Malaysians are fascinated by Islamic preachers from outside even though these preachers live in societies plagued with violent radicalism, chaos, corruption, intellectual shallowness, low rates of literacy, racism and bigotry, not to mention how these societies view women, people of other religions and even child marriage.
We fail to see that the Hindu-Buddhist syncretist Malay cultures that have existed for centuries have shaped traditional Malay culture into a more sensible and enriching way of life than the imported cultures from the land of the Bedouins.
Looking at contemporary colonizing and reshaping of Malay society, we have failed to appreciate people like the late Teuku Zakaria Teuku Nyak Putih, commonly known as P. Ramlee, the talented Penang-born film actor, director, singer, songwriter, composer and producer once considered the iconic Malay entertainer in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia. We need to recognize that the teachings of this Malay sage, artist of life and messenger of peace are better than all the lectures of Mumbai preachers and others combined.
Distractions from abroad
Who needs people from the land of the Taliban, Deobandis, Wahabbis or sects strange to the Malays to tell the people here how to behave like Muslims, when these are the societies in which the leaders are not good models of progressive Islam themselves? It is time to get out of this ideological mess we have imported of teachings that are mainly interested in emphasizing the length of one’s robe and beard and how to maintain the subservience of women.
This has come up now because a controversial Indian-born Islamic preacher named Zakir Naik, who has been banned in the UK, is now in Malaysia on a lecture tour, what he calls a global dakwah, or preaching. The people are uneasy over his presence, to the point where one senior opposition politician in Penang called him a “Satan” and promptly got his office firebombed. Some want him to speak. Others want him to pack his bags and go back to India.
Zakir, who trained as a physician before turning to proselytizing, has been called the world's leading Salafi evangelist by some. Although he has publicly disclaimed sectarianism in Islam, many are suspicious that he is peddling Wahhabism, the radically conservative faith of Saudi Arabia.
The question over letting him speak is distracting Malaysians from focusing on the 1MDB money-laundering scandal, the revelations of the Panama Papers and the question of who is going to take over the country when the time comes for an inevitable change in leadership.
Go ahead and speak
But let us put this issue to rest. It is a simple matter. Let him speak. Maybe he has some good things to say but he has to understand how to speak with diplomacy in a multicultural and multi-religious society such as Malaysia in which people shun talk that can further divide different races and faiths.
Let him talk, as this is good for dialogue but make sure he is ready to talk sense and not blurt out nonsense, especially in matters of the history of science anatomy, psychology and the philosophy of major religions. Let the Malaysian audience judge the credibility of this speaker.
Certainly the Malaysian government must allow wider intellectual discourse to happen especially in our public universities - let Islamism, Liberalism, Marxism, Anarchism, ethical Humanism, Rock Kapak-ism and all kind of non-violent "isms" be allowed so that our students will not just be interested in more than making the biggest donuts, umbrellas of love or biggest anything just to get into the Malaysian Book of Records.
Let big ideas be the big thing in our biggest universities so that our future leaders will not grow up just to steal big money.
Honoring our culture
Recently Ibrahim Iskandar, the Sultan of Johor, called on Malays not to discard their unique culture, saying he was disturbed that some people want to stop Muslims from practicing the traditional salam greeting. He was sticking to “my customs and traditions as a Malay because I’m born Malay.” He said that if some Malaysians wish to be Arabs and practice Arab culture then "I welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is.”
The sultan said that during his annual trip around Johor state, he shook the hands of thousands of people including women.
“Why must I change? You do not have to be fanatic. If they [women] are not sure, I ask if they want to shake my hands. If they do not want to shake my hands, there is no problem,” he said.
I think Malaysians are now very tired of religious bigotry or any talk that amplifies religious phobia whether it be Islamophobia, Christianophobia, Hinduphobia or even Paganphobia. We are already as a nation phobic over the fate of our debt-ridden beloved country run by those we voted into power who turned into abusers, schemers, troublemakers, robbers and oppressors. We are tired. Let Zakir Naik speak, he too needs to make his ringgits and rupees before going back to Mumbai. Many Malay-Muslims adore him, anyway. After P Ramlee, what an irony.
Dr. Azly Rahman grew up in Johor Bahru and holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University and multiple Masters Degrees. He currently teaches in the United States