June 5, 2010
The Muslim world isn’t exactly synonymous with tolerance and reason, though one might expect to find it in larger doses in the “moderate model nation” of Malaysia.
But postings on prominent blogs and websites and marches to the US Embassy (no that’s not a misprint!) over Israel’s confrontation with a belligerent flotilla off the coast of Gaza Monday are further proof that intolerance is gnawing away even at the Muslim world’s perceived moderate fringe.
After midday prayer Friday, women and children joined thousands of protesters chanting “Go to hell Israel” and “Allah will destroy Israel” and “Long Live Islam,” while others predictably burned the Israeli flag.
Police presence was low despite the marchers not having a permit (in a country where all gatherings of more than five people without a permit is illegal and regularly used to silence dissent).
My column advocating the use of facts and context in judging Monday’s confrontation made readers so uncomfortable that they, telling by the comments, apparently mistook the piece to be a defense of Israel’s policies (and in the process unwittingly proved the column’s premise).
A Malaysian NGO run by a supposedly moderate Muslim intellectual posted a statement by Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei condemning Israel’s disregard for human rights in Monday’s episode.
Malaysia’s former strongman Mahathir Mohamad, known for his anti-western and anti-Semitic outbursts, stated on his blog that the “claim that the people on the ships are carrying sharp objects is ridiculous,” and lamented the “rogue state’s use [of] violence and killings against unarmed people on a mission of charity.” The entry garnered 118 comments, more than a few of which called for the destruction of Israel: (“A Terrorist state should be BOMBED to Oblivion! An Ally to a Terrorist state should also be BOMBED! — Do the Bush,” read one.)
No nuance. No recognition of complexity. Blind omission of Hamas’ stated aim of destroying Israel; of the 4,000 rockets the terrorist group has fired at the Jewish state, and how an end to the blockade would all but ensure rearmament and more terrorist activities carried out against the country; of Israel’s offer to inspect the goods and transfer them to Gaza; of Israel’s need to protect its own security in a desert of anti-Semitic neighbors (though personally I am of the opinion that finding a way to achieve this without leaving 1.5 million Palestinians destitute is long overdue). No mention of why oh why you would start clubbing armed commandos. (Here in Africa, I’m surrounded by armed groups of various sorts but you won’t find me setting out on them with sticks and clubs the next time they stop me at a roadblock.)
The general consensus seemed to be that Israel is a serial murderer, and as such it’s perfectly legitimate to judge him guilty of cold-blooded murder without due process the next time murder comes to town.
It would be incorrect to dismiss these disturbing episodes as either isolated incidents or attributable to the fact that the Palestinian issue hits a raw nerve with Muslims nearly everywhere.
While the Palestinian issue has been known to draw the worst out of Malaysians, the attitudes on display are symptomatic of a broader shift from moderation. To be sure many demonstrators in Kuala Lumpur Friday were aligned with mainstream political parties.
In my seven years in Malaysia (ending in March) I lived through a pronounced hardening of Muslim sensibilities, to the point that, rather than lead, the so-called archetype of moderation has followed much of the Muslim world down the self-destructive path bitterly removed from Enlightenment ideals.
This regression is partly a response to the plight of the Palestinians, and perceptions of injustice against Muslims more broadly. It’s also related to the failure of the ethnically and religiously estranged nation to find common cause and direction amid the high-stakes realities of the 21st century.
Other contributing factors include the Malay community’s refusal to reflect, and accept self-responsibility; a stubborn anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism that is taught in homes and spread through state-sponsored media; a lazy acceptance of conspiracy theories (inevitably starring the Jews and Americans); a destructive and naïve belief in the 1,400-year-old faith’s superiority, serving as a gateway to intolerant retreat. Of course these tendencies are not hard to find elsewhere in the rest of the Muslim world.
The sad part is there have been few if any powerful Muslim Malay voices of moderation that have risen to challenge these destructive trends – voices that denounce dualism, that celebrate logic over dogma, that dispel the community’s misguided fears and resentments.
Mahathir, for instance, arguably remains the most influential elder spokesperson of the Malay community but more often than not has negatively portrayed the West in simplistic and conspiratorial terms to an ignorant public. Knowing, for instance, that his people knew little about Jews and Western culture, he successfully vilified them as neo-colonialists or terrorists bent on the Muslim world’s destruction, inculcating paranoia and hatred where there may have been openness and confidence. Top leaders of the corrupt and narrow-minded political party he left behind, UMNO, have proved no less willing during his departure to challenge the drift. To make matters worse, Malaysia is a hierarchical society unaccustomed to questioning its leaders and thus highly susceptible to indoctrination.
What the Malay community did have amid the creeping conservatism was a government that was skilled at giving the impression of moderation. It sold itself to the world as a pearl of modernity, and the world sang its praises. That mirage was shattered with the bombing of more than a dozen churches in January – apparently in response to a dispute over the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims.
Malay leaders and many everyday Malays were shocked and shamed by the attacks. But they never looked deep inside to examine what ills plaguing the community may have inspired such barbarity.
Monday’s clash off the coast of Gaza has ensured the pressing need is put off a while longer, while political leaders use the incident for political mileage and Malaysian Muslims join the rest of the Islamic world in a bloodthirsty celebration of its own stunted development.