Friday, October 06, 2006

Islam and Modernity: The Writers' Perspective

Hope the Jarkata Post can forgive me for swiping one of its articles in its entirety, but I thought you'd find it interesting. Dina was involved in a panel discussion Understanding Islam in a Modern World, along with writers Qaisra Shahraz and Ziauddin Sardar. The writers were interviewed by Trisha Sertori the previous day. (You can access the newspaper archives for free but need to register first.)

I'm sad I had to miss the panel but I was moderating at the other venue in the same time slot. I did manage to catch Ziauddin Sardar (left) in a Meet the Author session later on.

He very kindly gave me a signed copy of his Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim which I had been eyeing for some time in Mr. Raman's shop.
Muslims should 'hold up the mirror', say writers in Ubud

Monday, October 02, 2006 Trisha Sertori, Contributor, Ubud, Bali

Writers on Islam here say that introspection among Muslims, apart from trying to better understand non-Muslims, would eventually lead to more neutral ground and understanding.

Qaisra Shahraz and Ziauddin Sardar, based in the United Kingdom, and Malaysian-born Dina Zaman were among those taking part in the 2006 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival who spoke with The Jakarta Post.

Sardar's books, including Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, examine and critique Islam from the broad view. Shahraz's works, such as The Holy Woman and Typhoon, lift the veil on women in Islam and their choices, while Zaman's work in progress, I am Muslim, is a collection of articles, often humorous, from her column for the controversial Malaysia.kini online news agency.

Sardar said: "I see my job as undermining the myths that Muslims hold about the West and also undermining the myths the West holds about Islam."

At the same time, he said, "I try to undermine the self-held myths of Islam and the West. We need to hold up the mirror on both sides ...."

An opening of consciousness to the modern world by Muslims is also a necessity, added Sardar, who said many Muslims held onto the past, even moving into that past, in a bid to protect themselves from a modern world that is difficult to understand.

One way of coping with modernity has been moving to "an Arabization of Islam", he said. "What Muslims need to do is engage with modernity. There is no Muslim nation better equipped to do that than Indonesia because of the existing sheer complexities and diversities of Islam we find here."

Pakistani-born Shahraz said living in Britain has deeply informed her view of Islam and the difficulties faced by minorities, particularly since the rise of fundamentalism.

"I am daily faced with racism for being Muslim. My younger sister chose at 13 years of age to wear the scarf, as so many women in Europe have, as a way of fighting back. This situation has grown more and more intolerable since Sept. 11."

She cited the Muslim professor Akbar Ahmed who said "a select few have hijacked the engine of a global religion and by their actions have involved millions".

"We, as the millions, now have to challenge extremism; fight it, crush it," said Shahraz. The fact that a number of terrorists have come from the UK has added to the difficulties for Muslims in that country, Shahraz says. She adds that she needs to show daily, by her actions as well as her books, that Muslims in Britain are just like anyone else.

"I am always battling the West's perception of women in Islam that has, wrongly, become associated with oppression and violence, mistakenly expressed by the West in the symbol of the scarf. I choose not to wear a scarf, but thousands of women in Europe do, not from oppression, but striking out against the forces that would impose laws on how women choose to follow their religion -- how they should dress."

This is the subject of her book The Holy Woman, the Indonesian translation of which was launched in Ubud.

Shahraz said respect for Muslims themselves and those of other faiths, and the opening of dialog and self-examination is the only path that will return Islam to its place as one of the world's great religions.

The "silent majority" of Muslims, she said, "are caught between the two extremes of fundamentalism on the Islamic side and the media on the Western side".

Zaman said her view of Islam was informed by her native country, Malaysia, although she has spent most of her life abroad as the daughter of a diplomat.

"It was in the UK when I was doing my master's degree that I met many Muslims and I grew fascinated by Islam, so I returned to Malaysia to rediscover my faith, my people and my country."

In her columns, she said, "I felt it was important to inject some quirky humor into the discussion on Islam -- there had been enough of polemic and debate. I wanted to see what was really at the heart of Malaysia's Muslims."

She discovered that besides a return to the shamanic elements of Malaysia's earliest faiths by "good" Muslims, there was also a growing reactionary and unforgiving movement among her peers.

"In spite of what we say about Malaysia, and yes we are Muslims, we are also going back to our old shamanic rituals. There is currently a great insecurity in people here and they are looking for the miraculous," said Zaman.

She added that this insecurity was also raising a knee-jerk, puritanical element among young people.

"I was really surprised. I am divorced and my parents are very strict, very good Muslims from Kelantan, a fundamentalist state in Malaysia. My father was so supportive, he just said this is great, you can get on with your career and travel," said Zaman. However she said her friends were less relaxed about her status as a divorced woman.

"Young Muslims, the educated ones I had expected to be more enlightened, were very reactionary and negative toward my divorce. I'm not sure if that was just religious or a display of the competitiveness now in Kuala Lumpur," said Zaman.

The need for openness and the courage to honestly look within is at the forefront of Zaman's view of Islam in the future. She says she hopes "we will not allow racial and religious arrogance to get in the way of harmony" in multicultural Malaysia.

"We have serious problems such as a growing AIDS population, particularly among heterosexual women whose husbands are unfaithful, poverty and more. If we want to hold ourselves up as an Islamic country we have to look at these issues -- like it or not.

"As writers our responsibility is to engage and find solutions and uphold the universal values that are Islam," said Zaman. "I also think we are in for some exciting times so I'll be at my desk writing about it all."


Giant Sotong said...

That's tellin' 'em!

And welcome back, Sharon and Dina.

Good weekend!

Greenbottle said...

ah,one of my fav topics. ,

I don't quite understand Zaiudin zardar's point..."many Muslims held onto the past, even moving into that past, in a bid to protect themselves from a modern world "

i've never met any muslims that are against modernity as such(though met a few hippies who want to go back to stone age) but if you consider muslims' obligation to retain their islamic practise pure and unadulterated including the implementation of syariah laws (or sharon's law as some non muslims call it)well yes...for better or worse unlike some, Islam is not very open to reformation or wild personal interpretations and it would be a long long time before we see say, a gay Imam in Islam...

Shahraz cited the Muslim professor Akbar Ahmed who said "a select few have hijacked the engine of a global religion and by their actions have involved millions..."

These days it's fashionable to tar muslims who fight for Islam as terrorists...thanks to the media which hammer this 24 hrs a day into our heads...if osama is a terrorist , then by the same logic bush is even a worse one... but do we hear anybody hunting bush? i've always said these so called muslim terrorists... they are nothing more than REACTION to what they percieved as injustice done to them...not that i condone their simplistic response to these injustice, but that's a separate issue...

and i don't understand Dina Zaman's point "we are also going back to our old shamanic rituals."

What shamanistic rituals you're referring to? care to elaborate?

btw, surprise to know that ms zaman is a kelantanese...she ought to understand kelantanese islamic psyche well...i'm one of them....

animah said...

Well I certainly feel my religion has been hijacked. I don't believe my religion forces belief on anyone. I don't believe there is any justification for violence. Islam means peace and surrender for goodness sake. Can I go after all those who have hijacked my religion for insulting Islam. I don't believe I should because I believe in free will and that we ourselves will have to deal with the consequences of our actions. It is not for us to tell others how to behave.

The sad fact is that for every Muslim with liberal views, there are probably 10 who are hardcore fanatics (I'm beginning to sound like Anonymous and making statements that I can't substantiate, sorry) - but perhaps if you just chat with Muslims on the street of KL, you might just reach the same conclusion.

I don't have the answer and I don't know how to get through to them. It is very disheartening.

lil ms d said...

this is what happens when our interviews are truncated just to fir the word limit of a feature essay :)

green bottle - we talked about the clash of the old and new in Malaysia, and how some people, in spite of their education, careers etc, resort to bomohs etc in order to succeed. talked also about how this 'business' booms during elections too! it was just an example of life in Muslim Malaysia.

sardar's piece about holding on to the past - he was talking about British Muslims, and how they keep on holding to a few traditions that may not be keeping with Islam's true nature and the times.

anyway green bottle - feel free to drop me a line at

animah - hear hear!

selamat berbuka to those that are fasting!

lil ms d said...

ps. you should post nasir's and kadek's photos up here. i am sure nasir would love the attention, the flirt that he is!

dreamer idiot said...

Greenbottle is mistaken nad misguided to think that there are nobody attacking George Bush and co for fomenting a deep 'civilisational' divide. There are also many in the West and 'left-wing liberals' (as Bush condemns them) who are trying to bring about policy change, and just like 'liberal' Muslims ( as you so deemd them to be) who seek to engage the West in their wrongs, misconceptions and failures.

If people were to stick narrowly to the idea of 'consequent' reacion, there is no possibly of transcending such divide, and perhaps, worse yet, missing the whole point of the true heart of religion for peace.

dreamer idiot said...

Greenbottle, in case you are interested, Terry Eagleton, the literary and cultural critic wrote an atticle two years ago on how 'some' acts of 'terrorism' were a symptom of desperation against social injustice. There are also others like him in the West (more than you think) who also point such things out 9but they aren't not here). If one were to stick simply to a 'monolithic' idea of the 'evil' West, while not recognising the others on the 'other' side who want to bridge the divide, one only worsen the division and cause the impossibility of mutual understanding.

'holding mirrors to themselves', there will only be mutual enmity.

As is noted in the above article, criticisms should be both ways, 'holding the mirror to both oneself and the other'. In this respect, both the 'western' and 'muslim' media equally fail to highlight the efforts of mutual engagement. For example, do our own media ever highlight the efforts of some organisations in the 'west' to block off investments to israel for military purposes, or the 'private' donations made to the Palestinians? No, they haven't either.

I am deeply skeptical of political leaders and the media in general... and only dimly, forlornly hope that it is those ordinary people who see beyond barriers join hands across boarders and bring about understanding and change. But, what hope have we.... when these are the meek, 'un-powerful' and 'un-political'.

dreamer idiot said...

oops, typo..sorry, sharon

Greenbottle said...

dear ms animah,

you sound like cnn.and you say you don't believe there is any justification for violence. Ok consider this scenario...a guy comes to your house, kicks the door in, enters, grab your young child by the legs, bashes her head against the wall, throws her into the garbage bin. the guy comes toward you, grabs your hair, gives you a couple of slaps, rips your clothes off,and rapes you...and after all these you wanna say to him, " oh thanks. now let me serve you some tosai"?...for that's basically what the US is doing to agfanistan and iraq and expect these countries to thank them in return. so i hope you understand a bit how some brave extremists feel and react...

mr dreamer idiot;

i don't believe i'm misguided or mistaken. i know full well that there are some voices - in the west included - that criticize bush etc (and often very eloquently and persuasively too) but unfortunately these voices are drowned by the huge roar of the rumsfelds of the world and the fox and cnn and the rest...and i repeat i don't see anybody hunting bush and want to kill him as he and the rest of the world seems intent on doing to osama...

i applaud your wish and hope and fully agree that we should bridge the devide and achieve mutual understanding and 'holding the mirror to both oneself and the other'...

and it would go a very long way towards this if for a start the US gets the hell out of iraq and afghanistan and stop the double standard dealings when it comes to israel/palestinian issues...

and ms zaman;

yes, i kind of guess what you actually meant. but if the piece came out so lopsided i tend to question the quality of that article...and ah, yes i will e-mail you.

bibliobibuli said...

mr ... ms ... ms ... why the sudden formality, encik greenbottle? *LOL*

i applaud your wish and hope and fully agree that we should bridge the devide and achieve mutual understanding and 'holding the mirror to both oneself and the other'...

me too.

brave extremists

extremists of any kind and on any side terrify me. these are the guys who propogate hatreds. we have to pull right back from extremism ...

are terrorists brave? suicide bombers? i shudder to think that anyone should see them as role models to emulate.

we all ('cept DI for distance reasons) could have a coffee and debate in bangsar after hari raya ... what do you think??

madcap machinist said...

we all ('cept DI for distance reasons)... heheheh...

Greenbottle said...

ah madame bibs...when i put my taliban turban on i guess i ought to be extra careful and be a bit more civil than usual...just in case i get too out of control...ha ha..

that's not a bad idea to have a depa-raya-pre x/mas gathering ....but why not; DI can come too: malaysia isn't that big...and air asia is cheap...

Greenbottle said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bibliobibuli said...

okay ... put a sprig of holly in your taliban turban then

lil ms d said...

is anyone affected by the haze? i can't breathe!

bibliobibuli said...

it's bad,ms d

here smells of burning too

and when i was flying home the smell of burning was so bad even in the air i thought the plane was on fire - and the cloud of smoke was so dense and thick, just couldn't believe it

last day of the festival i told the journalists and translator from sumatera "do you know how malaysians feel? do you know how angry they're getting? you'd better go and write about this in your newspapers!"

year after year and nothing happens to end it.

animah if i can put my signature to anything or go demonstrate, i want to.

dreamer idiot said...

Greenbottle, I'm in malaysia too, and also 'choking' from the haze. I can't believe that it's so bad that it reached my peaceful, idyllic corner.

Hope all of us can enjoy the raya holidays/ celebrations without haze.

Anonymous said...

"Ok consider this scenario...a guy comes to your house, kicks the door in, enters, grab your young child by the legs, bashes her head against the wall, throws her into the garbage bin. the guy comes toward you, grabs your hair, gives you a couple of slaps, rips your clothes off,and rapes you...and after all these you wanna say to him, " oh thanks. now let me serve you some tosai"?..."

Funniest thing I've read for a long time :) the last part does soound like what some people actually do with S&M though.. so I can see the tosai being offered at the end :)