On Malaysia’s Moderate Muslims and why you should care

A few months ago I decided to take a break from regular blogging to work on finding  a more specialized niche in which to fit my naturally charming yet gruffly journalistic self.

It’s gone well, and I’m learning a lot.  A lot about Malaysia, where apparently I’m sort of famous, thanks to posts like this. And this.  That’s not what I expected–I had hoped an employer with scads of highly-paid job openings would notice my mad research skillz and beg for a piece of my brilliance (still hoping for that, by the way)–but hey. Beggars (and moms in need of the sort of serious intellectual fodder that life with a preschooler doesn’t normally include ) can’t always be choosers.

In all seriousness, as one of the world’s few truly moderate Muslim-majority nations, Malaysia is well worth a look.  While Democracy and Islam do not usually go hand in hand, in Malaysia they co-exist with a surprising degree of harmony.  Malaysia’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society is remarkable in that it mostly works in a way that hardly any other nation has managed to emulate–and, as you’ll see below, both the democratic and the Islamic worlds can benefit from a lot of what Malaysia has to offer.  Here are a few excerpts from some of my most recent work:

From the Daily Caller, Sept. 24, 2010:

Out of Many, 1Malaysia

Today, President Barack Obama addresses the US-ASEAN summit taking place in New York City, concurrent with the United Nations General Assembly. Among the heads of state he will speak with is a familiar acquaintance — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom the president last saw at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., this past April. Though he’s not a flashy newsmaker on par with some of the other ASEAN figures, Najib is no less newsworthy — and in some ways, the country he represents is one of the most important to the United States in an era where the meeting of Islam and democracy seems less a union, and more a collision.

In Najib’s Malaysia, despite some real challenges, the future of majority-Muslim, multiethnic democracy is slowly taking shape.  This past Sunday Najib joined with his country’s minister for unity, minister for religious affairs, and others in endorsing the work of Malaysia’s Inter-faith Relations Working Committee.  The committee, which is composed of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists and Sikhs, was formed in February in response to the widely publicized racial and religious tensions that plagued Malaysia in early 2010.  In endorsing the committee, Najib is affirming his commitment to Malaysia’s unity and diversity, and he’s doing so at the expense of his own political standing.

If there’s one thing Najib wants, it’s national unity — and that’s not something he’s going to get easily, especially if his political opponents get their way.  Fifty-three years after declaring independence, Malaysians are still unsure of what it means to be Malaysian.  With countless political parties and coalitions, dozens of cultural barriers, and the geographical imposition that is the Java Sea, it’s difficult to discern what sort of unifier will serve to carry the country forward.  To further complicate matters, only the nation’s Muslims are subject to Sharia law; the 40% of citizens who hold different beliefs are all served by a separate court system.  Far from asking his countrymen to adopt a homogenous national identity, however, Najib has set for himself the harder task of fostering and encouraging Malaysia’s differing societies while simultaneously working toward a concrete sense of national unity.

It’s not an easy task.

Read more here.

On Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s call for a “global movement of moderation”, from the Daily Caller, October 1, 2010:

It’s Always the Quiet Ones: Malaysia’s Moderate Muslims

Last week’s US-ASEAN summit was significant in ways that much of the mainstream media failed to report — and that’s a shame, given that Southeast Asia is home to some of our most important global partners.  Though China and Indonesia dominated most of the summit’s news coverage, their relatively low profile at the actual event provided an opportunity for ASEAN’s quieter voices to prevail.

Malaysia’s overtures to the United States deserve particular illumination here.  You’re not likely to read much about them elsewhere, though they are no less important for not having been highlighted in western media outlets.  The relative media silence regarding Malaysia has nothing to do with lack of newsworthy content, but is rather owing to the nation’s peaceful national home life. While other nations are busy dominating the news with tales of violence, poverty, and aggression, Malaysia is taking advantage of its own stability to carefully and strategically set itself up as the United States’ next best Southeast Asian partner — and, given the difficulties the United States has had in combining Islam and democracy, we better pay attention.

When I interviewed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in New York on Sunday, he was careful to elucidate some specific areas in which Malaysia can benefit both the United States and the rest of the world.  He mentioned one especially unique commodity that not many other nations can match: progressive, well-educated, female Muslim professionals.  Women make up 62% of Malaysia’s undergraduate population, and that number will only grow as the nation aims to eventually staff at least 30% of its policy and decision-making positions with women.  In addition, Najib told the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday that Malaysia plans to assist in Afghanistan by sending female Muslim doctors to the region — a valuable offer, given that an overwhelming number of conservative Muslim women prefer to be treated by doctors of their own sex.

Though Malaysian democracy isn’t yet fully consonant with the U.S. model, it is making tremendous strides in the right direction at an astonishing pace — and it’s not about to slow down.  While it’s always good news when a democracy liberalizes, Malaysia’s efforts are especially relevant because it is one of the world’s few moderate Muslim-majority nations, and it has the potential to be a positive and effective example to other Muslim nations.

Najib is well aware of this potential, and he has good reason to take advantage of it for both political and religious reasons. At his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, he called for a “global movement of the moderates” among people of all faiths in an attempt to “reclaim the centre and moral high ground that has been usurped from us.”  In his meeting with President Obama on Friday he offered Malaysia’s help in combating the dangers of Islamophobia, stating that the US needed help in educating its people about the reality of Islam.  When 26% of America’s populace believes its own president is Muslim, he pointed out, it’s a sign that the people are woefully uneducated.

Read more here.

Image credit Nazir Amin

Anwar Ibrahim: Not the Bright Spot We’d Hoped For

As Israel struggles to defend itself, Islamist voices around the world still stridently condemn the Jewish state for stopping the flotilla bringing aid to Hamas. Shockingly, one of those voices is Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim — the former media darling and favorite of the foreign-policy teams of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

In a remarkable development, B’nai B’rith International has urged the U.S. to end its relationship with Anwar, citing his “…anti-Jewish and anti-Israel slanders, such as his April 30 assertion that Israeli spies are ‘directly involved in the running of the government,’” and his active role in sparking the recent resurgence of anti-Semitic sentiments in Malaysian politics.  In a letter addressed to the State Department, the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the venerable organization argued that “[a] purveyor of anti-Jewish hatred such as Ibrahim should not enjoy the measure of legitimacy that a positive relationship with the United States would confer upon him.”

Statements like these are symptomatic of a larger resurgence of anti-Semitism in Malaysian politics—a resurgence that Anwar himself has helped spark.  While the current Malaysian leadership is eager to be counted among our Muslim-majority allies, Anwar and his party are another story.  Anwar, who was long mentored by the publicly anti-American anti-Semite Mahathir Mohammed, has continued Mahathir’s legacy despite having been disowned by him in the late 1990’s.  Anwar’s conspiracy-theory laden charges of Israel’s secret takeover of the Malaysian Police IT unit bear all the marks of Mahathir’s influence—and he isn’t stopping there.

At the “Justice and Peace for Gaza” roundtable in Malaysia on June 4th, Anwar continued his anti-Semitic verbal assaults by attacking an American public relations firm, previously hired for minor work by the Malaysian Prime Minister, as an agent of Jewish influence: the firm, Anwar said, is “able to influence the oldest Jewish body to attack me personally… and to ask [other] countries, mainly the United States, to consider me an enemy because I’m seen as an enemy of Israel.”  Anwar declared that he was being subjected to retribution for his previous statements before the Malaysian Parliament, in which he claimed that Jews were working to manipulate Malaysian policy for America’s benefit.

Purveyors of anti-Semitism are often dealers in anti-Americanism, and Anwar Ibrahim is no exception.  He went on to attack President Obama, telling some one hundred Malaysians at the roundtable, “Obama is weak. He only said that he ‘regretted’ the attack [on the Gaza flotilla] when we actually need action.” This theme of weakness in the face of alleged Jewish interests was a continuation of one Anwar advanced several weeks back, when he accused the Malaysian government of bending to Jewish pressure in participating in sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.

Statements like this make it clear that in asking the U.S. government and policymakers to end their erstwhile cordial relationships with the Malaysian opposition leader, B’nai B’rith is doing us a significant favor. There is simply no place for American engagement with traffickers in anti-Semitism, for both moral and pragmatic reasons.  Withdrawing support from Anwar will not solve the problem of world-wide anti-Semitism, but it will help put America on the right side of the issue.  If American policy makers choose to distance themselves from Anwar and his anti-Jewish hate speech, perhaps they will also distance themselves from others whose foul rhetoric we have wrongfully ignored.

While Anwar has spent years polishing a genteel Western image, his conduct and associations in Malaysia prove that he is every bit the sort of anti-American radical the U.S. must avoid.  Anti-Semitic statements like the ones B’nai B’rith has condemned show that Anwar’s public stances on major issues like race and foreign policy vary wildly depending on his own political needs.  And, despite his recent acceptance at places like Johns Hopkins University, where he was invited to teach for a year in their School for Advanced International Studies, he is quick to link his own anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism.

When asked about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict he told CNN, “Stoking the flames of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is a good distraction from the stench in their own backyard, namely rampant corruption, denial of basic human rights, abuse of power and the suppression of civil society.”

Most Americans failed to realize that he was describing this as a useful strategy, not condemning it.  We overlook it at our own peril, however, as our eager search for bright spots in a largely unwelcoming Islamic populace makes it all too easy for our policy makers to rest contented when they think they’ve found what they’re looking for.

The Obama administration will have to keep this in mind as it seeks to strengthen relations with the Islamic world in general and Malaysia in particular.  It’s not always easy to tell the difference between our friends and our enemies among the people of the Muslim faith, but in Anwar’s case the problems are clear to anyone willing to pay attention. ‘

War of the Words: Israel and the U.S.

As Israel struggles to stay afloat beneath the nearly universal condemnation of its conduct in the recent flotilla incident, I can’t help wondering: When did racism suddenly become so socially acceptable – and even fashionable – in the U.S.?

To be sure, the decades-long struggle between Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the world is far from simple, and atrocities have doubtless been committed by both sides.  War is ugly, and we are rightly repulsed by it.  We make an enormous tactical mistake, however, when we allow this to separate us form our long-time ally–because that is exactly what our mutual enemy hopes for.  The U.S. government is doing no one any favors by distancing itself from Israel’s recent actions—no one, that is, except the flotilla organizers.  They depended on just this sort of reaction to solidify Israel’s place as Most Hated Nation. By making their own enemy the enemy of the civilized world, the Islamists behind the flotilla have gained an entirely new set of friends and potential allies.

Anti-Zionism is often merely a half step away from anti-Semitism. Though the two ideologies are not precisely identical—anti-Semitism was around long before the state of Israel existed—they are very closely related—so closely related, in fact, that in stoking the flames of anti-Zionism across the globe, the organizers of the flotilla have, at least temporarily, made anti-Semitism a Western virtue.  And almost no one has noticed.

Israel’s account of the events leading up to this week’s international outrage is fairly straightforward.  In fact, it’s the only unambiguous part of this whole PR nightmare.  Every other nation’s reaction has been so heavily contextualized with emotions and memories of past events that it’s a wonder we know what happened at all.

This is intentional.  Cold, hard facts are easy to confirm or deny; symbols are not. The flotilla, its cargo, and its passengers were selected to confuse the issues by serving as a symbol of Israeli aggression or of Palestinian hardship or of . . . whatever else it might take to turn the world against Israel.  Mostly, it was intended to spark anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments all over the globe.  It worked.

The international media’s emotional outrage is clearly about a lot more than just the deaths of the protestors on the flotilla.  It’s about the much longer struggle, stretched out over decades, between Israel and Palestine.  It’s about the resentments on both sides, and about how hard it is to wait patiently for a resolution between two competing worldviews.  And it’s about the belief, implicit in all these frustrations, that the world would be a better place without both Israel and the Jewish people.

In other words, it’s about the Islamist narrative.

Why is the leadership of our government buying into this narrative? It’s not a narrative that will ever be good for the U.S.  Neglecting our longstanding relationship with Israel will merely lead to the deterioration with our other Middle Eastern alliances.  With Iran so close to developing a nuclear weapons arsenal, we cannot afford to cause unnecessary shifts in the balance of power.  Not only can we not afford to alienate our ally, but we also can’t afford to endorse anti-Semitism in any form—not only because it is wrong, but also because where anti-Semitism thrives, anti-Americanism too often follows.

Yet we are endorsing it, as is the rest of the world, when we refuse to give Israel a fair trial.  This is not to say that Israel is incapable of error or that we should support our ally without reservation or precondition. Like all nations, Israel is a flawed state composed of imperfect people.  But in being so quick to assume that the international media narrative is correct, we are opening ourselves to exactly the sort of feelings and opinions that our enemies have been hoping for.

Islamists have ennobled their own position in the world by making Israel a global outcast.  They’ve encouraged us to turn against one of our best allies, endangering our own security in the process. They’ve also enflamed the anti-Semitic suspicion and hatred that is frequently associated with anti-American convictions.

The media frenzy surrounding the flotilla will quickly subside and most of us will forget about it within weeks. But next time Israel acts in a way that the world doesn’t approve of,  it will be easier for us to uncritically condemn them, and easier for us to learn to hate them.  If we don’t stop ourselves we will become so much like our enemies that they will defeat us without our even noticing. ‘

Americans “Born Again” Under President Obama

Apparently, we are “born again” as Americans through the redemptive work of President Barack Obama. Left unanswered, however, was the question of righteousness. It is clear to me that President Obama, by his merely assuming the office of the president, has made all America righteous before the world. However, I am left wondering if righteousness is imputed on me personally through the redeeming work of Obama being elected to the presidency or if it is imparted on me only through participation in President Obama’s government?

The Music Manuscript of Faith, iTunes, does not make the righteousness question clear to me:

Continue reading Americans “Born Again” Under President Obama

How to Argue Like Jesus – by Joe Carter and John Coleman

Joe has written a book!


How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator

by Joe Carter and John Coleman

Joe sent me a note about the book in which he said: “Argue Like Jesus, which was written for both Christians and
non-believers, uses Jesus as a model of logic, rhetoric, and persuasion in order
to show how to be a more effective influencer and communicator. We think
students, bloggers, business people, and anyone else who needs to be persuasive
will find it useful (it’s short — 170 pages — and practically oriented).

You can learn more about it on our website: ArgueLikeJesus.com.”

I have provided a link above so that you can purchase your copy of the book through Amazon.  I just ordered my copy and look forward to reading it. 

Proposition 8: The Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Recently, I posted a number of posts about California Proposition 8. This is an emotionally charged issue with good thoughts on both sides.  Not surprisingly, my posts sparked debate in the comment sections where a number of excellent questions were raised. Richard Hollis is one commentator who raised especially thoughtful questions. As a result of the questions raised, especially by Richard, I have decided to write my thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage from the ground up and have asked Richard to respond. Below is my essay followed by Richard’s response. Please note, when I sent Richard my essay, I had not yet added links to my sources. Richard and readers of Evangelical Outpost – thank you for your thoughtful read and consideration of this post. – Dustin Steeve.

The upcoming proposition amending the constitution in the state of California to affirm marriage gives us opportunity to pause and reflect. Since 1970, marriage has endured a series of devastating attacks. In January 1970 the Family Law Act was signed by California Governor Ronald Reagan and “no-fault divorce” was written into law. Reagan would later cite this as one of his greatest regrets. The intent of the law was to help Californians separate amicably without having to contrive reasons for obtaining a divorce. As the explosive increase in divorces since 1970 attests, the effect of the law was that it hurt marriage.

Presently, proposition 8 is giving Californians a rare opportunity to stop further tampering of marriage through law.  As we consider the proposition, reason, empirical evidence, and morality ought to inform us. Each of these has led me to the decision to affirm marriage by voting yes on proposition 8.

Continue reading Proposition 8: The Same-Sex Marriage Debate

East Meets West: Sharia Law Sanctioned in UK

Upon hearing about the government sanctioning Sharia law in the United Kingdom, I was immediately concerned that western law was being subverted in an ally country with whom we share a unique history. There are two levels on which there might possibly be concerns. The first possible concern arises when one compares Sharia law to a traditional, Western sense of justice. The second possible concern arises when this event is viewed from a historical perspective. Upon thinking through these possible concerns, I believe that the first one raises interesting questions that Christians especially ought to consider and the second may actually be troubling.

In his speech on the rise of Islam in the United Kingdom and the coming sanctioning of Sharia law, Archbishop Rowan Williams best draws out the nature of the first concern.  Williams said,

And what most people think they know of sharia is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments; just a few days ago, it was reported that a ‘forced marriage’ involving a young woman with learning difficulties had been ‘sanctioned under sharia law’ – the kind of story that, in its assumption that we all ‘really’ know what is involved in the practice of sharia, powerfully reinforces the image of – at best- a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role.

Off-the-hip criticisms of sharia law, especially in the media, will tend to focus around the easiest elements to critique.  Namely, criticism will focus on the areas where sharia law tends to most barbarically separate from traditional, Western ideas of justice.  The contrast between sharia law and Western law is especially easy to notice when one compares the rights of women within the two systems.   In an election year where Hillary Clinton was almost a presidential nominee for one ticket and Sarah Palin is the Vice-Presidential nominee for another, it seems pitiful that there is still a legal and cultural tradition where a man can divorce his wife via text message while the wife cannot divorce her husband save for impotence or his extended absence. 

Nonetheless, while we believe in the rights of women we simultaneously highly value cultures, especially minority cultures, and their traditions.   We value liberty and the freedoms of those with religious beliefs.  We desire to liberate people from oppressive systems, but we simultaneously believe that we liberate people from oppressive systems so that they may live freely according to their beliefs so long as they are not openly subversive to the state.  At the heart of these beliefs is an interesting tension between free expression and how one chooses to express himself/herself freely.  At the center of the tension are questions about the nature of law which are especially important for Christians to consider.

Continue reading East Meets West: Sharia Law Sanctioned in UK

Know Your Muslims:
How to Distinguish Between Shia and Sunni

Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shi’a? If you don’t have clue you’re not alone. Jeff Stein, the National Security editor for Congressional Quarterly, posed that simple question to two Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and several top counterterrorism officials at the FBI.
None of them knew the answer.
While I’m no expert on the politico-religious differences of the Middle East, I have—unlike many of the people we pay to know such information—read a few books on Islam (I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History). I also know how to use Google well enough to put together this brief Q and A on the “least you need to know” for distinguishing between Shi’ites and Sunnis.
Do Sunnis and Shi’ites have the same beliefs in common? Mostly, at least on the basics. For Christians, the Nicene creed is often viewed as the basic statement of faith, the essentials agreed upon by all orthodox believers. Muslims have a similar creed (shahadah) roughly translated as, “”There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” The Shi’a, however, tack on an additional sentence: “…Ali is the Friend of Allah. The Successor of the Messenger of Allah And his first Caliph.”
Who is this Ali? Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the reason these groups don’t get along (the terms Shi’a and Shi’ite come from condensing Shiat Ali, “partisans of Ali”). After Muhammad died, the leadership of the Muslim believers (the Ummah) was the responsibility of the Caliph, a type of tribal leader/Pope. The Sunnis respect Ali and consider him the fourth Caliph while the Shi’a contends he was cheated out of being first. Sunnis, following the tradition of the period, thought the Caliph should be chosen by the community while Shi’ites believe the office should be passed down only to direct descendants of Muhammad.
So the leader of the Shi’ites is descended from Muhammad? Somewhere around 873 AD, the Muhammad blood line came to an end with Muhammad al-Mahdi. For the leader-electing Sunnis this was no big deal. But for the Shiites, who believed that the office of Chief Religious Leader (i.e., Imam) was hereditary gig, this posed a bit of a problem. So instead of accepting the idea that the last Imam died, they claimed he was just “hidden.”

Continue reading Know Your Muslims:
How to Distinguish Between Shia and Sunni

The Heretical Atheist

Frequent commenter DS recently posted an interesting take on a common disagreement:

Calling atheism a “religion” is like calling not collecting stamps a “hobby.”

Whether atheism is itself a religion is certainly a debatable point. But atheists and agnostics shouldn ‘