Side Views

How Irshad Manji renewed my faith in Islam — Mooreyameen Mohamad

May 25, 2012

MAY 25 — I am a lousy Muslim. I don’t pray Five times a day. I don’t even go to the mosque four times a month. I try to make it to the mosque with my dad once a year for Raya but even then, it’s patchy.

I work hard, I am mostly honest. And I try to treat everyone with kindness and fairness. I feel that I am a good person. But a religious person I am not. Because of my Malay dad felt that a Chinese vernacular school would provide me with a better education I missed out on religious classes.

Because of my fair complexion I had been wrongly judged as ethnically Chinese all my life. Which is all been very convenient because I go to work, I try to be honest and I pay my bills, and I don’t get any hassle with all the religious rituals of prayers and mosques.

But I also felt rather bad. I don’t feel bad because I am less “Melayu”; I am old enough to have accepted everything that I am, become proud of and be pleased with who I am. I don’t feel bad because I am missing out of the community; I have my own friends and Unifi connection.

But I do feel bad about not knowing much about Islam. I see that word on my identification card and it’s like a foreign word to me. Worse still, I had no desire to know it. It was too hard in all sense of the word — unapproachable, judgmental, it has a bad reputation globally, and so much violence and killing were done in its name.

I work hard, and I try to be honest every day. I honestly cannot imagine myself wanting to get to know something like that.

Until I met Irshad Manji. I first heard of Irshad Manji when her talk at some local university was cancelled. The title of her talk was going to be “Islam and Democracy”. My cynical eyebrows were raised and thought nothing more of it. Then she was attacked in Jakarta. I asked myself, is she another Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

I was in The Hague, The Netherlands when Theo van Gogh was killed for making a video that angered many Muslims. The guy who killed him, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, said he had no regrets killing Theo van Gogh, whom he called an infidel.

This event shook The Netherlands; and I was an innocent bystander. Theo van Gogh was the great-grandson of Vincent van Gogh’s brother, and as such held a special place in Dutch society, who love their legacy of art, expression and creativity. His murder also highlighted the ease at which anyone with ill intentions can just walk up to their target and stab them to death.

Van Gogh was dead, his murderer caught and sentenced to life imprisonment. But who was to blame for all this? Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was a member of Dutch parliament at the time, had to go under protective custody for her scathing criticism of Islam and how Muslim women were being treated. To the rest of us, the rest of us who work hard at our jobs and try to be honest on a daily basis — the problem was Islam.

It was Islam that gave Muslims the belief they can treat women the way they do; and because of that Ayaan Hirsi Ali became the bitter woman that she was, and because of her Theo van Gogh made this controversial film that angered more Muslims. This led to his murder in a public place, right in front of his house.

It was because of Islam that the Dutch people didn’t feel safe in their own country. It was because of Islam that the Dutch government had to spend (mostly Christian) tax payers’ money to clean up this mess.

The impact of the event went further than that. From then onwards I felt ashamed to be a Muslim. When people remember that I come from Malaysia, a Muslim country, I could also see a hint of fear in their eyes, brief as it were, irrational as it may have been. There I was, hard worker, honest 97 per cent of the time, being suspected of being capable of murder. Because of Islam.

Is Islam really like that? I wouldn’t know. I never had any meaningful discussion with anyone about it. My Muslim friends generally fall under two categories: those who think Theo deserved what he got because of his artist’s provocative interpretation of Islam, and those who would rather avoid the subject.

I don’t think Theo should have been killed, therefore I also avoided the subject. Yes, he made some rather shocking images that he intended as representation of what he thinks Islam is. But he was an artist — whose role in society is to provoke thoughts and conversation. Unfortunately, to the extremists, he provoked his own murder.

To my own surprise, I was quite shaken by the event and expressed my confused feelings in a painting: I Did Not Kill Theo Van Gogh. Because I felt I had to say that to people. Here I was — a non-practising Muslim, a Muslim in name but not in action, a Muslim only for official form-filling purposes — being tarred with the same brush as inarticulate, violent murderers and extremists whose spheres of existence never ever overlapped with mine, as far as I knew or cared.

The one good thing about living in a country that is not yours is that when it all gets a bit too much, you can just leave and go back to your own.

Back in Malaysia, people are generally not violent, at least as far as I believe. And the best thing is, there is even less talk about Islam, except in archaic and irrelevant terms. Which suited me fine because when you are trying to avoid a subject, there’s nothing more convenient than the subject matter experts talking about it in irrelevant terms.

Then I heard Irshad Manji describe her religion. She described compassion, generosity, love and liberty, and Ijtihad, critical thinking within Islam. She talked about how young confused Muslims reconcile their modern problems with Islam, through interpretations that is modern and inclusive.

She clarified the common confusion between culture and religion, which I, and many of my generation, are struggling with because so many of us live in multicultural societies that are not Arab-centric.

For one who had been viewing the Muslim world with trepidation, fear and suspicion, I thought Irshad Manji offered sorely needed hope. For one who had been disappointed and shy about the violent behaviour of my fellow Muslims, I was excited that Irshad Manji offered calm and compassion. For one who had been at a loss about what to do with my belief in God, I finally found a way through Irshad Manji’s illuminating insights.

For the first time in my life, I was excited about being a Muslim. I am excited about reading the Quran. I feel I want to reach out to other young Muslims and talk to them about being modern Muslims. We are not medieval tribes protecting our turfs against the invasion of barbarians wielding swords and sabres, attempting to pillage our huts, women and children.

We are intelligent, creative, curious, questioning, impatient to create a peaceful world for ourselves that is as free from the baggage of the past as possible. We are not and don’t want to be racist, separatist, divisive, bigoted, sexist.

We want to be compassionate, humble, inclusive, and accepting. We thrive on diversity; we thrive on knowledge, openness and love in all its shapes and forms.

According to Irshad Manji, all that is possible within Islam.

Why anyone would ban such a strong, positive advocate of Islam, is beyond me.

* Mooreyameen Mohamad reads The Malaysian Insider

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.