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No place for disruptive ethnocentric politics

It is one thing to not understand or practise religion fully from a personal perspective, but it’s an entirely separate matter to 'use' it as a divisive political tool to garner populist support ahead of the polls.

Ameen Kamal
6 minute read

There is no moral basis for accentuating the trend of ethnic polarisation and divisive identity politics capitalising on race and religion. Racism isn’t supported by Islamic teachings, value-based leadership or even science.

In addition to Malaysia’s historical context, the fact that Malays make up more than 60% of the population by race and Muslims make up 61% of the population by religious beliefs provides the demographic basis for Malay rights, leadership and protection of the Islamic faith. However, this is not an excuse for discriminatory and polarising racial and religious rhetoric.

Capitalising on the traditional collective memory of the romantic past, identity insecurities and demographic nature at the expense of others and using race and religion to push for personal interest and political gains is wrong.

It has to be made clear that Islam is against racism, chauvinism and religious extremism. The Almighty declares in the Quran: “O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you (49:13).”

Prophet Muhammad was reported in an authentic hadith (narration) to have said: “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”

The two undisputed sources for the Islamic perspective on the matter provide clear confirmation of racial equality, and that the true measure of one’s superiority over another is one’s spiritual and moral standing.

Therefore, as far as political morality goes, it is clear that sowing hatred, promoting distrust and discord, injustice, corruption, blind pursuit of worldly desires and extravagance (especially at the expense of others) have gone beyond identity politics and are repugnant to the tenets of Islam.

Any parties claiming to represent the “ummah” or to be defenders of Islamic principles must not be plagued with such “diseases”. Can a political party with leaders that are embroiled in court cases, corruption charges and convictions of criminal cases confidently and truthfully make this claim?

Despite some historical grounds for such claims, loyalty and commitment should be to principles and praiseworthy values. Blind loyalty to a particular party that has lost its way cannot be justified through any moral lens.

In addition to defending Islamic values and principles, Muslim leaders should ensure that non-Muslim fellow citizens under the administration of Malay leadership are not deprived of their rights.

In Chapter 60 verse 7 to 9 of the Quran, The Almighty ordained: “It may be that Allah will grant love (and friendship) between you and those whom you (now) hold as enemies. For Allah has power (over all things); And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful (60:7).”

In Verse 8: “Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loves those who are just (60:8).”

In Verse 9: “Allah only forbids you, with regard to those who fight you for (your) Faith, and drive you out of your homes, and support (others) in driving you out, from turning to them (for friendship and protection). It is such as turn to them (in these circumstances), that do wrong (60:9).”

Thus, The Almighty ordained that Islam is against racism, chauvinism and ethnic prejudices. In fact, the verses encourage kindness to non-hostile non-Muslims.

Unfortunately, under the incumbent polarising identity politics, even non-Malay Muslims could be in a dilemma without proper democratic accommodation of their minority position.

Furthermore, divisive identity politics based on race and religion for the sake of votes is inherently unjust and discriminatory, and against the philosophy of effective “da’wah” (the act of inviting and calling people towards the truth, towards God, and towards the teachings of Islam) and goes against the core principle of justice in Islamic leadership.

If anything, such dirty tactics which sow the seeds of hatred between ethnic and religious groups through polarising rhetoric and discrimination undermine the proper upholding of Islamic teachings, the proper representation (and therefore, dissemination) of Islam, as well as the overall efforts for peaceful co-existence and national unity.

The issue does not only concern Muslims. Racial discrimination also goes against value-based leadership (VBL) which is applicable to all leaders. According to Mary Kay Copeland in an article published in the International Journal of Leadership Studies, VBL is a leadership philosophy that started to emerge from the early 1990s, catalysed by the extensive leadership failures due to moral and ethical deficiencies of leaders.

Joseph P Hester, a retired educator, consultant and author of “Values-Based Leadership in a Time of Values Confusion” mentioned “service and moral acuity” as central to VBL. Hester quoted another author, Stephen Carter, in pointing that living a common life with others is a key characteristic of “servant leadership”.

Thus, discrimination and polarisation are antithetical to VBL or servant-leadership practices. Hester acknowledged that servant leadership in a society with ethnic and religious diversity can be challenging, but it can be done. Relatedly, Hester mentioned the importance of a “moral anchor” to values.

For Muslims, the moral-ethical source (or moral anchor as Hester puts it) of values is clearly defined and provided by religion. Thus, for Muslim leaders, the reason for the loss of good values in VBL is the loss of true understanding and practice of the source of value itself.

It is one thing to not understand or practise the religion fully from a personal perspective, but it’s an entirely separate matter to “use” it as a divisive political tool to garner populist support in view of the unpredictable forthcoming GE15.

Accordingly, VBL in politics fails according to the perspective of decent, rational, and peace-loving, multiracial people of Malaysia. Current grassroots generations that may have lost touch with higher values in Islamic teachings, nationalism, patriotism and other deeper values and principles (that were probably more present in Malaysia’s forefathers and true national leaders) would naturally gravitate to the actual “values” practised by some political leaders such as “warlordism”, political patronage, and money politics.

Degradation (if not absence) of a moral compass which leads to the death of good values in VBL, combined with the historical trust deficit in the judiciary, allows questionable leadership (such as the so-called “court cluster”) to remain at the top of political parties, despite convictions of serious crimes and multiple corruption charges.

For Muslims, religion clearly lays down the principles for social change or transformation. The Almighty decrees in the Quran: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves (13:11).”

Malay Muslims should take heed of the divine decree, which means that the internalisation and therefore true practice of Islamic teachings, and the collective improvement of the people in any matter of the worldly life (knowledge, skills etc) are the prerequisites for the change in the state or condition of a people. It is not rooted in perpetual political patronage which is not only discriminatory but also unsustainable.

Instead of this realisation, what we witness is the never-ending ethnocentric division by leaders and people who are drowned in material pursuit and self-interest. And when issues related to Islam and Malays are challenged (due to weaknesses among Muslim leaders), the same “music” of identity insecurities gets played over and over again.

For those who do not subscribe to religious and value-based leadership philosophies, hard-line discourse and narratives of chauvinism and racialism are not supported by science, either. Human beings are genetically 99.9% identical.

An American Association of Physical Anthropologist statement on race and racism framed this perfectly, saying: “Notably, variants are not distributed across our species in a manner that maps clearly onto socially-recognised racial groups. This is true even for aspects of human variation that we frequently emphasise in discussions of race, such as facial features, skin colour and hair type. No group of people is, or ever has been, biologically homogeneous or ‘pure’. Furthermore, human populations are not – and never have been – biologically discrete, truly isolated, or fixed.”

In other words, biologically we share more traits with one another than we share differences, despite outward appearances. Thus, in the Malaysian context, the term “pure” Malays or “pure” Chinese or “pure” Indians are more of a social construct rooted in culture and geography than a strict biological reality. In fact, there is genetic genealogical evidence suggesting a common ancestry for all humans, which could be aligned with the “Adam and Eve” central dogma of common human lineage mentioned in Abrahamic religions.

The self-destruction due to divisive identity politics and the failure to uphold the true teachings of Islam and promote internal unity will be the undoing of Malays and Muslims. Given that this forms the majority of the Malaysian society, its impact will have far reaching consequences beyond its own sphere, negatively impacting the nation from the social, economic, and political perspective.

Ameen Kamal is head of science & technology at independent think tank Emir Research.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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