Moderate Islam Off Our Doorstep: Malaysia's Prime Minister Looks to Calm the Winds of Radicalism

The Prime Minister of a majority-Muslim country, a strong U.S. ally, and one of the foremost voices for moderate Islam on Earth — real, serious Islam, the kind to which President Bush referred when he spoke of a “religion of peace” — gave a speech at Oxford today. It was a serious speech, a speech that grappled with real problems, and a speech that did not deny the violence done in Islam’s name, even while demanding that religious violence end.

It was, of course, basically a non-news event here.

This is a shame, and a burgeoningly tragic one at that. Najib Razak, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, has been on a more or less singular crusade to convince the Muslim world — and the West — that there is a path for moderate Islam in the world, that Islam does not equal terror, and that the taking of a life is contrary to Islam and civilization. His speech at Oxford was of a piece with that.

In the holy Quran, Allah SWT expounds that, the very reason He creates human beings into distinct nations and tribes is as a blessing so that humanity may embrace and celebrate their diversity. When then, did Islam and extremism become synonymous? When then, did perpetrators of hate and terror hijack the religion of peace and compassion? How did acts of extremism by a few minorities of Muslims come to be seen as a reflection of Islam and its followers? Such vile misrepresentations are a source of great anguish to me and to the vast majority of Muslims.

When four young men headed south from Yorkshire one morning in July, six years ago, maybe they thought the home-made bombs they carried in their backpacks made them “real Muslims”. Maybe they thought that by blowing themselves up, they were acting in accordance with the will of Allah, that they were following the teachings of the Quran. How wrong they were.

I would like to emphatically state that those who strap explosives on their bodies and blow themselves up are not martyrs. They do not represent Islam. Unknowingly, they are misguided into committing a grievous sin. So too, all those who preach hate and stoke the fire of intolerance in leading to this most blasphemous act, they too are as guilty as the perpetrators. Our heart goes out to their victims who are innocent, defenceless civilians going about their daily life. Islam never condones such a vile act. Neither is it part of the teachings of Islam.

In fact, Islam abhors suicide; as stated clearly in the Holy Quran, Chapter 2 verse 195 which reads: “do not throw yourselves with your own hands into destruction”. Therefore, suicide is impermissible under any circumstances. Life in Islam is a sacred trust from the Almighty whose fate shall be determined by His will alone.

The salient point here is not whether we agree with the prime minister’s theological assertions, but rather we can appreciate the extraordinary effort he is making here, and the importance for the United States of his efforts. Malaysia is a country to which Americans do not often pay attention, even as its rapid development, moderate strain of Islam, and tradition of religious pluralism provide an example America should be holding up to the rest of the Muslim world. This is an oversight we need to rectify, as a quiet, international revolution is underway there, and the elected prime minister is leading it.

Indeed, it is worth noting that this is not the first time this prime minister has trod this ground. In Turkey earlier this year, he made the same points in an interview — that “[anyone] who wants to be part of the political process should adopt values that are compatible with democracy … It’s not just about having a vote and choosing your leaders; it’s also part of imparting the right values for democracy to work, because there are failed democracies as well.” While the revolutions in the Arab world have caught so much of our attention for their mix of moderation and radicalism, a quiet revolution has been underway in Southeast Asia, a revolution that will likely mean more to the future of the West and Islam than the more exciting rounds of violence and upheaval we have witnessed these last few months.

Najib Razak’s speech is one of those events that the Western press will largely ignore, and when it bothers to notice, it will treat as a mere footnote, because no one is being blown up, no riots are happening, and no one is being openly threatened with death. Those very qualities are what make this so remarkable. As we continue to fight our long, twilight struggle against terrorism, we would be well-advised to treat seriously this prime minister’s determination to show the world, Muslim and non-Muslim, that Islam can mean peace, and harmony, and tolerance.