November 19, 2006

Wary of Arab voices, West promotes Malay views on Islam

I came across this story recently in The Halal Journal, a Malaysian magazine that focuses on various aspects of "halalness" (primarily with regard to halal food, but also on Islamic finance, environmentalism, etc.). Reuters published the story in late September, but this was the first time I came across the article.

I have mixed emotions about this idea of translating the works of Malay Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc., into English. It's not that the works of the Malay Muslims shouldn't be translated; I think that the ummah would benefit if more works on Islam worldwide were translated into numerous languages, including but not limited to English. Ideas such as Islam Hadhari deserve a wider audience than just the greater Malay community here in SE Asia.

However, what worries me are the motives these foundations and governments have in doing these self-funded translations. The article claims "Arab radicalism," but that's an extremely weak argument in my book. Islam <> "Arab radicalism." Moreover, I'm also concerned about other aspects of the translations: Who chooses what is to be translated and what are the criterion for those choices? (Don't tell me there won't be an agenda in the selection of what should be translated, especially when government funding is involved.) How accurate will the translations be? Will these be MEMRI-style hachet jobs? I'm extremely, extremely leery of non-Muslims being involved in this type of work.

Western governments and institutions, eager to dilute what they see as Arab radicalism, are actively encouraging the translation of works by Malay-speaking Muslims from across Southeast Asia. Drawn to the region's history of pluralism and its recent experience with democracy, supporters say Islamic thought from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand has a lot to offer the modern world -- if only language were not a barrier. But some experts say the traditions of Islam, its heart and head rooted in the Arab Middle East, and the insular nature of the approximately 234 million Malay Muslims themselves, could blunt the effort's impact.

"There is very progressive thought in Indonesia, but it doesn't get out," said Robin Bush, of the U.S.-based Asia Foundation, which helped launch the budding translation movement. The perception is Southeast Asia is much more complex, historically and culturally" than the Arab world, said Bush, deputy head of the Asia Foundation's Indonesia office.

Funding for the effort has also come from such organizations as the Ford Foundation, with additional support from Western embassies.

"Too much of the Islamic tradition derives from the Middle East, from so many centuries ago," said Lily Zakiyah Munir, a Jakarta-based intellectual promoting Malay Muslim writings. We want to show the relevance of contemporary (religious) issues ... and promote the humanitarian side of the religion," she said.

Few Malay-Muslims write in English or Arabic and even fewer Muslims outside the region know the Malay languages. Later plans call for translations directly into Arabic. Among those produced so far are "Understanding Women in Islam: An Indonesian Perspective," by Syafiq Hasym, and "Indonesia, Islam, and Democracy," by Azyumardi Azra. Both books are said to highlight modernist elements in Southeast Asian Islam: the relatively prominent role for women in public life; and general support for democratic norms and practices.

Proponents also say Islam's history of gradual spread throughout the region, by commercial interests and cultural advance rather than battle, makes it an effective counterweight to the traditions of the tumultuous Arab world.

"Indonesia is a moderate Muslim country and these views can be very helpful in contrast to the militant voice of Arab Muslims today," said a diplomat from one Western country that helped fund the translations.

But Vali Nasr, an expert on contemporary Islam at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterrey, California, said such works were unlikely to find acceptance among Arab Muslims. "Arabs are perfectly happy to export their ideas, but they are not very good at importing," he said by telephone.

What's more, important developments in Southeast Asian Muslim societies, such as the advance of pluralistic democracy, were never seen as universal prescriptions.

"Indonesia and Malaysia have their own form of Islam that is much more integrated into the globalized world, but it was only for local consumption. They don't claim to be a spokesman for Islam, and the Arabs don't want them. It's not a linguistic problem," Nasr said.

1 comment:

haxa said...

Sheih's Kickdefella's posting titled "Eighty-five Malaysian and one Malay fella" made me think the whole morning and this is my feedback to his entry.
I'd love to hear what you have to say on this topic.

You can read Sheih's entry on this URL:

And here goes my comment:

It’s interesting to note from Pak Lah interview with Business Week Asia’s John Defterios on Malaysian racial harmony sustainability for the future; our PM starts talking on the Islam Hadhari model in response to John's final question of the interview.

I think the main issue with Islam Hadhari is labeling. The label Hadhari makes it all confusing to general public; I have non-Muslim friends asking me whether Islam Hadhari is in the same category as Sunni, Shiah, or Wahabi; and we are already having hard time in the media on the fundamentalist-liberal labels on Islam.

Interesting point you made here on Madinah. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his famous Madinah Traeaty wrote and ratified ten agreements with the Muslims, the non-Muslim Arabs and the Jews.

I wonder whether Pak Lah or Tunku Abdul Rahman who founded this idea (under different name) might have modeled the 10 Principles of Islam Hadhari after the Madinah Treaty and putting it in the context of Malaysia.

Here’s the famous Madinah Treaty and you can compare and contrast this list with the 10 principles of Islam Hadhari and find out yourself whether Islam Hadhari is rethoric, redundant, or being used by this administration as a political mileage:

[1] “In the name of Allah (The One True God) the Compassionate, the Merciful. This is a document from Muhammad, the Prophet, governing the relation between the Believers from among the Qurayshites (i.e., Emigrants from Mecca) and Yathribites (i.e., the residents of Medina) and those who followed them and joined them and strived with them. They form one and the same community as against the rest of men.

[2] “No Believer shall oppose the client of another Believer. Whosoever is rebellious, or seeks to spread injustice, enmity or sedition among the Believers, the hand of every man shall be against him, even if he be a son of one of them. A Believer shall not kill a Believer in retaliation of an unbeliever, nor shall he help an unbeliever against a Believer.

[3] “Whosoever among the Jews follows us shall have help and equality; they shall not be injured nor shall any enemy be aided against them…. No separate peace will be made when the Believers are fighting in the way of Allah…. The Believers shall avenge the blood of one another shed in the way of Allah ….Whosoever kills a Believer wrongfully shall be liable to retaliation; all the Believers shall be against him as one man and they are bound to take action against him.

[4] “The Jews shall contribute (to the cost of war) with the Believers so long as they are at war with a common enemy. The Jews of Banu Najjar, Banu al-Harith, Banu Sa’idah, Banu Jusham, Banu al-Aws, Banu Tha’labah, Jafnah, and Banu al-Shutaybah enjoy the same rights and priviledges as the Jews of Banu Aws.

[5] “The Jews shall maintain their own religion and the Muslims theirs. Loyalty is a protection against treachery. The close friends of Jews are as themselves. None of them shall go out on a military expedition except with the permission of Muhammad, but he shall not be prevented from taking revenge for a wound.

[6] “The Jews shall be responsible for their expenses and the Believers for theirs. Each, if attacked, shall come to the assistance of the other.

[7] “The valley of Yathrib (Medina) shall be sacred and inviolable for all that join this Treaty. Strangers, under protection, shall be treated on the same ground as their protectors; but no stranger shall be taken under protection except with consent of his tribe….No woman shall be taken under protection without the consent of her family.

[8] Whatever difference or dispute between the parties to this covenant remains unsolved shall be referred to Allah and to Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah. Allah is the Guarantor of the piety and goodness that is embodied in this covenant. Neither the Quraysh nor their allies shall be given any protection.

[9] “The contracting parties are bound to help one another against any attack on Yathrib. If they are called to cease hostilities and to enter into peace, they shall be bound to do so in the interest of peace; and if they make a similar demand on Muslims it must be carried out except when the war is agianst their religion.

[10] “Allah approves the truth and goodwill of this covenant. This treaty shall not protect the unjust or the criminal. Whoever goes out to fight as well as whoever stays at home shall be safe and secure in this city unless he has perpetrated an injustice or commited a crime…. Allah is the protector of the good and God-fearing people.”