Islam Hadari and the Politics of Banning

Posted by SM Maulana

There are ideas, and there can be stupid ideas; but to ban an idea simply because of its stupidity seems to be a rather stupid thing to do in itself.

Among the ideas that circulate in the congested bowels of Malaysia’s public domain is the somewhat nebulous idea of ‘Islam Hadari’; loosely translated at times as ‘civilisational Islam’ or ‘societal Islam’. Others of a less charitable bent have dubbed it ‘theme park Islam’, ‘Crystal mosque Islam’ and even ‘Badawi’s brand of Islam’. Branding aside, it would appear that this brand of Islam has come under close scrutiny and admonition of late. In May the Pakatan-led state government of Selangor announced that henceforth the state would no longer promote Islam Hadari and this was later followed up by a similar move on the part of the Pakatan-led state government of Penang.

The rationale behind this prohibition leaves us with some unanswered questions that might as well be raised at this point. Who called for the prohibition of Islam Hadari and on what grounds? And if Islam Hadari is to be banned by the Pakatan-led state governments, what does this entail for the Muslims and non-Muslims of Malaysia? What, in the final analysis, was the objective of this ban?

Now this academic would hardly call himself a fan of Islam Hadari, as anyone who has read these columns would realise. Time and again we have pointed out the shortcomings, contradictions, double-standards and downright hypocrisy between the ideals of Islam Hadari and what has been put into practice. Islam Hadari – as a broad statement of inter-related intentions crafted in the form of a statist religio-political discourse – promised us the opening of the Muslim mind, the creation of a more open civil space, the protection of pluralism and difference and the promotion of gender equality.

Yet what we have seen thus far falls short (and very short, mind you) of the abovementioned objectives. In Trengganu I walked into the Islam Hadari theme park that seemed more like a vulgar imitation of Disneyland than a concrete affirmation of rationalism and the spirit of enquiry. The famous ‘crystal mosque’ that accounted for the whopping price tag of the whole theme park failed to impress and was certainly a pale mimic of what Islamic aesthetics could achieve. And one wonders how such grand and money-devouring projects would serve the ends of opening up the Muslim mind when all we see are posters and banners celebrating the ego and image of the man said to be the mastermind of the grand logic of Islam Hadari itself, the Prime Minister.

Criticisms like these, however, serve to keep the powers-that-be in check and to remind them of their public commitments to ideas and values that they fail to practice in office. How, pray tell, can you open up the minds of Malaysians when the very same government that preaches Islam Hadari remains as a passive witness to the spate of book-banning and the narrowing of discursive space in the country?

This, however, should not be taken as the license to simply ban Islam Hadari – or any other ideas or interpretations of Islam – outright. For if we were to say that Islam Hadari is wrong in toto simply because the people who thought it up don’t even understand it themselves, then would we not also be rejecting some of the better ideas and values that have been inculcated into the general framework of the project itself? Islam Hadari, on paper at least, calls for the respect of difference and pluralism and the promotion of gender equality between men and women. Are these ideas to be rejected too, simply because they have been brought within the ambit of Islam Hadari? For my part, I am quite happy to see any party or politician, be they of the ruling parties or those in opposition, endorsing pluralism, democracy and gender equality at any time of the day…

Which leads us to the actors and agents behind the prohibition of Islam Hadari in Selangor and Penang. Now according to reports, the calls for the ban on Islam Hadari have come from those who claim to be representatives of the Muslim community and this includes members of political parties, Muslim lobby groups, Muslim NGOs and former Muftis. The justification for the ban, we are told, is that some of these individuals feel that “the teachings of Islam are perfect as they are” and that “there is no need for supplements”. Their calls for the prohibition of Islam Hadari, it would seem, is fuelled by the desire to “return to the true teachings of Islam”. But this immediately leads us to the obvious question: Is defending gender equality, promoting openness and recognising pluralism and difference (both among Muslims and between Muslims and others) not essentially Islamic anyway? How, pray tell, does promoting gender equality amount to ‘supplementing’ or ‘deviating’ from the teachings of Islam?



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