Monday, December 31, 2007

Islam Hadhari: Developmental framework

National policy must aim to embrace all
by Tricia Yeoh

For the first time in Malaysia, a religious framework has been instituted within a national socio-economic development plan. Islam Hadhari was introduced in the Ninth Malaysia Plan as a "comprehensive and universal framework for the nation".

Indeed, Islam Hadhari is interwoven into many chapters, promoting "a progressive developmental outlook" and "a moral society with strong religious and spiritual values." This has stirred a wave of interest in Islam Hadhari: what it is, its implications, and how Malaysians should react to it.

Islam Hadhari literally translated means Civilisational Islam, a theory of government based upon the principles of Islam as derived from the Holy Quran. It seeks to emphasise development consistent with the central tenets of Islam. In particular, ten fundamental principles have been outlined and this includes faith and piety in Allah, a just and trustworthy government, and freedom and independence to the people.

This initiative has been very much a brainchild of current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who introduced the concept in 2004, several months after his ascension into premiership. This step was taken to project a moderate Islam, perhaps as an attempt to soften the ex-Prime Minister's rather hard-line declaration of Malaysia as an Islamic state three years earlier. A new and fresh ideology might have been deemed necessary for his administration. Interestingly, we are the sole country promoting Islam Hadhari as national policy, which means that its definition is based purely upon one interpretation of Islam - Malaysia's.

However, it has also been emphasised that Islam Hadhari is not a new religion or mazhab (denomination). According to the official Islam Hadhari website, it is an effort to bring the ummah back to the fundamentals as prescribed in the Quran and the Hadith. This piece does not seek to delve into the theological or philosophical aspects of Islam Hadhari, but to explore its practical expression in Malaysian society.

Multiracial and Multireligious Malaysia

Malaysia: Truly Asia, the tourism slogan, is a Malaysian reality as seen in its major religions represented by Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, and Sikhism. In such a diverse and multicultural society, the call for harmony has always been a commitment of the government. National unity is of prime importance, with a range of policies implemented to this end, from educational to national language and national service policies.

The introduction of Islam Hadhari as a universal framework for national development implies that it applies to all Malaysians. The question is this: does it contradict or complement the government's efforts at promoting national unity? The answer lies not in mere rhetoric, which unfortunately has been one of the criticisms of Islam Hadhari, but in its actual fleshing out of policy into practice.

One obvious indicator of whether Islam Hadhari will work constructively towards national unity or not is the public's response. It will therefore only serve to strengthen national solidarity if, and only if, all Malaysians alike receive it with welcoming arms.

A non-Muslim can only appreciate the Muslim point of view if three elements are accepted. First, that Islam Hadhari should be advocated, since it combines fundamental elements of true Islam with modern development. Second, Islam is holistically applicable in all spheres of life, private and public. The Quran and Hadith certainly provide clear principles for this purpose. Finally, Islamic values can and should be assimilated into all levels of society.

What then of the non-Muslim's response? Are Islam Hadhari's principles really universal in nature? The first of these is "Faith and piety in Allah". Adherents of religions that do not preach Allah would be uncomfortable with this requirement.

For the sake of argument, assuming these ten principles are indeed universal and sound, how realistic is it that they can be translated into universally accepted practices? This is the real point of contention.

Cause for Concern?

That non-Muslims increasingly find it difficult to reconcile a sole religion as the basis of socio-economic development is a given. Whether or not these concerns are justified is another question. A spate of recent incidents has served to perpetuate some fears.

In October 2005, a non-Muslim student complained that she was barred from her university convocation because she refused to wear the tudung. Early this year, a directive was issued for all policewomen, Muslim or not, to wear the tudung for official ceremonies. The failure of some girls to wear the tudung resulted in their removal from a school netball team. There have been recent incidents of Hindu temple cleansing in the Klang Valley, bulldozers completely obliterating 100-year-old deities. Local authorities want to prosecute couples for public indecency (holding hands) on the count this is un-Islamic. A forum discussing the rights of religious freedoms as held in the Federal Constitution was recently disrupted.

It is interesting to note that all these have taken place after the Islam Hadhari concept was introduced by Pak Lah himself in 2004.

I started with the premise that for Islam Hadhari to be considered constructive towards the government's national unity efforts, it should be acceptable to all Malaysians. Although its principles may ensure Malaysia's multiracial society will benefit, its implementation process has begun to stir some anxiety.

If recent cases listed above are examples of the actual expression of Islam Hadhari, suffice to say it will not be well received by the non-Muslim public.

If, however, these are not good examples, then greater effort must be taken by the government to ensure it truly intends for Islam Hadhari to live up to its name as a civilisational and progressive Islam.

The problem in Malaysia is that most issues, including religion, are politicised for vested interests. Islam Hadhari should not be yet another tool to gain political clout. Unless the government can circumvent this, I cannot see how Islam Hadhari will get an all-round approval. It needs to seriously consider how to cater to the 40% non-Muslim public. Their responses cannot be disregarded. This is detrimental as it forms the basis of socio-economic development for the next four years.

Both the principle and practice of any unifying policy must receive equal affirmation from all races in Malaysia.

If Islam Hadhari in principle is something whose values all Malaysians alike can readily accept, this will be a tool to unite the country's diverse peoples. However, if this cannot be equally translated into an all-encompassing set of practices, it is potentially divisive in nature and must be rectified urgently.

The writer is a research analyst with a policy institute. The views expressed are her own. Comments:

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