The real danger of what Najib said

I never thought I’d live to see the day when a prime minister of a so-called modern and progressive nation would say negative things about liberalism, secularism, humanitarianism and human rights. God forbid that such a prime minister would be a Malaysian one.
And yet this has come to pass. Najib Razak has actually said that Islam’s followers are being tested by a new form of religion. “They call it humanrightism, where the core beliefs are based on humanism and secularism as well as liberalism,” he said. “It’s deviationist in that it glorifies the desires of man alone and rejects any value system that encompasses religious norms and etiquette. They do this on the premise of championing human rights.”
He said this of course to an audience of Muslims, when opening the 57th national-level Quran Recital Assembly on May 13.
Does he know what he was talking about? Upholding human rights is deviationist? Is he mocking Islam by saying that the religion does not consider human rights? If Najib sees secularism as a threat, is it then safe for Islam that he is the leader of this country since he is surely not its religious leader?
I suppose he must know what he was talking about – because this is not the first time he has spoken on this matter. In July 2012, he said something somewhat similar when he ranted that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, liberalism and pluralism “are against Islam and it is compulsory for us to fight these”.
He was then addressing an audience of 11,000 imams and mosque committee members from across the nation. It didn’t matter to him that sensible and thinking Malaysians would be shocked that he condemned pluralism. Wasn’t he the leader of a plural society and the champion of 1Malaysia?
It’s all about the audience, I reckon. When he addressed the United Nations (UN) and touted his Global Movement of Moderates, he put on a different face – that of a “moderate Muslim”. Would such a moderate Muslim condemn liberalism, pluralism, secularism, humanitarianism and human rights as enemies of Islam? He should try doing that at the UN.
No wonder, after he got walloped by critics for what he said on May 13, he has since come out to change his tune and sing that the government and people of Malaysia are very committed towards human rights values and principles. He did not even qualify it like he did in July 2012 when he declared, “We do support human rights, but we must do so within the boundaries set by Islam.” (My italics)
He now pledges total commitment to human rights although he said something opposite to it to a Muslim audience just a few days before. Is the latest statement meant to appease the international audience and restore his “moderate Muslim” image? Now you know why I have often said that Najib speaks with a forked tongue. And that he’s a flip-flopper. This, I’m afraid, won’t sit well with any audience, international or local.
I would like to provide him the definitions of liberalism, pluralism, secularism, humanitarianism and human rights so that he may see that they are not threats, but I think he can look them up himself in dictionaries, books and Wikipedia.
What I would rather point out is the danger inherent in his message. It sends out a signal to uphold reactionary thinking. The sort that will hold us back as a nation that at the same time professes to go forward.
It also sends out a signal of encouragement to right-wing, reactionary groups like Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), Perkasa and others by echoing some of the ideas they have been advocating, like Islam being under siege, like calling on Muslims to be aggressive in defending their religion, like condemning the 54 NGOs known collectively as Comango for making recommendations at a United Nations conference on human rights. These reactionary groups are now likely to be further motivated to use religion against their favourite targets and, worse, push for actions that will retard our progress.
Above all, Najib’s message creates confusion among Malaysians. This kind of confusion is real, unlike the idea of “confusion” conjured by our leaders, including ministers, who say, for example, that allowing too many newspapers to be published can “confuse” the people or that allowing the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims can “confuse” Muslims. They utter such unsubstantiated claptrap as a pretext to, as columnist Erna Mahyuni puts it, dumb down the people and “clamp down on freedom of expression and basic human rights”.
What Najib says about the threats to Islam, however, causes the real confusion. It amounts to playing politics that can make Malaysians confused and schizophrenic.
I remember things never used to be like this in the days of Tunku Abdul Rahman, our first prime minister. Sure, he did try to convert non-believers to Islam, but he made certain that everyone knew we were going to become a modern, progressive nation and we were not going to be bogged down by racial and religious hang-ups. Because these would only hold us back.
Then after 1969, things took a turn for the worse. And the worse became even worse when Mahathir was prime minister. He, too, manipulated religion to serve his and his party’s cause. He was the first prime minister to ignore the secular foundation of the Federal Constitution and declare Malaysia an Islamic state.
But then somehow after a while, he realised that there was a need to return to the modern, progressive nation idea, so he instituted Vision 2020. At the time, reactionary racial and religious sentiments had become so ingrained in the system, he found that the only way to appease the racists and religious bigots as well as bring the country forward was to emphasise economic prosperity, hence Vision 2020 spoke of making Malaysia an advanced nation. That, Mahathir reckoned, would appeal to all, since economics cuts across race and religion.
Unfortunately, neither he nor his predecessors gave real commitment to this goal. They still resorted to racial and religious politics to keep themselves in power. And that subverted the cause. But more than that, it made the country confused and schizophrenic. You can’t have your goal of becoming an advanced nation in economic terms while undermining its secular status. You can’t confuse your mission by declaring the country an Islamic state. Which sends out the signal to reactionary religious groups that religion must therefore take ascendancy over most matters. And when religion interferes in the conduct of public affairs, including affairs of the state, you get your hands tied down. Taboos abound. You have to watch what you do in order not to offend the religious reactionaries.
This is politics that will hurt the country. And Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi are guilty of having played such politics. Najib is carrying on their tradition. That is the main reason Malaysia is now in such a mess.