times he started the IRF in 2009 with the aim of “reinterpreting Islam for the 21st century”.

Four words are printed on every IRF name card: “For people who think.”

Dr Ahmad is influenced by progressive Islamic scholars like Egyptian-Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan, and feels the practice of Islam has become too dogmatic, missing the religion’s essence. “Religion cannot be difficult. Its fundamentals like justice, liberty and equality must be easy to understand. Yet we have forgotten this. We impose so many restrictions and make Islam so complicated.”

While he was active for years in the influential Malaysian Islamic youth organisation ABIM, reads Islamic literature widely and speaks Arabic, Dr Ahmad readily admits he is not a trained scholar. Indeed, his point is that “religion isn’t so sophisticated that only certain people can understand it”.

In IRF, he heads a group of about 20 like-minded individuals – many of them young professionals – to organise forums, interview scholars and do book dissections, pushing for a more progressive Islam.

It also has a project which aims to promote debate and understanding among the different racial and religious groups in Malaysia, and researches and advocates social welfare and justice.

IRF has two full-time staff and runs on donations and funding from pro-democracy groups.

While the influence of such groups remains marginal, it is growing, said Dr Liow.

“‘Liberal’ has become a dirty word. People associate it with having loose morals. We need to wash the dirt away,” said Dr Ahmad.

The author of this piece can be reached at [email protected]

This article was also published in the Straits Times