Thursday, November 19, 2015

When Love Strikes

I have had nightmares for two days this past week. They are almost similar in context: I am either crying or distressed over discrimination faced by Muslims in the West following last week’s terror attacks in Paris. These events and the subsequent outpouring of hate by misinformed individuals just brought back the memories and fears I had growing up. After 9/11 I thought it would be impossible for me to reach my dream in the West, if not for an official ban by the government, then by unofficial bigots on the streets. However, when I did reach America eight years later, I was surprised to find a people that were eager to learn more about my religion. More than that, I found them to be kinder, gentler, more compassionate, more conscientious, and more Islamic in action than Muslims in Malaysia. I was in love.

Of course, there were occasional bouts of incidents which are obviously steeped in Islamophobia. And though we should condemn Islamophobia, there is no running away from the fact that these terrorists did profess to be Muslims and invoked the name of God before killing themselves. These supposed Muslims kill hundreds and thousands of innocents for no reason other than professing a different faith. But I know better than to call this a religious act of war. This is a political game they are playing. The only reason they are attacking the West is because of their own disenfranchisement, caused by decades of mismanagement by the political establishment at home. Why shout “Allahu Akbar” then? Because it is the easiest rallying call.

I see it around me all the time. People get so emotional that their judgement gets clouded. In the end, the terrorists win. What these cowards want by blowing up themselves is for the cycle of hatred to continue: the West blames Muslims, Muslims get angry at the West, some radical Muslims took it too far and blows up a Western landmark, and Islamophobia continues. This is what the coward terrorists want. Why should we give in? We should stop the cycle and start spreading love. Stop the hate. When people start to question, why mourn the loss in France but not in Beirut? Who says we don’t? If the media did not cover those horrendous attacks in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, would you be aware of them? So who is cherry-picking? The media’s report or your consumption of news? I understand the frustration when the death of Muslims does not get front news, but you have to be naive to expect otherwise. In the newsroom, there is a difference between deaths during wars and occupation, and attacks during peace time. 

While it tore me inside to read and watch the action of a lone man pushing a Muslim woman in front of an oncoming underground train in London, it also gave me hope when the many other passers-by came to help her. (A side note: following a spate of similar events while I was in London, I always, always, stand with my back against the wall while waiting for a train.) Then, I read and saw the images of French men and women giving a blindfolded Muslim man a hug in support of his—OUR--religion. I bawled like I’ve never bawled before. There are many of these nice westerners that show so much kindness to my fellow brothers and sisters in faith while I see ignorant Muslims around me speak of hatred to Chinese, Indians and Jews, when Islam is clearly a religion of peace.

I would like to end this by sharing something that has only previously been shared with my husband. Once in a London tube on the way to school, an old lady with a head cover stepped into the carriage I was in, carrying a backpack. Not any backpack, but a sturdy one that is usually carried by teenagers, not grandmas. She immediately started talking about what if today would be our last day on earth. Immediately images of my parents flashed by me (I am not exaggerating) as I tried to imagine how they would feel if there is no body for them to bury. Yes, I honestly thought I was going to die in a suicide attack that day. That was the closest I felt to death. The ride to the next station felt like eternity. I stepped out--trembling--even though it was a few more stations to school. I know it may sound silly to some as nothing ended up happening, and I’m pretty sure an old preacher rides the tube all the time. But the fear of seeing a person with a backpack talking about the last day on earth in a tube in London is too real for me to shake off even today. I just can’t help thinking about those who did not have the opportunity to assess their surrounding before death comes with a blow.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A comic for the nation

Multitude of emotions washed over me earlier this afternoon as I continue to refresh my internet browser for the latest update from the Palace of Justice. Words cannot do justice to how I was feeling—embarrassed, mainly—over the fact that I was at a Starbucks nearby and not standing with the people.

I am weak and a coward. I dare not jeopardize what I have built for myself and my family to show solidarity with the people. Instead, like most Malaysians, I sit behind my laptop, struggling to wax poetic over the political situation in the country. But unlike many Malaysians, I am an academician, with a purpose and responsibility to ignite change in my limited capacity. Most importantly, unlike you, sir, I lack the courage to face the injustice pervading our nation today. For that, I salute you.

I admit that I don’t really like you as a person or politician. It does not mean that I am in favor of your nemesis either. It just means that I have yet to find a political figure that I fully trust to lead the country. I don’t even like the people in your party. I find them arrogant and mainly interested in superfluous politicking, making them no different than those they criticize day and night.

However, I respect the foundation that put your party in motion more than fifteen years ago. I support the fight for justice, I support the need for a liberal society, and I support the effort to create a harmonious society. Therefore, all I can say is, “Be patient, sir.”

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but I believe that your name will soon be written in our history textbook in the same light as our founding fathers. Yes, you made mistakes while within and without the government, just like any other political and civil leader before you. You are, after all, a fallible human being like the rest of us. But it is your courage that has paved the way for later generations to push forward for reform and for a better Malaysia.

Be patient, sir, for I believe that your struggle will bear fruit in a few more years as we see a generational shift in the make-up of the country. My generation, which has witnessed your ups and downs, will not forget all that you have sacrificed for us. My generation, though narcissistic, dependent, and unemployable, is ready for a new Malaysia that will come from this verdict. It shall not be in vain. This is not a call for the youth to band together in a renewed movement, for I am not an activist with the interest of crashing the gates on injustice. I am just an academician with an eye for patterns of cause and effects, and what I see is a renewed spirit for change that will continue for years to come. Will we soon be successful? I doubt it because of the many institutional challenges blocking our way. But will the people surrender? I don’t think so.

Sir, I hope you will be patient in knowing that you are the Mandela and Suu Kyi of Malaysia. And just like them, I hope your future is brighter than the bleak prospect you’re currently facing.

Be fearful, don’t, as fear by your opponent is the catalyst for your predicament.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Peace, His Destiny

Per written about me on the right side of this page, I see myself as an optimist. Well, optimist may be too strong a word; I am a person who likes to see my glass as half full. This positive attitude of mine is the simple result of my strong faith in society and in God. Seldom do I stress over the little things in life because my faith in people is greater than my doubt for their ability to do the right thing most of the time. Also, seldom do I complain about my present life circumstances because I have faith that God has written a much more beautiful story arc for me than I could ever imagined.

When I first started on my journey to become a student of political science, I honestly could not answer to those inquiring about my plan once I was conferred with a piece of paper that has BA in political science written on it. All I knew was that I had a really strong desire to study power structure and ways for goodness to permeate throughout society especially to those at the bottom of the power pyramid.

In Pittsburgh, the first class I attended was not a course on political science, but a history course on Islamic civilization. I decided to enroll in that specific course because I thought—wrongly—that it would be an easy A to me, a Muslim who grew up in a Muslim-majority nation. More significantly, my decision at the eleventh hour just before class actually began to enroll in that specific class became the stimuli that evoked my interest to better understand Islam and Turkey (as successor to the Islamic Caliphate). Since then, every project, every paper, ever class presentation that I did at Pittsburgh revolves around issues affecting the Muslim world.

That was what I wrote in the essay that got me accepted to the London School of Economics and Political Science to do my MSc.

Now, roughly 5 years later, I am a PhD candidate and Fellow at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. The first month I am here, almost everyone I met, from fellow classmates to professors, have asked me the simple question of why would an LSE graduate come to IIUM? Honestly, I had also asked that question myself.

But at the end of the day, as much as these all seems to be my doing, it is actually not—it is His doing. Of course I would be lying if I said I did not wish to do my PhD at another prestigious university in the UK or maybe even go back to the US. But as He had planned for me, I got pregnant the minute I touched down from London, and my priorities changed upside down. As a consolation, I applied to the best university in Malaysia and was accepted, with one of the best professors around agreeing to supervise my thesis. But again, as He had planned, the professor got politically entangled and my employer wanted me to familiarize myself with the school that I am going to eventually teach in one day.

Now, here is the irony: never in my youthful days had I ever consider applying to IIUM, because I felt it was too Islamic for my liking. But now, after a quarter of a century under my belt, I am neither lying nor being defensive when I say that I am very excited to be a part of IIUM.

First of all, I am excited to be part of IIUM because I can’t wait to become a better Muslim holistically. One of the issues I have always had was in term of dressing Islamically appropriate. I remember divulging to my husband and roommate in London how I envy those who are comfortable dressing according to the Shariah in a non-Muslim country. I envy them. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be confident displaying my religion unapologetically. Yet I was weak. I succumbed to the fashion world as marketed by the industry while ignoring my inner desire to be a better Muslim. At IIUM, I am expected to conform not to ‘their’ rules, but to God’s rules, and I am more than happy to abide. The happiness and contentment within me, I believe, is part of God’s plan to bring me closer to Him.

Secondly, I feel like IIUM fits my long-term goal to be an expert in Political Islam with as much an emphasis on Islamic knowledge as well as on political science. See, I used to question every day and every night, why has God written ‘political science’ on my destiny card, and not medicine, law, mathematics or even psychology. Now I have the answer. It is because of my desire to study Political Islam that I acknowledged the need for me to have substantial knowledge on the religion itself if I am to speak about politics according to the religion. As a result, I have learned so much more about Islam. More importantly, I feel so much closer to God.

Who would have thought political science will be that which brought me closer to Islam. If the purpose of life is to submit, I am happy to say that I am on the right path.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


A lot of people today value achievements over morality, a phenomenon that is widely witnessed by over-eager parents wanting to raise the next Albert Einstein. While there is nothing wrong in having big dreams for your little ones, my husband and I decided to take a different approach even way back when we were yet to get pregnant. We both agreed that the most important value we want to instill in our child is kindness. Even though no parent wants to raise a monster, the emphasis is put on the words ‘most important’.

One of my favorite anecdotes on an Islamic figure is about Imam Malik and his mother. When Imam Malik told her of his desire to learn from a religious scholar, she put him in his best clothes and turban, and told him to learn from his teacher manners (adb) before learning from him knowledge (ilm).

The simple reason this little insight on one of the greatest Islamic scholars left a huge impression on my consciousness is because of my personal experiences meeting people who are categorically smart but are despicably horrible human beings. I have been around quite a number of people who are clever by virtue of their level of education or them receiving academic awards. However, only a handful of these smart people deserved to be called decent human beings, while the rest are blinded by their good fortune that they fail to recognize the need to be respectful and humble towards everyone. It is not too difficult to understand why this is so; as anything else in life, intelligence is a test from God. One’s increase in knowledge can either lead to a greater sense of empathy or arrogance, with the latter usually being the case. For all these reasons, I am more interested in my child becoming well-mannered, mindful of other people, animals, and the environment, and not worry about avoiding sweets and sodas in fear of raising a ‘dumb’ kid.

I have wanted to write about this topic since we first found out I was pregnant, but decided against it. After all, I too am constantly on a journey to improve my behavior and relationships. However, I felt it is a good time to briefly mention this issue following the road rage incident by a female driver during the month of Ramadhan. It is incomprehensible how someone could be so rude, especially after the other person has obviously waved the white flag by apologizing. To repeatedly scold someone—even if the person is guilty—is not only annoying, but also shows there is an empathy deficiency in our society.

In the said road rage incident, there were comments on the abuser’s religious attire. Although we should not judge a person by his or her fashion choices, I do see a problem in the fact that, again, we are focusing on imparting the wrong values to the next generation, and in this case and many other, the physical need to wear a hijab over being nice. Rather than stressing the need to uphold one’s religious image, it is essential to teach responsibility, gratitude, and courtesy. Along that line, being proud of going to religious seminars do not mean much if our demeanor does not reflect our knowledge, thus creating an opportunity for others to question the validity of our knowledge, or worse, our religious belief.

Rarely have I heard someone being castigated for their lack of knowledge (except by some holier-than-thou acquaintances of mine who think it is somehow a fault to be unlucky in education), but as the road rage incident shows, Malaysians from all walks of life came together against an impolite person whose only defense might be that she does not think she was being recorded, regardless of the fact that Muslims know they are being watched all the time by the Creator. Therefore, no other logic is needed to justify my obsession to raise a child that is aware of other people’s rights and feelings over her own selfish needs to rise above in this dog-eat-dog world that is just a blink in the eye compared to a lifetime of happiness or wrath on The Day.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Malaysia's State

* First published on The Malaysian Insider on 19 June 2014.
To those still wondering, Malaysia is not a secular state.
Does that mean Malaysia is an Islamic state then? I’m not sure, because there has never been a clear definition of an Islamic state, be it in the Quran, classical Islamic writings, or modern political science publication.
Malaysia is definitely not a theocracy as are Iran or Saudi Arabia, because in those countries, Islam prevails over all state institutions. Here in Malaysia, however, the constitution is the supreme law of the land.
Having Islam as the official religion of the state does not make Malaysia an Islamic state, similar to England, a country which is considered to be secular even though Anglicanism is the official state religion.
Even though Malaysia is not technically an Islamic state, neither is it a secular state.
Unlike the way secularism is commonly understood in Malaysia today, secularism does not mean Westernisation. Secularism actually means the separation between “church” and state as two distinct institutions that do not and are not influenced by the other. It does not mean that religion is entirely absent in politics, as that is impossible given a county’s demography.
For example, even if America is a famous secular nation, the nation’s official motto, “In God We Trust”, still mentions God. What secularism means is that religious organisations are independent from any other institution in the country such as the legislative, executive, and judiciary.
Is that the case in Malaysia? Is Islam, as an institution, free from any vertical or horizontal interference? The answer is of course a resounding no.
Where do mosques and suraus get the fund for maintenance? The government. Who appoints and pays the salary of our imams, muftis, and qadis? The government. Who dictates how Islamic studies should be taught to students? The government.
These are just some examples pointing to the fact that Malaysia is not a secular state as there is no separation of religion and state in this country.
In contrast, if we were to look back at Islamic history, religious institutions have always been separate from the government. The ulamas in the past are independent from the government, namely the caliphs. In fact, the ulamas were so powerful that they can indirectly influence the person who will take over as caliph. This is not surprising given that ulamas, and the institutions that produced them, were not bound by the government.
Sure, Shariah was the reference of these ulamas in their capacity as jurists, but not all laws can be found in the Quran or Hadith. There was a science to it whereby it requires an autonomous institution to produce these laws properly.
The take-away point is that these ulamas were independent in coming up with judgments, free from the influence of any caliph. Does this make the Islamic caliphate secular? I’m not sure, but the structure of the institutions do point a certain way.
Tunku Abdul Rahman may be right when he declared Malaysia a secular nation many years ago. But with the rise of Islamisation in the country’s institution in the past three decades, it seems ridiculous to continue calling Malaysia a secular nation.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like Jakim, then Malaysia probably is not a secular country.
Should non-Muslims be worried then if Malaysia is indeed not a secular state? I would say, no. Muslims are the ones who should be worried, because their religion, however sacred a personal experience it is, is currently tainted by the dictation of those in Parliament and Putrajaya.