Why the flurry of fatwas in Malaysia?

Why the flurry of fatwas in Malaysia?
Syed Azmi Abhalshi, the man behind the "I Want to Touch A Dog" event.

In the space of a month, Malaysian Muslims have been made aware that they are forbidden to touch dogs without urgent reason, celebrate Halloween and be associated to Sisters in Islam (SIS), a non-governmental organisation working to improve the rights of Muslim women.

There has also been a hue and cry by conservative Muslims over Oktoberfest, the German beer festival that was celebrated in Selangor by non-Muslims last month.

The flurry of fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by clerics is perceived as a broad pushback against what conservative Muslims view as attacks by liberal Muslims and non-Muslims against Islam as Malaysia's official religion.

The pushback came from different sources.

The National Fatwa Council, the highest body of clerics that is backed by the Malaysian government, issued the separate fatwas against the touching of dogs and Halloween.

The declaration that SIS was deviant for spreading "liberalism and pluralism" was made by the Selangor religious authorities, which work under the Sultan of Selangor.

And Oktoberfest was slammed by several conservative clerics in opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). They were joined in criticising the October event by pro-Umno Malay right-wing groups.

These moves have come under intense scrutiny, with different groups calling for and against what some describe as growing Islamic conservatism, or to some, "manufacturing a siege mentality" among the majority Malays to shore up political support.

These fatwas have added to other local controversies - from the banning of yoga for Muslims to several high-profile inter-faith disputes that have split mixed-marriage couples as well as a court decision banning the use of the word "Allah" for God in a Christian publication.

Why the flurry of fatwas now?

Right-wing Malays have increasingly banged the gong in recent years over alleged attempts by Christian, atheist or liberal Muslim elements to shake their faith.

"These events are held to test the moral limits or religion. It may be done by atheists who want to shake one's faith," said Mr Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, head of Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, a right-wing Malay-Muslim group, in reference to Halloween.

There has also been concern among Muslim leaders that human rights are being pushed as a key agenda by a section of liberal- minded activists.

Even Prime Minister Najib Razak himself has invoked a new foe in the form of "human rightism".

"Human rightism... is deviationist in glorifying the desires of man alone and rejects any value system that encompasses religious norms. We will not tolerate any demands or right to apostasy by Muslims," he said in May.

Others in his ruling Umno have followed suit, and the party is set to amend its Constitution later this month to define Islam as that which is practised by Sunnis only.

"The clause needs to be amended as there is a lot of confusion among Muslims. There are the Shi'ites and the Milah Abraham group who claim to be Muslims but what they practise is strange," said Mr Jamil Khir Baharom, who is Islamic Affairs Minister as well as Umno's head of religious affairs.

There are also concerns that government leaders are using race and religion to create a siege mentality among Muslims.

"Combined with the escalating use of the Sedition Act, we can't run away from the idea that this is about silencing people," said former Umno deputy minister Saifuddin Abdullah. He was referring to the arrests and charges this year faced by dozens who have spoken up against the judiciary, government and monarchs - who are the heads of Islam in Malaysia.

Datuk Saifuddin, who heads Datuk Seri Najib's Global Movement of Moderates - a government agency dedicated to combating extremism - told The Sunday Times: "There are those in my party who think that to win the next election, they must be the guardian of Malays. You can only be the guardian when there are threats."

When news of the fatwa against SIS broke, some in the opposition PAS accused the NGO of "using feminist issues... to boldly challenge Islamic fundamentals".

"It's hard to believe conservative factions in Umno and PAS are not encouraging this siege mentality. The more Muslims feel threatened, whether by real or imagined foes, the more they maintain their grip," Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the think-tank IDEAS, told The Sunday Times.

Recent edicts in Malaysia

Fatwas are religious edicts that either advise or instruct Muslims on prohibitions and on their duties.

In Malaysia, there is a National Fatwa Council which, besides issuing these edicts, also oversees the state-level fatwa committees. As Islam is under the jurisdiction of state governments, it is the state religious departments that ultimately act on these edicts.

Fatwas can be issued quite spontaneously as responses to queries from Muslims, but there are those that are laid down as law with the consent of the state ruler.

According to the Syariah Criminal Offences Act, it is a crime punishable by up to two years' jail and a RM3,000 (S$1,160) fine, to disobey, defy or offer an opinion contrary to a gazetted fatwa.

And though Malaysia's monarchs are largely ceremonial institutions, in the administration of Islam they wield nearly absolute power as heads of the religion in their states.

On dogs

The National Fatwa Council last month decreed that both saliva and sweat from a dog are unclean, therefore making its whole body unclean. It said touching dogs without a pressing reason, such as saving its life, is haram (forbidden). Dogs can be kept with justifiable reasons such as to guard a house or for hunting, but Muslims cannot have dogs as pets.

On Halloween

The National Fatwa Council last month called Halloween a Christian festival to remember the dead, including Christian saints and martyrs, but also said it is influenced by ancient pagan traditions and linked to the devil, sorcery, ghosts and scary mythological creatures. The council said this is clearly against Islamic values and cannot be celebrated by Muslims.

On Sisters in Islam

The Selangor Islamic Religious Council ruled in July that those who hold to liberalism and religious pluralism are deviant, naming only SIS specifically as one such body. Their publications are thus forbidden and should be seized or censored by the authorities.


This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
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