The Opening of the Conference on "Islam in South-East Asia", Kuala Lumpur, 5 March 1996

This conference on Islam in Southeast Asia and other recent events reflect a growing interest among scholars to understand the manifestations of Islam in the social and cultural universe of Southeast Asia. The size of the Muslim population in Southeast Asia, around 150 million today, is reason enough for Islam in Southeast Asia to be pursued as a serious academic subject. But the contemporary significance of Islam here does not rest merely on its numerical strength.

It is also because of the political stability and economic vibrancy of the region, in which the Muslims here play a prominent part. We believe that the experience of Islam in Southeast Asia can make a significant impact on the Muslim world as a whole in facing contemporary challenges, and particularly to rejuvenate the Ummah, which has been for quite some time labouring under a general malaise.

One of the distinctive features of Southeast Asia that shapes the attitudes and orientations of its Muslims is its multicultural make-up. The diversity and constant interaction of people from different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds has fostered close interdependence. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a living convivencia - a situation quite reminiscent of the golden age of Muslim Spain, where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in peaceful harmonious coexistence. If that golden age could give birth to great intellectual flowerings, it is therefore not impossible that our own present convivencia, if properly nurtured, through cross fertilization of ideas, will herald the coming of an Asian Renaissance. Indeed, as Muslims and as Southeast Asians, we cherish this heritage of cultural and religious diversity. This "living together" would not be possible without mutual tolerance, mutual respect, and being moderate and pragmatic in the conduct of our affairs.

As this situation is quite unique to the region, we therefore need to articulate this moderate and pragmatic approach, especially in dealing with the crucial issues of the day. By adopting this approach, we are not proposing an Islam with a set of beliefs and practices different from Muslims in other parts of the world, or practising Islam in accordance with what the West wants the Muslim to be. Islam, whether in Asia, Africa, Europe or North America is always the same religion established by the Qur'an and the Sunnah. In espousing a vision of a moderate and pragmatic Islam, we are in fact advocating an approach within the social, economic and political domains. The adjectives moderate and pragmatic are relevant, and even crucial, because modernity, or post modernity, and the specificity of our circumstances present us with challenges that can only be successfully dealt with through a certain mental attitude and cultural orientation that we characterize as being "moderate and pragmatic."

By being moderate and pragmatic we are far from compromising the teachings and ideals of Islam or pandering to the whims and fancies of the times. On the contrary, we believe that such an approach is necessary to realise the societal ideals of Islam itself, such as justice, equitable distribution of wealth, fundamental rights and liberties. This approach is sanctioned in the saying of the Prophet which is to the effect that "the middle path is the best way ahead." Similar approaches are also found in other great traditions, such as the Chun Yung of Confucianism and the golden mean of Aristolean ethics.

Moderation and pragmatism warrants that extreme emotions must not be given free rein. Whilst we recognize the legitimate rights of victims of oppression and persecution to use whatever means available to liberate themselves, we believe that generally the head must rule the heart, and passion must give way to sobriety. For if it were otherwise, it will be a sure fire formula for violence and destruction. Instead, reason and common sense must prevail, in order for us to view things in the proper perspective and set our priorities right. A major problems of Muslims is the failure to do precisely this. The Muslim world is beset with many serious problems which warrant our urgent attention, including poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, social malaise and so on, yet these problems are being largely ignored or not given due attention by the scholars and leaders of Muslim communities. Many of those who purportedly address the problems of the Ummah tend to take the doctrinaire position vis-a-vis social, political and economic matters, without due regard to the realities of the times. That is why we need the Muslim intellectuals to articulate a moderate version of Islam which is more sensitive to the contemporary situation of the Ummah. In this regard, it must be acknowledged that a few prominent scholars such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi and others have taken the lead to expound this approach from a background of traditional Islamic scholarship.

Sheikh al-Qaradhawi particularly is an advocate of fiqh al-awlawiyyat, the understanding of our priorities, as a juristic basic for social policies. Among other things, he calls on Muslims to address urgent social and economic issues such as the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, provision of employment, decent housing and other social amenities. All these, before we seek to introduce legislation based on certain Shariah injunctions. Indeed, the construction of an outer edifice of Islamic governance without the true substance of physical and spiritual well-being of the Ummah would be a travesty of the maqasid al-Shariah -- the objectives of religion. It is tantamount to having the form of religion without its content, a practice severely criticised by Hujjatul Islam al-Imam al-Ghazali.

No area is more in need of reason, common sense, or to borrow from Edmund Burke, "wisdom without reflection," moderation and pragmatism than in the quest for the establishment of a viable and lasting political order. By political order we do not mean an order imposed by means of intimidation, terror and violence on the majority of the population, or other undemocratic processes which exclude all but the few who constitute the ruling elites. However, while we are critical of the political situation in many Muslim countries, we do not advocate the wholesale imitation of so-called tried and tested Western democracies. Like Tocqueville, we do not believe that any particular form of democracy is applicable to all societies at all times. While Muslim societies need to undergo political reform, each society must find its own way to establish a civil society.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in our time for Muslim societies, and other societies in Asia and Africa, is the establishment of a civil society. Undoubtedly, many if not all of the problems afflicting the people of these continents -- mass poverty, inhumane living conditions, economic backwardness -- have their origin in the absence of civil society. Symptomatic of such an absence is the denial of basic rights, corruption, squandering of the nation's wealth, moral decadence, abuse of power, the marginalization of women, injustice, just to name a few. Some institutions of the West, such as the IMF and the World Bank, labour under the fallacy that there is a simple and universal panacea for these problems. The fact of the matter is there is no such cure all. There is no single solution to these myriad web of societal ills, and each society must find within itself the moral and cultural resources, and the strength to overcome.

Thank you.