Dennis Ignatius: Why we ought to be concerned about the Education Ministry’s latest religious module

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While Islam is the religion of the Federation, the Constitution, taken as a whole, makes clear that the government is a secular institution and must behave as such.

The government’s recent decision to introduce the “Imam Al-Nawawi’s 40 Hadis” appreciation module in both religious and public schools has created a great deal of anxiety among non-Muslim citizens.

In the first place, the MOE announcement gave the impression that it would be taught to all students in all government schools. It was only after interfaith groups protested that the ministry rushed to do damage control by clarifying that the module was only for Muslims.

Non-Muslims are often told to be cognizant of Muslim sensitivities. Sensitivity is not a one-way street; government agencies ought to be sensitive to non-Muslim concerns too.

Hadith #8 has also drawn a lot of attention because it seems to exhort Muslims to “fight against people” until they convert to Islam. There appear to be different interpretations as to what this means. As one Muslim scholar noted, if such verses are not understood according to the proper science of Quranic interpretation, it could be abused and exploited.

Is it wise then to introduce this into our multiracial, multiethnic public school system? How will it be interpreted and explained by teachers who generally lack the insight of Islamic scholars? Will it be seen as a command to teachers to go all out to convert non-Muslim students, to see schools as ‘medan dakwa’ (to quote a former minister of education)? Will Muslim students come to see their non-Muslim colleagues as people to be fought against and converted rather than as classmates and fellow citizens?

It is one thing for the ulema or ‘dakwa’ groups to encourage the conversion of non-Muslims but quite another for the government of a multiethnic, multifaith nation to promote it as part of the formal curriculum.

The other concern has to do with the education system itself. For years Malaysians have complained about declining education standards; thousands of graduates are so poorly equipped with the necessary skills that they struggle to find employment. The general conclusion amongst educationists is that too much time is currently being devoted to religious instruction at the expense of subjects more relevant to the job market and to nation-building. As it is, more time is spent on religious education than on science or math, for example.

Given the declining educational standards, there was an expectation that Anwar – who had spent years pushing his ‘reformasi’ agenda – would undertake a complete overhaul of the education system. Instead, he is further Islamising our public schools.  He seems to have learned nothing from the mess that he (and Mahathir) made of our education system when he was education minister.

But it’s not just Islamist politicians who are to blame. Non-Malay politicians too are so caught up in their own petty rivalries that they cannot see the enormous harm that is being inflicted upon our nation by those intent on turning our once secular public schools into religious ones. Instead of pushing to improve our education system in a holistic manner and creating an inclusive culture that is respectful of our diversity, they play their political games.

No doubt there will be those who will say that non-Muslims should not comment on such matters. But how can we be silent when we are often the target of religious overzealousness?

Already, dress codes are being imposed upon us. Our children in public schools are quietly being persuaded to convert. We are accused of corrupting the nation and viewed with suspicion and contempt. Children illegally converted simply disappear behind a wall of official indifference. Some are calling for non-Muslims to be barred from senior political and government positions. Those who insist that sharia law and hudud be implemented often add that it should be imposed on all, including non-Muslims.

Increasingly our way of life as citizens is being challenged. To ask us to stay silent and not express our concerns under such circumstances is both unreasonable and disingenuous. Silence is not an option when an environment is being nurtured that sees non-Muslims and non-Malays as threats to be contained or converted rather than as fellow citizens to be accommodated and respected.

One of the most basic ideas intrinsic to our nation is that the government – elected and funded by the citizens of our multiethnic, multifaith nation – must serve all its citizens without bias. While Islam is the religion of the Federation, the Constitution, taken as a whole, makes clear that the government is a secular institution and must behave as such.

Certainly, something to keep in mind as we celebrate the 66th anniversary of our independence. Happy Merdeka Day! – Dennis Ignatius