Non-Muslims Have a Right to Comment on Fatwas
The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir has warned non-Muslims not to turn the recent fatwa on yoga into a religious issue. He says in a Bernama Report 25 Nov 2008 Link
“If they (National Fatwa Council) believe it is wrong, then it is wrong. It is unfortunate that other people think that it is a slur on their religion. It is like saying Muslims should not eat pork, and it is not an insult to the Chinese. It is the same when Muslims cannot do yoga. It is not because they are insulting the Hindus.
“It is just that they should not do it. Whether the Malays follow it or not, that is really their business. Other people should not make it a religious issue. Like all other things forbidden among Muslims, it is not an insult to others.
Dr. Mahathir’s warning doesn’t make sense. How can a fatwa coming from an authoritative body that defines Islamic belief not be religious?
I agree with Dr. Mahathir on one point, that is, one should not feel insulted just because leaders from another religion take positions that are contrary to one’s religious beliefs. There is no need to take the fatwa that prohibits Muslims from practicing yoga as an insult to Hinduism. Let’s accept the fact that Muslims are entitled to their own viewpoint.
However, by the same token, Muslims should extend the same entitlement to non-Muslims. If Muslims can take the liberty to publicly reject the tenets of faith of another religion, then they should also grant the same liberty to non-Muslims to reject Islamic faith in public. On the same moral terms, they should not feel insulted if non-Muslims put up advertisements voicing their opinion that Quran cannot be the revealed word of God or that Muhammad cannot be God’s prophet.
Justice would require reciprocity in how we extend to each other the right to believe what we want to believe and reject what we are not persuaded of. Unfortunately, the track record of Muslim officials in Malaysia is the rejection of mutual entitlement and parity of religious freedom for all citizens.
Take for example, the case of the screening of a film on Jesus in cinemas. It is natural that the film is based on Biblical sources and Christian beliefs. Everyone watching the film is acting out of personal choice and indeed is willing to pay to watch the film. But the authorities require the cinema owners to screen a caveat stating that the claims of the film may not be acceptable to Muslims before they are allowed to screen the film on Jesus. This is truly an unnecessary imposition of Islamic belief onto the public (most of those watching are non-Muslims anyway). Nevertheless, even if we grant the wish/command of the authorities, reciprocity and justice would also require screening a similar caveat indicating that non-Muslims may not accept the claims of an Islamic film before it is screened in the cinemas or broadcasted on TV.
The example highlights the case that in theory Islamic scruples and prohibitions are only limited to Muslims but in practice Islamic officials extend the restrictions to non-Muslims. Such abuse of power is also evident in cases of moral policing by the authorities. For example, three years ago the authorities arrested a Chinese couple and charged them in court for displaying affections to one another in public. Recently, a non-Muslim Member of Parliament was prevented from moving around the Parliament on account that her dress was improper. Perhaps the original policies were intended for Muslims but over time the officials also take action against non-Muslims to enforce public compliance of Islamic conduct.
To be fair, the authorities are usually not so aggressive and insensitive in its moral policing. Nonetheless, the authorities do quietly and persistently impose Islamic standards that effectively marginalize, if not exclude, non-Islamic practices from the public arena. For example, pork sellers are quietly isolated and relegated to some obscure corners of the market since Muslims take objection to the sight of pigs. More seriously, the same Islamic scruples has led several state governments to attempt to ban and erase pig farming in their states (even though this industry has been going on for more than 200 years). It is telling that the government conveniently gave no help to restore a sophisticated, flourishing and profitable pig industry that was wiped out by the Nipah virus in Bukit Pelanduk. Of course, Islamic policy to prohibit consumption of pork applies only to Muslims, but authorities somehow conclude that this requires the eradication (to the extend it is able to enforce it) of pig farming even though the pigs are reared to be consumed by non-Muslims only.
Given such unpleasant experiences with enforcement of Islamic policy, the perception among non-Muslims is that public declaration and enforcement of Islamic policy is never ‘innocent’. The immediate objectives of these policies are purportedly to regulate the conduct of Muslims only, but in reality the policies are implemented without regard for the rights of non-Muslims. It is precisely the case that non-Muslims are seriously and unjustly affected by Islamic policy they have a right to speak up and join the public debate Islamic policy.
Even as I am writing this post, the latest news from Malaysiakini carries the following report:
Alcohol ban: Trouble brewing in Pakatan
Malaysiakini Nov 26, 08 1:43pm Link
Trouble appears to be brewing in the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat over the move by the Islamic-based PAS to push for an alcohol ban in Selangor.
In the wake of reports that Selangor PAS intended to impose a ban on the sale of alcohol at 7-11 outlets, mini-markets and coffee shops,…The news reports were based on a purported draft by PAS-appointed municipal councillors for a motion to ban the sale of alcohol which was to be tabled at the Klang municipal council monthly meeting today. However, the motion was not tabled.
This attempt to ban alcohol confirms the concerns of non-Muslims that fatwas invariably bring unjust consequences onto them.
Coming back to the fatwa that started the present controversy, it is useful to conduct an exercise in social analysis and conjecture how the fatwa on yoga will again bring injustice to non-Muslims even though it is purportedly an ‘innocent’ fatwa for Muslims only. Given the history of insensitivity towards the rights of non-Muslims it will surprise no one when the authorities eventually come out with specific regulations to restrict the practice of yoga. Books on yoga will be quietly confiscated by the Customs and booksellers will be advised (warned) not to import or display books on yoga on their shelves. Judging by how businessmen are easily intimidated by the authorities, compliance will follow accordingly. Yoga centres may be required to put up signs “Not for Muslims”. Yoga teachers will not get permits to set up their centres in popular public business districts. They will be asked to relocate to some fringe shop lots far from popular public gathering places.
(Just to set the records straight, I want to state here that I personally think that yoga ultimately is an expression of a religious worldview and that while in theory one may adopt some yoga postures for exercise at home without adopting its religious worldview, in practice, any serious pursuit of yoga (especially if it involves meditation and chanting of mantras) will slide into some form of religious practice. Still, my concern is that any restriction from the authorities to regulate the belief and practice of the non-Muslim religions is unjustified and a violation of religious freedom).
You may say the above conjecture is alarmist, but given the history of insensitive and brazen imposition of Islamic policy by the authorities what else can one expect? It is therefore unfair to demand that non-Muslims refrain from commenting on the fatwa. When non-Muslims voice their opinion on the fatwa, it is an expression of concern that the fatwa (like many Islamic moral policy in Malaysia) will again be extended to restrict their religious freedom. Dr. Mahathir betrays his own insensitivity to the concerns of non-Muslims when he warned them to keep quiet. Finally, to use Dr. Mahathir’s word, Muslims should not see it as an insult when non-Muslims disagree with a fatwa that disagrees with non-Muslims beliefs in the first place. In this regard, Dr. Mahathir’s warning is both inconsistent and misplaced.