Whether a religion is of peace or not depends very much on the believers’ definition of ‘peace’ itself. One’s ‘peace’ can be violence to another.

Such notion is simply too familiar to human experience. This peace/violence ambiguity is observable in recent history. For instance during the first half of the 20th century, the Japanese propagated the ideology of ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, which presented them as the messenger of peace and the liberator of Asia from western oppressors. The caption of one of the Japanese poster reads: “With Japanese, Chinese, and Manchu working together, a great peace can be brought to the world.” We can always ask those who lived through the war to find out what kind of “great peace” the Japanese brought. In China, such peace is remembered as the Nanking massacre. In the Malaya peninsular, the Sook Ching massacre.

The point here is not to identify any religion to the aforementioned horrendous acts, but to establish the crude reality of one’s ‘peace’ can be violence to another. If we learned anything from history, it is the way to reckon the peace/violence ambiguity by evaluating the relationship between the advertised peace and the actual act of the regime.

Zulkifli Hasan’s article ‘Refining the misconception of apostasy in Islam’ attempts to demonstrate that the ‘peace’ of Islam as he understands it does not contradict the “sanction on the matter of apostasy.” He asserts that Islam recognizes the liberty for non-Muslims to join any religion, yet it is a different matter for Muslims to convert out of Islam. In showing how such ‘peace’ is conceptualized, he wrote:

“The freedom of religion should not be abused and any elements of irresponsible religious anarchy that may lead to religious disharmony should not be allowed. This is because Islam considers religious freedom as a matter faith and not as legal or political issues.” […]

“It is found that this issue has been heavily politicized as an ideological weapon to get the support of the public particularly by secular humanists including many Western-oriented Muslim intellectual. If the element of politics can be put aside, the apostasy in Islam will not be an issue either in the aspect of human rights or fundamental freedom of an individual.” […]

“The debate and arguments on the law of apostasy in Islam is often superficial, marked by political intentions as well as religious prejudices.”

There are several matters in this quotation for us to look at. Firstly, this gives the impression that western-orientation is somewhat political in a way that problematize the issue on apostasy in Islam.

This means, to Zulkifli, that the root cause of the current debate on apostasy lies in the difference between the ‘West’ and Islam: The former is political, while the latter is not. Therefore, the solution to the problem is to loosen the root, to “put aside” such western-orientation.

I find that this point is too presumptuous in a way that does not do justice to the ‘West’. To illustrate what I mean, let us first consider another article written by Zulklifi, titled ‘The Challenges of Globalization to Muslim Youths’.

In this other article, Zulkifli stated that his essay “indicates that there are Western elements in the domination of the globalisation process, which would intervene and challenge the development of morality amongst Muslim youths.” (Emphasis added) This piece strongly asserts that the ‘West’ conveys anti-Muslim values through communication technology that contributed to the increase of local cases of drug abuse, rape, and juvenile delinquency (see pages 1-2).

From these two articles, we may see that to Zulkifli, the ‘West’ is perceived as the agent of vices that contradict the teachings of Islam, and so created problems such as social ills and the current debate on apostasy. If this is the case, then it is worth asking whether such anti-west perception valid, or is it merely a caricature?

When we evaluate the West, there are at least four elements that deserve our attention. First, the western socio-political concepts such as democracy that limits authoritarian tyranny. Malaysia too has adopted this system. Second, the economic opportunities enabled by western economies (as Zulkifli himself recognized in his article on globalisation). Third, technological advancement originated from the west that empowers locals’ capacity to self-actualization and productivity (for example, Zulkifli’s own blog). And finally, the vigorous education system that cultivates critical approach to human flourishing (for example, Zulkifli’s Ph.D is from Durham University). Each of these four is generally recognized as somewhat good enough to be promulgated.

Not sure why Zulkifli chose to ignore these good things endowed to us from the West of which some he too recognizes. If the west has been providing both benefits as well as lacks, then isn’t the anti-west perception a caricature? Could such caricature rooted more in the individual’s geographic prejudices rather than in the nuance perception of the west as a phenomenon?

I think the West would appreciate others not to caricature them as vice-monger in the same way Muslims would appreciate others not to caricature them as militant violent suicide-bombers.

Besides, even if western-orientation contains political implication, does that mean the current debate on apostasy in Islam merely a matter of faith and not a legal or political issue at all? To Zulkifli, it is not a legal or political matter.

However, the whole debate on apostasy in Malaysia is about the legal provision for individuals who have conscientiously decided to leave Islam to do so without incurring state-sanctioned punishment or impediment. Obviously this is a legal-political issue. Therefore the legal-political nature of the apostasy debate is inherent in the debate itself, not caused by western or any other geographic orientation.

It is interesting that despite Zulkifli’s own advise not to politicize faith issues, he himself has previously proposed to politicize Islam in Malaysia. In his article ‘The position of al-Quran as a source of law under the Malaysian legal system’, Zulkifli suggests that it is time forMalaysia to have a legal-political reform based on principles derived from the al-Quran. Here is the except:

“…it is observed that Malaysian Constitution did not put al-Quran as the supreme law of the Federation in comparison with other Islamic country such asSaudi Arabia, Islamic Republic of Iran andPakistan. By referring to the historical background of the Malaysian legal system, Federal constitution was drafted by a Constitutional Commission whose majority of the members was non-muslims and nonmalays and it was not their intention to put al-Quran as the main reference and the supreme law of the land.

Since Malaysia has celebrated independent from British for more than 49 years, there should be a reform in the interpretation of the Federal Constitution. The Malaysian constitution should be given a positive approach and to try to the utmost in order to uphold the principles of Islamic government, which is based on al-Quran.” (Page 11)

To be fair to Zulkifli, we need to recognize that this quoted article is not written to address apostasy. However, it is clear that in this instance Zulkifli proposes to politicize the Islamic faith in the Malaysian legal-political framework.

What we observe about Zulkifli here is that on one hand, he rejects the politicization of faith issues and derides such attempt as western-oriented. Yet on the other hand, he recommends precisely what he rejects. He doesn’t see the resemblance in his own proposal to politicize his faith with what he disparages as the western-oriented ideological weapon. Though both are manifestly similar, Zulkifli has no qualm in promoting the former while rejecting the latter.

This led me to wonder if the ‘peace’ of Islam that Zulkifli advocates is precisely what it is: Forbidding, punishing, or even executing individuals from leaving Islam is the ‘peace’ of the Muslim religion?

Is this peace or violence to religious freedom?

During World War II, the Japanese told us that they were the messengers of “great peace” who will free us from the evil west (sounds familiar?). The corpses at the massacre fields bear witness to the kind of ‘peace’ that the Japanese brought.

As noted at the beginning of this article, I’m not saying that Islam is identical with the warring Japan. I’m simply pointing out the peace/violence ambiguity observable in human affairs. Besides, whether Zulkifli’s portrayal of the peace of Islam is worthy of the religion, is entirely up to the discernment of the Muslims. In any case, those Islamic scholars whom I have highlighted in my previous article are no less Muslim than their fellow believers from around the world, regardless east or west, north or south. To them, the peace of Islam is perceived differently.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is currently reading theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and blogs at http://szezeng.blogspot.com and http://friendsinconversation.wordpress.com. He is the co-editor (with Soo-Inn Tan) of ‘The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian Political Engagement in Malaysia today’ (Singapore: Graceworks, 2011).

This article is part of a series of articles under the theme, “Faith in Malaysia.”