Dr Chandra Muzaffar is an internationally known advocate for human rights and a political scientist. He has authored or edited 18 books and written more than 500 articles in English and Malay in various local and international journals. His most recent book is Muslims, Dialogue and Terror. He is the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), which is concerned with challenges to social justice and human dignity in global politics.
You have your roots in Kerala. Tell us about your Kerala connections?
My father the late P.N. Pillai migrated to Malaysia from Kerala in the nineteen thirties. My mother who was born in Malaysia was also a Malayalee. My father had some ties with relatives in Kerala. One of his better known relatives was his cousin the late Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Thakazhi, one of Kerala’s most illustrious writers visited Malaysia and stayed with us in our home in Kedah for a while in the late fifties if I am not mistaken. I was a young boy of eleven or twelve at that time. In January 2003, when my wife and I made our first visit to Kerala, we paid a courtesy call on Thakazhi’s widow. During the trip I also delivered a lecture on “ Global Hegemony vs Global Terrorism” in Kochi. Our second trip to Kerala was in January 2010 with a number of other family members. On that occasion too, I was invited to give a talk on “Youth for Excellence and Revolution” in Trissur.
Kerala has a long tradition of syncretic culture but as elsewhere, puritanism is gaining ground here also. Living in Malyasia, one of the largest Muslim populated country with a multicultural society, how do you see the challenge?
I am not sure if ‘puritanism ’ is the right term. A certain exclusivism which exhibits elements of bigotry rationalised through a narrow interpretation of dogma has developed within a number of religious communities all over the world. It would be wrong to argue that this is the outlook of the majority of Hindus in India or Muslims in Malaysia. Because of the pulls and pressures of electoral politics, political elites sometimes succumb to religious exclusivism. It is imperative that political leaders who wield power and influence stand firm against these tendencies. It is even more important for the public to develop an understanding of religion or culture that is inclusive and universal.
Existential threat leads to assertiveness of identities and consequent tensions among communities. As Hindutva majoritarianism getting louder, how do you think Muslims and Dalits in India should deal with the crisis as India heading to a crucial general election in 2019?
As targeted groups, Muslims and Dalits should speak out against bigoted Hindutva majoritarianism. However, they should refrain from projecting the entire Hindu majority as ‘intolerant’ or ‘unaccommodative.’ If they did that they would alienate the Hindu population as a whole. But more than the minorities, it is the open-minded and the inclusive among the Hindu majority that should stand up for the minorities. They should have the courage and integrity to speak truth to their own kind and to those in power. There are many Hindu intellectuals and activists who are already doing this. But there are many more who have chosen to remain silent.
India and Malaysia are two vibrant democracies in the east with two different religions having majority. How do you see the future of coexistence and conflict in these two countries?
In both India and Malaysia there are individuals and groups within and without the political arena who realise the importance of co-existence between the majority and minority communities. This realisation is due in part to demographic realities in both societies. The fact that in various sectors and sub-sectors of society Hindus, Muslims and others in the case of India, and Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others in the case of Malaysia, do interact with one another also gives hope. Because both are democracies ethnic frustrations are articulated through legitimate channels of redress. As far as India is concerned, there is a secular ethos of sorts that assures the populace that co-existence will continue. For Malaysia, it is the relative harmony that has existed all this while that convinces us that ‘living together’ is in our DNA. The Malaysian Constitution also serves as a framework for balancing different ethnic interests. This does not mean that conflict will not occur. The pursuit of power and relative socio-economic deprivation expressed in ethnic terms are danger signals in societies like Malaysia and India. There will always be unscrupulous politicians and other agitators who will not be averse to exploiting situation and circumstance to their advantage.
Rights of other religious minorities in Muslim countries is a sore point. How do you see this challenge in the context of blasphemy controversy in Pakistan?
The Blasphemy Law in Pakistan affects not just the non-Muslim minorities. It is a law that can be misinterpreted so easily to deprive a citizen of her rights and dignity. I am glad that Malaysia does not have such a law. You do not need a blasphemy law to protect the honour of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). If respect is a living virtue in society, if all of us respect one another, love and respect for sacral personalities such as the prophet will be integral to the behaviour pattern of all citizens, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
Colonialism is a thing of past but you talked about ‘colonisation of mind’. How it affected the expansion of knowledge in post-colonial Muslim world?
The colonised mind is a phenomenon that burdens Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It has hindered us from understanding in greater depth our own realities and from propounding solutions to our problems which are more conducive to our own situation. Given space constraints, I shall provide just two examples. In all our spiritual traditions, there is acknowledgement of the intimate link between the human being and nature and the crucial importance of living in harmony with the environment. What this means for development is a judicious approach to the utilisation of natural resources which is conscious of the needs of unborn generations. That should have been the first principle of development. The development models from the West which we imitated blindly had no such principle. Similarly, if the family is the fundamental unit of society in all our religious philosophies, why didn’t we from the very outset examine the impact of development upon the family? How would the location of industries and work-hours affect the family? Hardly any weightage was given to these considerations in our development plans because they were in the early years of our Independence carbon-copies of what was being churned out in the West.
Euro-centric secularism and modernisation has proved to be disastrous in the Muslim world. Now faith is becoming a rallying point in many of these societies. How do you see the future of democracy and secularism in the Muslim world?
Turkey is perhaps the most outstanding example of a Muslim majority society that has moved away from ‘Euro-centric secularism and modernisation’ towards an Islamic milieu. It is significant that as it moved away it became more democratic, dismantling the structures of the military dictatorship that dominated Turkish governance for decades. It proves that there are many features of democratic governance that are compatible with Islamic principles and values. Accountability, respect for differences of opinion, and governing with the consent of the people would be among them. However, secularism as a concept is somewhat problematic. It is perceived as an ideology that repudiates the role of religion in the public sphere, an ideology that shuns the centrality of God in the life of a nation. This is why many Muslim leaders including those who are opposed to an ‘Islamic state’ do not describe themselves as ‘secular’. They make it very clear that what they are opposed to is the imposition of Islamic law, as interpreted by the religious elite upon society.
Do you think faith can play any positive role in governance and social engineering in post-colonial societies?
The underlying values and principles embodied in faith in general, including its notion of the meaning and purpose of life — what one can describe as ‘the eternal wisdom’ — should serve as the guiding compass of governance. Eternal wisdom tells us that greed and selfishness destroy civilisation. Sharing and giving enhance human goodness. Governance should negate vices and nourish virtues. This should be the cherished goal of post-colonial societies.
Your vision of Islam as spirituality and a civilisation against the onslaught of global capitalism?
Global capitalism is driven by the accumulation and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Its defining credo remains the maximisation of profits. Islam as a way of life, as a philosophy, is very different from this. It is about the maximisation of virtues. It is about striving to reach out to God as the ultimate source of goodness.
You have argued for a value based approach to Quran instead of dogmatic approach. Could you elaborate?
In a values based approach to the Qur’an and Islam, justice, truth, love, compassion, freedom, equality and other such values will take precedence over the mere performance of rituals and In concrete language what this means is that loving another human being with a sincere heart is more spiritual than praying continuously. Feeding a poor, desolate stranger is a more virtuous act than performing a pilgrimage to some holy site a hundred times.
Tags: Chandra Muzaffar, Colonisation of mind, Democracy, Islam, modernisation, syncretic culture