Dressed in a modern grey suit teamed with a black skull cap, Malaysian cleric Asri Zainul Abidin is the poster boy for liberal Muslims who are tussling with hardliners in this multi-ethnic nation.


Asri, a boyish-looking 39-year-old, is considered one of Malaysia’s top Islamic theologians and has a growing following of young, educated Muslims who are drawn by his moderate views.


But the thoroughly modern mufti now faces trial on charges that could land him in jail for two years in what his supporters say is an attempt to muzzle liberal voices in Muslim-majority Malaysia.


“Yes, there is a battle for Islam between the conservatives and progressives in Malaysia,” Asri said. “We will enter the dark ages if we allow the conservatives to win.”

Asri has been charged under religious “Shariah” law for giving a lecture on Islam last November without authorisation.

But the cleric says his real offence has been to enrage the country’s religious establishment, which has become increasingly strident in recent times, imposing caning sentences that have rarely if ever been enforced before.

Sharia courts — which operate alongside the civil courts in a dual-track system — recently ordered three young Muslim women to be caned for having extramarital sex.

Another mother-of-two also faced a thrashing after being caught drinking beer but after her case hit the headlines she was ordered to do a spell of community service instead.

“Now they just say punish, punish and punish. Religion is not about punishment. Right now we have to educate the people. It is not the right time to impose punishment,” Asri said.

“The right thing to do now is to educate. You must make it easy for people to get married by giving them financial aid so they will not indulge in extramarital sex.”

Straddling the fault line in the debate are Malaysia’s minority races who are concerned over rising “Islamisation” and fear that tolerance towards Christians, Hindus and others is diminishing.

A series of disputes has erupted between majority Muslim Malays and minority ethnic Chinese and Indians in recent years, straining relations half a century after the founding of the secular nation.

In January, the severed heads of four pigs —an animal seen as unclean in Islam — were found at two mosques, in the latest of a spate of attacks on places of worship that have escalated tensions.

A simmering row over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims saw attacks on 11 churches, a mosque and two Muslim prayer halls including fire-bombings and vandalism.

Asri, who was the mufti of Perlis state until 2008 and is now a university lecturer, said the conservatives are ramping up their rhetoric and imposing harsh punishments in a bid to cement their power base.

“They can win the battle, but with the age of the Internet where information is easily available, they cannot win the hearts and minds of the young and educated Muslims who wants answers based on reason,” he said.

Chandra Muzaffar, a political scientist and Islamic reformist, described Asri as a progressive and inclusive Muslim.

“He represents the essence of Islam. He recognizes the rights of other faiths and regards them as part of a larger human family,” he told AFP.

Chandra said that while he believes the views of the conservatives were not shared by the majority of ordinary Muslims, the moderates were generally failing to speak out.

He said that gave free reign to a small but vocal minority of conservatives, represented by the religious bureaucrats who are the guardians of Islam in each of Malaysia’s states.

“There is a group in Malaysia who are pushing for a conservative form of Islam. They are in power now. They want to do what they have been taught without taking into account the environment around them,” he said.

Harussani Zakaria, the 71-year-old mufti of Perak state and one of the leading voices of Islamic conservatism in Malaysia, described Asri as a “strange person” who had become “arrogant” after his advanced studies in Islam.

“How long do you want to educate a person? The country and this world will be a safer place if we have Islamic laws. When I was in Saudi Arabia I felt very safe,” he said.

Harussani warned that Asri’s teachings could cause dangerous rifts among Malaysian Muslims.

“Muslims will be divided. Malaysia will become like Pakistan. We will bomb each other,” he said, urging Asri to respect the version of Sunni Islam officially sanctioned in the country.

Asri dismissed Harussani as a “bigot” and said he and others who espouse “narrow views” were damaging the delicate multi-ethnic balance in Malaysia.

“I will accept it if they send me to jail. But what is my sin? I only delivered a sermon,” he said.

source : Malaysiakini