Thursday, September 21, 2006

about faith...



Blogger spyz said...

Singing about faith
Jacqueline Ann Surin and Husna Yusop
[ ]

Pop singer-songwriter Zuriani "Ani' Zonneveld has won music awards both in Malaysia and the United States for her work with different artistes. As a Muslim minority living in Los Angeles, the 43-year-old Malaysian decided after 9/11 to use her music to educate people about Islam. On a recent trip back to Kuala Lumpur, the executive director of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America speaks to JACQUELINE ANN SURIN and HUSNA YUSOP about the need for Muslims to understand their religion, being discriminated against for being a Muslim female artiste, and her interfaith work in the United States.

theSun: What is the Progressive Muslim Union of North America's core mission? What work does it do?

Zuriani: (reads from hand-written notes) The statement that we have is the Progressive Muslim Union is a grassroots organisation that aims to provide a forum, voice and an organising mechanism to North American Muslims. We are here to represent a progressive Muslim voice and to expose and educate the American public on the diversity and richness of the Islamic culture.

The Progressive Muslim Union came about as a result of a CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) study. It's a Muslim civil liberties organisation of America. Their research discovers that, this is right after 9/11, only 20% of American Muslims attend mosques or belonged to a mosque.

So, we started realising that, "Hey, who's representing the 80%?' Are these 80% non-practising Muslims? We know for a fact that's not the case. Most of them, according to the CAIR statistics, do not like the segregation of men and women, the discrimination against women in the mosques. For example, women have to enter through the backdoor only or they're not given proper prayer space. They're like really dumped into the back rooms, the kitchen, no air, just dingy areas where they can't even see the imam leading prayers. So, it's really second-class status.

A lot of American Muslims, I think, are very well read on their faith, unlike, I think, I dare say Malaysian Muslims. The majority of Muslims just follow the leader, no questions asked. In America, a lot of them actually read, and understand what their faith is really about, minus the cultural values.

So, when you grow up in America and your Pakistani parents tell you, "In Islam, as a girl, you can't do this, you can't do that' and as the girl grows up, becomes a teenager, and reads and learns about Islam, she's going to find out that what the Quran says completely contradicts what the parents have been teaching them. And so, there's conflict.

I've seen this as the president of the parent-teachers' organisation for our Islamic Sunday school. There's a conflict between the parents' generation, the first generation and second generation. And it is as a result of this (misconstrued), intentionally or not, of a cultural Islam rather than pure-faith Islam. Those are some of the very, very brief social conflicts, generational conflicts that are going on.

So, then there was a need to set up this organisation to address these issues?

Ya, definitely. Progressive Muslim Union is made up of young Americans, converts and everyone else with progressive views. The orthodox Muslims took over to represent the 80% after 9/11 as the official Muslim voice in America. That is like the orthodox Jews representing the rest of the Jews in America as one voice. That would be a misrepresentation!

They are as American as they come, unlike the first generation where they are very much entrenched in their cultural heritage. The American Muslims are very, very American, in the way they handle people (and) the media, they are very aggressive. They are very aggressive Americans, because they're Americans! So, we are able to get into the media, to get radio and TV interviews because we sound American, and Americans can relate to another American voice.

So, I think that is our advantage that we are young Americans with progressive views. And when I say "progressive', basically we are just going back to the ideals of Islam. We're not trying to change what Islam is. We're not trying to create a reformed Islam, like the Jews have a reformed Judaism, that's not what we are doing. We're really going back to the ideals of Islam like in the days of Prophet Muhammad. The value system of those days. Because what has happened is that the very reason that Islam was revealed, to correct the social and the economic injustices, we find that the cultural and the economic injustices completely kicked in after Prophet Muhammad died. We have resumed the very practices that Islam was revealed to eliminate. So, what we're saying (is), we need to go back. We need to re-study our faith. And we need to rethink ijtihad (process of making a legal decision through interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah) in the modern context.

So, in many ways, it's very much like Islam Hadhari, you know, a pragmatic Islam. I might add, Prophet Muhammad was the feminist of his time, so the current discriminatory practices against women show how disconnected we are from the Quran and the Prophet's teachings.

We are promoting an inclusive Islam on the basis that if you call yourself a Muslim, then you're a Muslim. It's non-denominational. Even if you're not practising but you still call yourself a Muslim, that's fine with us. After all, the Quran says, it's not for us to judge if you're a Muslim, or how good a Muslim you are, you know. That's for God to judge and not us humans.

One other requirement is that you can sit at a table with Muslims of all stripes, whether you're gay, you're straight, you pakai tudung (wear a headscarf), you pakai sleeveless or whatever, if you can sit at a table and respect each other, that is what Islam is about. Real Islam is about not discriminating. But, it's very hard for us as human beings to not discriminate. And I think, we as Muslims, we really need to go back to those basic values. Those were very, very important values that we have completely disregarded or ignored, ya.

And, some of the projects that PMUNA does to promote these values?

About two years ago now, there was a woman-led prayer in New York. And we supported that. We were the only Muslim organisation in America that did. Others endorsed it but they would never put out that statement. Nobody really had the guts to stick their necks out. There was a lot of misunderstanding about the whole issue, a lot of question marks. So, what we did was we organised a forum, a town hall meeting with an American Muslim scholar called Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl. He's an Islamic law professor at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).

We invited all Muslims to come, and non-Muslims to come, to the town hall meeting. And we asked, ok, is it legal under Islam, according to the Quran and Hadith, for a Muslim woman to lead a co-ed congregation? And so, Dr Khaled spent about two-and-a-half hours educating us.

From the Quranic perspective, it says that if you are chosen by your community, you can lead. So, it doesn't say what gender. So, the Quran doesn't say that a woman cannot lead prayer. The Quran doesn't say, only men can lead prayer. It really left it open for the community to choose. If you choose a man, that's fine, too. Whatever you choose, the Quran advises you choose the most qualified.

And that's the foundation, and I think that's a very just way to choose someone most qualified.

The hadith (traditional sayings and customs of the Prophet) is full of contradictions. It's got hadith that is in support, hadith that is against. And there are a lot more hadith against women leading prayer on the basis that a woman's soul is equivalent to that of an animal's, so therefore women do not qualify because they are not human enough, or women are too insane to lead men, you know. Very derogatory references as to why a woman should not lead a co-ed congregation. It contradicts the Quran's posture of man and woman as equal in spirituality.

But that is hadith?

That's hadith. That's not Quran.

Hadith sahih (authentic hadith)?

Ya. There are some hadith sahih that are very, very cruel towards women and, most of the time we dealt with the sahih ones.

So, there's a lot of hadith against women leading prayer, that is sahih, that is for sure. And I don't know which books and stuff like that because it was, like a two-and-a-half-hour lecture. You have to be an Islamic scholar to, er, know each paragraph, where it's coming from, and what book and so on, and who the writers are. But, that was the general essence of it.

So, what we did was, we didn't say to the audience as progressive Muslims, we didn't say, "Ok, you have to believe this way.' That is not what we are about. We just laid it out on the table intelligently for everyone, then you go make your own decisionlah. So, that's what we are about. We are really about educating Muslims and non-Muslims about Islam. But, I think more imperatively, we are trying to educate Muslims about our own faith. We need to know what we are about first before we can really educate others.

And, so, that was one forum. Starting next month, we are holding a speaker series. Um, the one thing that we are realising about the mosques and Islamic institutions in America is that, they don't get speakers who are qualified to speak about a particular topic. It's always the imam, or the leader of that mosque, it's always them talking about issues that they are not an expert on. So, we decided that we needed to have a speaker's forum. So, the first one is going to be on Islamic influence, heritage in art, music and dance. And the second one is going to be on democracy and human rights in Islam. And at each event, we're going to have an art form because we have lost our art heritage, and now, especially in the United States, arts and music are looked upon as haram (forbidden). It's very hardcore.

I say that because my Islamic pop CD is not sold on any of the Muslim websites because I'm a female singer.


(Mimics the expression of incredulity and laughs).

This is in the US?

This is in the United States of America. This is not Saudi Arabia.

You mean among the Muslims?

This is among the Muslims, yes. But, it's not the majority of the Muslims, it's the minority, but they are the ones who control.

So, that is one of my battles. I have many battles (chuckles). So for every speakers' series we're having, we're going to have an art form, whether it be poetry as we have a lot of poetry in Islam, whether it be music. So, we want to incorporate that art form into our lectures. It's good to appeal intellectually, and I know how the arts bring people (together), and really break down the walls. I've seen that, and I'll get into that later. So, to use the art form as a way to reach (out) to people. Poetry is a phenomenal way of reaching out to people. I mean, one of the most bought books in America is Rumi, who is a Muslim poet, a famous poet. So, there really is something to that. Unfortunately, our Islamic institutions are basically conforming to the conservatism, to the Wahabi thinking. I'll give you an example on this. I can go into it now or I can stick to what we're doing.

You can go into it now since you're already there.

One of the other topic matters we're going to talk about is, um, "Is it Islam or is it culture?' On this topic, we're going to have a panel of different types of Muslims - Shi'ites, Ismaili, Sufi and all kinds of Sunni, just so that you can really get a huge perspective. Actually, I'd probably like somebody from Malaysia to come and document this because I think it's going to be an amazing educational forum.

But the most important thing is, we're allowing a lot of time for people to ask questions. I think people really need to ask hard questions that they are afraid to ask in the mosques, you know, or too shy or whatever. So, we're holding these forums at a university, and I have a lot of professor friends who are securing spaces for me.

This is all volunteer, these are all people volunteering their time for the sake of educating people about Islam. So, it's really quite amazing.

How did you find yourself working for this organisation?

Well, mainly because I do music in the secular world, and then as a result of 9/11, I was educating people about Islam through music and so that started getting around. I think I fit in - the way I look at life and how I look at Islam and at other faiths - it fits into the Progressive Muslim thinking in general.

So that's how I got invited as a board member and then late last year, I was asked to become executive director. That's what I'm doing now. But, it's a volunteer position because we are a young organisation, we don't have funding like all the other big organisations. So, we're slowly building our community base. And that's where we're at.


Let me touch a bit on the arts thing, like at ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), for years they would not allow a Muslim woman to perform and in the last two, three years, they would allow a female poet, but on the condition, in ISNA, that you have to pakai tudung, you have to wear a scarf and you cannot move your hands. You have to stand straight. You cannot move about.

So, it's a very restrictive environment. And most, probably 95%, of the Muslim organisations do not invite female performers. I'm not saying they should invite me!

What I'm saying is they should invite female Muslim performers because we exist, you know. And they should also nurture female artists as well because we have a way to communicate with kids especially, and with families.

So, those are some of my struggles in the arts in the Muslim community.

In Canada, there was a Muslim event called Muslimfest. It was organised by Muslim Canadian-American organisations. Their application form states, "We follow syariah law. So, female performers need not apply.' I was so livid, I called my friend in Canada and said, "Ok, you need to get a Canadian reporter to call me. I'm going to really make them just think about this.'

And so, the newspaper article covered Islamic art heritage. There are religious female performers in the Islamic world, not in the Western world. In Pakistan, in India, in Iran, in Egypt. Wherever, all over the world, you know.

And here, we have, in North America, of all places, female Muslim artists are discriminated against! So, it's very disturbing. And it's not just indicative of America because I learnt in Denmark at the international Muslim conference that I just attended, it's also the case in Europe. It's there as well. In Malaysia, there's some of that thinking as well but it's not dominant, but I think it's creeping (in).

You mean, female Muslim artistes in the US are discriminated (against)?


Among the Muslims or among the non-Muslims?

Among Muslims!

By the non-Muslim community?

They (non-Muslims) accept. You know, I try to educate people about Islam through music, 95% of my performances are in fact invitations by non-Muslim organisations, not by Muslims.

Can we talk a little bit about your music then, and about your Ummah Wake Up (Islamic pop) project?

Ya. My Ummah Wake Up project actually is directed at the Islamic world, to the Muslim population, and it's about, words of encouragement, words of unity, and things like that.

I started singing Islamic songs, pop songs, songs that I write, and I call it Islamic pop because the track is very pop in genre but with an Eastern- style melody and with Islamic content. But when I say "Islamic' though, it's really a universal message. It's like, "Work hard, and insya Allah (God willing), you'll do well. God will bless you'. But what makes it "Islamic' is the word insya Allah. But if I use something generic like "God willing', then it could be any faith. So the one Arabic word or two Arabic words is what makes it Islamic in nature.

I did this album after 9/11 because I really felt that we needed to have an alternative modern voice as a face, a new face, that America or the Western world can identify with. Alhamdullilah (praise God), I have God's gift of song writing, so that's what I use. I use my song-writing gift to educate people about Islam.

So, do you go to places that invite you to perform?

Ya, ya, a lot of Jewish temples, churches, national organisations, Planned Parenthood Federation, um, interfaith events, just all kinds of non-conventional (chuckles) locations, ya.

Have you been asked to perform in a mosque before?

I have performed at a mosque but only at an interfaith event I organised (chuckles).

What kind of responses have you gotten for your performances?

For the most part, it's been like, "Wow! We didn't realise that Islam was so dynamic and intelligent. We thought it was just a barbaric and violent faith.'

Because that's what they see on TV, so I don't blame them. Prior to singing a song, I set it up by way of a political or social event that is happening currently in America or in the world. I'll give you an example. When there was this guy, Muslim man who converted to Christianity in Afghanistan. There was a mob who wanted to hang him. So, I sang a song called My Favourite Passages, and what I've done in this song is I've taken my favourite passages from the Quran, the English translation, and I've put it into a song format. And one of the passages is there's no compulsion in faith. I sing that the Quran says "We have created a man and a woman, and divided you into nations and tribes for you to learn from each other, not for you to hate each other'.

Those are all very universal (messages). "Work together in peace and harmony' passages. So, for the Afghanis to say, "Oh, we're going to hang this guy because he converted to Christianity', or to whatever faith, because that's syariah law, then we Muslims really need to go back and understand what the Quran actually said. Any claim that killing someone for converting out of Islam is a real deviation from what the Quran says. The Quran is clear on this but it is humans who embellished God's words.

So, by way of what I sing and what I speak, how I frame it, people understand that Muslims are disconnected from Islam, you know. Sometimes, it's really hard to convince people that Islam is not violent, the Quran is really peaceful ... when the actions of the Muslims have been contrary to that. I'm like, "Come on, give me a break', you know. But, I guess I'm believable. And people believe me (laughs), you know.

So, I have success in that. I get a lot of feedback from non-Muslims that they really learnt a lot and it's very positive feedback. And I have a song, Ummah Wake Up, and the chorus is, "Come, my ummah wake up. Our jihad is long overdue. Let's go ummah, wake up. You and I have much to do'. In this song, when I say the word jihad (struggle) to a non-Muslim audience, they squirm. It's like "oohoohooh', they can't stand that word because now it means holy war but I explained to them that that's not the original meaning.

By the end of the song, they're all clapping and singing along. So, that's why I'm saying music is so powerful, the art form is so powerful. I present it in a positive manner to people, and for me, it tells me so much about how open-hearted Americans are. I mean, can we get a Jewish person to come and sing in a mosque in Malaysia? I don't think so. That will never happen. And it goes to show how open-minded Americans are, no matter what faith you are.

Of course, there are whackos as well who call Islam evil. We have those in the Muslim world, too. But, um, for the most part though, if you present yourself in a positive manner and intelligently, Americans do open up their hearts. And that is what I see as lacking in our Muslim community which I hope to also help influence and correct.

Have you ever had a chance to perform Ummah Wake Up in Malaysia?

Ya, ya. I did. I had a concert two years ago called "Ani's Concert for Palestine'. So, I performed. That was the launch of my CD here and so I did a 45-minute show of my songs.

How was that received?

It was ok. My English is stronger than my Malay, and so I think that's probably my weakness as far as my presentation goes.

How did you end up staying in the States, living in LA (Los Angeles)?

I went to college at 18 to study economics and political science. My dad packed me off. "You're not doing music. You're going to go to college and do something useful with your life!' And so, I did that and I graduated.

And then, I said, "Ok, now it's my turn to do what I want to do.' I was supposed to come back and join the foreign service because my dad was an ambassador but I moved to Los Angeles instead and decided to follow my heart.

I knew I was musically inclined. I took piano lessons since I was five, so I've always been exposed to a lot of music and so that's how I just started writing silly pop songs. And I've been doing that for 16, 17 years. But then when 9/11 happened, I have a double life now, you know. My secular pop-writing life and my educating-Islam and social-activist-as-a-Muslim-in-America life. So, I've got two parallel lives going on.

And "Zonneveld'?

My husband's Dutch.

And you come back to Malaysia whenever there's work?

Ya, and every other year, for sure. More often if there's work.

[sambung di atas...]

9/21/2006 01:43:00 PM  
Blogger spyz said...

Challenging core beliefs
Jacqueline Ann Surin and Husna Yusop
[ ]

In the second of a two-part interview, pop singer-songwriter Zuriani 'Ani' Zonneveld discusses her mission to use music to educate people about Islam. The executive director of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, who is a Malaysian living in Los Angeles, speaks to JACQUELINE ANN SURIN and HUSNA YUSOP on a recent trip back here. Part 1 of the interview appeared here.

The work that you're doing to educate people about Islam, do you find that it's harder to educate Muslims than non-Muslims?


Why do you think that is?

I'm going to be very brutal. I think Muslims in America, I know all kinds of Muslims in America, feel that they know their faith. They have studied and have made a conscientious decision to practise Islam in a certain way, which I can respect. I have no issue about that at all.

But some assume they know their faith and their insecurity of that knowledge feeds into the holier-than-thou attitude. But as the Quran says, to you your own, to mine, mine.

But I think there is this sense of holier-than-thou. I think that's our problem. And the Quran says that one should never be holier-than-thou. Even the Jewish prostitute in the hadith (Sahihi Bukhari) who saved the dog was forgiven! So, there's no such thing as holier-than-thou in Islam.

It's hard to educate Muslims because I touch on really hardcore issues and people don't want to hear it if they are part of that problem. Issues like women's issues, honour killing, AIDS, or like the way we groom our girls to be docile and non-thinking beings, groomed to be wives and (chuckles), you know, subservient. And I'm really not into that. I wasn't raised that way. My parents raised me equal to the boys. They pushed me just as hard as they pushed my brothers.

In America, some Muslims are so afraid of the American values that they cling on to their own value systems. They teach their kids, 'Oh, our social (system) and our culture is more superior to the American's', you know.

So, they raise their kids in isolation, Muslim schools, Muslim friends, etc to the point that when the kids move on to college or live in the real world to work, they are like fish out of water and they don't know how to handle it.

I've seen people stray completely away from Islam as a result of that.

Islam is a great religion but you have to teach them in an intelligent way. You can't teach them, 'If you do this, you're going to hell.' That does not work with our kids nowadays!

If I tell my daughter, 'You can't eat pork', but I also have to tell her, 'But at a time when you're going to die and there's nothing else for you to eat, you're allowed to eat pork. Please do. Because God loves you, your life, so much so that God allows you to break that rule.'

That is the moral of the story. We don't teach the finer values of Islam. We teach about 'hell', everything is haram, which is false. It says in the Quran, beware of people who say everything is haram when it is not in the Quran. It says that! So, we need to start thinking about Islam in an intelligent way. And I think Muslims are just too afraid to do that.

Muslims are afraid to do that?

Yes. They're afraid because it challenges their core beliefs, their foundation, and they're afraid it's going to completely pull the rug from underneath them and they won't know how to handle it. Which is understandable, you know.

If you go to a Christian, and you teach them something that is contradictory to their core values, any faith, any culture, any human being is going to feel that insecurity which is understandable. But, I think for Muslims to progress, we really need to start doing that.

To rethink and to question?

To rethink, to question, which (is what) the Quran tells you and we don't do that enough. Our Islamic teachers tell us, 'Oh, don't ask any questions. Just take it for what it is.' That's not what the Quran says! And these are religious teachers. I challenge that. So, I have a real big issue with how we part with knowledge to our fellow Muslims, to students of Islam.

When you take that kind of position - that Muslims should start questioning and challenging the ways in which they've been taught to believe in their religion Ð do you find that you get flak from ulama who say that, you're not a Muslim scholar, for example?

I don't claim to be a Muslim scholar. I just challenge them to go learn, go study! Don't assume you know your faith.

No ulama has told me I'm going to hell just because I'm singing but self-righteous Muslims do because I get that all the time, you know.

Or in regards to my inter-faith work, 'Oh, inter-faith work is haram. You're going to hell. May all the snakes crawl all over you' kind of thing, you know. Like, really ugly stuff! So, I write 'You go to hell.' Don't throw that at me.

People like that think they know what they're talking about and are arrogant too, and they're supposed to be religious? The more religious they are, the more arrogant they become. So what kind of Muslim are you?

Arrogance is not Islam. It's contradictory to being a good Muslim. Ego is contradictory to being a good Muslim, or any good human being, for that matter. So, for that reason, Muslims don't like to hear what I have to say.

Do you find that in Malaysia as well?

No. Um, Malaysia I haven't been as vocal, you know, because I don't do a lot of work here. Most of my work is in the US. The vice-president of Isna says I'm negative about Islam. I'm not negative about Islam. I'm negative about Muslims! That's a big difference, ya! (chuckles) And this is supposed to be an intelligent person, so, I'm like, ok, whatever. 'You obviously haven't heard me.'

What is it like for you as a minority Muslim and what's the experience of being a minority (in the US)?

After 9/11, I really realised, 'Ok, I really need to step up to the plate. I can't just live myself as a Muslim in America as one of the silent majority, or just be silent.'

I really needed to be counted. I needed to correct the perception of Islam, especially after those b*****ds flew into the building (the World Trade Centre) in the name of Islam.

So I go out there and stick my neck out because I really believe in correcting the image of Islam.

After 9/11 you had all these 'religious people' knocking Islam and just dragging Islam through the mud, which made me really lose respect for religious leaders. One way of me staying sane was to join this inter-faith organisation called ICUJP (Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace) and I am on their steering committee.

I work with Christians, fellow Muslims, Jews, Buddhists who are just fantastic human beings.

For example, right after 9/11, the Friday, ICUJP people went to the closest mosque which is the mosque that I attend and they circled it to protect the Friday prayer worshippers in case someone decided to harm the worshippers and in case somebody decided to bomb it, you know. And these are people of other faiths. It brings tears to your eyes. It really does. This is the America that I know. The compassionate.

Everyday we say Bismillahirahmanirrahim (God the most gracious, the most compassionate) but we as Muslims have lost that compassion.

And here you have people who are non-Muslims who are so, so godly. It was pouring rain that Friday and there was this lady in a wheelchair, she was a Christian lady, it made me cry, too. It's just a beautiful ... and I wish that can be duplicated in Malaysia.

As a Muslim minority in America, I cannot survive without people like that, of all faiths. There are crazy Christians, there are crazy Jews, there are crazy Muslims. That's taken for granted.

There are crazies of all peoples, of all faiths, ya. But the most important thing is we, as normal practising people, who are very spiritual, we should all gather together, we should all work together no matter what religion you are because you know, it is all the same God.

All the same God, just praying in different ways. The term 'do unto others what you want others to do unto you'? It is in Islam, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Buddhism, in Hinduism, in Zoroastrian, and on and on.

And if we really practise that, 'do unto others what you want others to do unto you', we will not have any conflicts in this world because we really feel for the other person. It's very simple but human beings just don't do that!

Um, and this applies to a one-on-one relationship but it also applies to global matters, world relationships. If Israelis treated the Palestinian people the way they want to be treated, they won't be treating the Palestinian people the way they have been.

So as an activist in ICUJP, we demonstrate, we hold hearings, discussions, forums for the American public to know that there are hundreds of Muslims in jails, without trial.

And if it was just a Muslim organisation that was going to stand up, nobody would give a damn, nobody gives us any attention.

But the fact that it is an interfaith group led by powerful pastors, Anglican church and rabbis, and Buddhist monks, then it means more. So, that is the beauty of it. And as a minority, it is heartwarming to see such support from a multi-religious group.

As a minority in America I feel for the minorities in Malaysia. On paper, everyone's rights are protected. It's the same case in Malaysia, in America, in Europe, in Denmark, everyone is equal on paper. But the reality is that all over the world, the majority is always more arrogant and Muslims in Malaysia included.

In America it is the powerful Christian right. It is just the personality of being more dominant and being the majority, you always feel that you have the right over the others. It is a natural human nature.

As a Malaysian, I am a Malay, I am a Muslim, I am a practising Muslim, you know, it's very disheartening. Every time I come back, I see more and more arrogance by the Muslim community and for me, I can't understand it and I think it is going further, and further away from the teachings of Islam, from the Quran.

I think Muslims in Malaysia are no longer about pure faith, it is all contaminated with politics. I don't want to get into politics. I just want to stick with spirituality and faith. But if we were really to practise Islam, which says there is no compulsion in faith, back to that, then if you want to convert out of Islam it is your right to do so.

The meaning of being a Muslim is submission to God, you can't force someone to be submissive to whatever if one doesn't want to. That is what the Quran says! And here we are saying, if you convert out of Islam, then in some states you go to jail, right?


Ok, let's talk more about the need for an interfaith mechanism or dialogue. How important do you think that is, to have in Malaysia?

I think it is incredibly important for Malaysia especially, the Muslim country that is being looked upon by the whole world, especially the Muslim world, as the model Muslim country. Because of our non-Muslim minorities that we have and their right to practise their faith and their culture within an Islamic, sort of system.

So, it's very important for Malaysia to step up to the plate. Be brave! Have an interfaith commission.

This is really contradictory to what the PM just said this morning, unfortunately, you know. You can print it, I don't care, please do, I want him to know, that it is important that we, an interfaith panel or commission is not about converting each other. It is about knowing our common denominator. How bad is that? It is a great force to work with.

And if Malaysia as a Muslim country, officially a Muslim country, can have an interfaith commission, that is respectful, that is endorsed by the government and the people, you know, it just brings people of all faiths together.

And so, if Malaysia wants to be the leader in leading peace in this world, then we need to also talk about peace within the faith-based system. We have to have peace in the faith-based system. We have to have that respect.

There are so many common things between our faiths and that is what I learned from being active in interfaith groups.

We don't fight over, oh, 'I don't believe in Jesus Christ so don't talk to me about Jesus Christ', you know. We don't talk like that to each other.

We say you believe in that, fine, I believe Jesus Christ was a prophet, that's it. Jews don't believe in Jesus Christ at all!

So, who cares? But our core value system is all similar because it comes from the same source. And so we need to capitalise on that to unite people.

We need to unite Malaysians of all faiths. Because we are a very religious, spiritual country. All our faiths, a lot of them practise their religion, right? So, we need to capitalise on that. It is a great tool for bringing people together.

Do you think if an interfaith commission were set up in Malaysia, then it would tread on very sensitive areas?

No, you stay out of politics, you stick to the spiritual factors, the faith-based issues.

What are some of the issues that the interfaith group that you are working with has addressed and how has that made you feel as a minority living in the US?

There are a lot of radio stations but there was one in particular in Los Angeles with a very right-wing radio presenter who was slandering Islam, almost on a daily basis. He has millions of listeners. I forget his name. But it might be on ICUJP website (

So, we stood in front of the radio station and held a press conference. The Jewish rabbis were saying, you would never say that about the Jewish faith. So, what we started doing is calling the radio station advertisers and (asked) them to stop sponsoring, buying advertisement on that radio programme for that particular slot.

And it really worked. And so, he ended up apologising for the statements he made and so far so goodlah. But we wouldn't have been able to wage this war against this particular radio station, this personality in particular, without the help, without the umbrella of an interfaith organisation. If it was just a Muslim organisation doing it, it would not have had any weight whatsoever.

So, do you think that any majority community has a responsibility as well in some ways to look out for minority groups?

Yes. We have to look out for each other. If a Jewish guy is being slandered I will defend him just as hard as I was going to defend a Muslim guy who is being slandered. That is me.

But I know the Muslims in America, not all of them are like that, especially the big organisations in America. They are very active in interfaith now for the most part because it is to the benefit of the Muslim community.

Because Sikhs wear the turban, wear the beard, some Americans think they're all Muslims, which is what happened, because they shot a Sikh. They killed the guy because they thought he was a Muslim.

Then, I don't think a Muslim organisation would be as active because it doesn't benefit the Muslim community.

So it was very selfishly-motivated. And that's where also I have an issue with the niat, the intention (behind these Muslim organisations).

In Malaysia, I don't see the discrimination between the Muslims and non-Muslims, like what you mentioned in the US. So, do we need this interfaith commission?

Yah, we do. We do, for one, it unites people and we have all kinds of faiths in Malaysia and it is a great unifying factor and I think we need it now more than ever. Number two, I don't think the races in Malaysia is as apa (what)?


Integrated. That's probably good enough of a word. As integrated as it seems. I think there is more segregation thinking. I mean, if you go to universities in Malaysia, you know, Malays hang out with Malays, Chinese with Chinese, Hindus with Hindus, and gays with gays and that's it, you know.

Nobody is really mixing with each other because 'you are not like me'. So, there is no integration.

I spoke to a university professor the other night and she was telling me that. She had to force them to sit alternate, like Malay, Chinese, Indian. She had to force them to sit like that because otherwise they will just like, segregate. Which is also human nature.

But, if we emphasise the common denominators that we have by way of faith, by way of the fact that we are Malaysians first, not Muslims first, not Chinese first, whatever.

According to the youth statistics (by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research) that came out, the Malays identified themselves as Muslim majority rather than as Malays, which is really shocking, and then I think, a small percentage as Malaysians.

The Chinese were the reverse, they identified themselves as Chinese, followed by Malaysians, then by Buddhists.

And there're too many factors in the world I think that, okay like this: You have to look at it as an atom. You have the core, the nuclei which are people of all faiths uniting and working together.

And you have the extremes of each faith, the negative electrons pulling us apart, segregating us, with politics, with economics, with cartoons, with whateverlah, with bombings and cutting each other's throats.

So, those people are pulling the core. (The core) population of the world I think are just normal people practising whatever faith. If we can bring in and unify people, of all faiths, in the centre, then we will have a larger nuclei, a more peaceful world, a more peaceful Malaysia.

You know Malaysia macam mana (how is it)? There're too many elements pulling. 'Oh, Islam like this, so we have to be like this.' There're all these extremist views. We cannot allow extremist views to take over our life. We must not allow that to happen. They will ruin our lives!

And in America, it is more apparent because a lot of extremist groups love America because they are free to set it up over there.

So all the extremist groups are there in America. You name it, it's there. And their job is just to pull the world apart. They are not there in the business of uniting people.

So, Malaysia should take the opposite role and unite people. It's there, use it!

Shouldn't be ashamed, shouldn't be afraid. The benefits, I tell you, are so amazing when you see human beings helping each other, caring for each other on a spiritual level, no matter what religion you are, it is, you can't put it into words.

You boleh menangislah (you would cry), that's all I can say. It is such a beautiful relationship, it is such a beautiful emotion.

And I think that is probably what God wants us to strive for.

Can you tell a little about your observation about how Islam is being lived and contested in Malaysia, especially in the current scenario?

I think I touched a bit on that earlier on and throughout my talk. How we live? I think, I don't know. I do know this.

It worries me that in school, you have Muslim kids going to kelas agama (religious class) and you have the non-Muslim kids going to morality class.

It worries me that there was a Malay child who went to a birthday party, (of) a Chinese friend and then told all his Chinese friends they are all going to hell.

I'm sure that is not in the ugama (religious) curriculum but I'm sure there are some embellishments by the teacher.

My daughter gets it in her Islamic Sunday school, too. So I pulled her out. I'm not going to have my daughter's mind contaminated by this holier-than-thou. It is very dangerous.

That's how you get extremist Jewish, people who think that Israel, all of it, belongs to them, it doesn't belong to Palestine and they use the Torah as the term and they go shoot innocent people. It starts from there, at a young age.

It really worries me what kind of Muslims we are nurturing in our education system. Even at a young age, you are already teaching them to differentiate between a Muslim and a non-Muslim.

Should it matter? It should not matter. It should not matter what faith you are. It should matter that you are a good person. That in itself is being a good human being, being a good Muslim, from the Muslim perspectivelah.

So, if we are teaching our kids to differentiate, morality is for non-Muslims and we are Muslims, we go to different class and right away you, I know that happens to my friend's daughter, she already differentiates between who's Muslim, who's not.

This is Malaysia I'm talking about, and she's seven years old! I'm not talking about a 12-year-old. That's very scary. That's hardcore indoctrination.

And then what they teach in the curriculum, I have no idea, I'm not versed, so I'm not going to comment on it but even if the, er, the fact that you have a kid coming and saying something like that at the age of seven, then, that doesn't say very much to me, you know.

What about the kind of opposition we have been seeing to something like Article 11, for example? By Muslim groups who say Islam is under attack in Malaysia, for example.

I don't think the umbrella group Article 11 is fighting Islam. That's not what they are fighting.

They are fighting for the Constitution to stand on its own merit. That's all. They are not trying to fight Islam.

So, I think there has been a lot of misinformation by people pulling the community apart, our Malaysian society apart.

Like I said, there are a lot of these people all over the world. And that's why it is important to have an interfaith council.

To hold it together, to be rational, when things like this happen, you have a united voice of all faiths speaking rationally for the sake, for the fairness, of everyone. Now you have this group saying this, there is so much misinformation, and (it's) intentional.

Intentional misinformation?

Yah, for sure. So, this Article 11 is not attacking Islam. They are just defending what is in the Constitution, that's all! And I think Muslims need to feel less insecure about their faith. This has a lot to do with being insecure. And I'm not sure why. I mean, it wasn't the Muslims who were in the Holocaust. It was the Jews, so we have no reason to be insecure, you know.


And what about the conference in Denmark (from July 7 to 10)?

The Denmark event was on the anniversary of the British (tube and bus) bombings (in London) by British Muslims, and we had it in Copenhagen because that's where the cartoon fiasco started. It was basically about Muslim identity in the West, Muslim integration in the West. It was organised by ASMA Society and the Cordoba Initiative (a multi-faith organisation).

It was financed by the World Economic Forum and they are very interested in finding a harmony between the West, whatever that represents, and the East, whatever the East represents. It doesn't necessarily mean that East means Muslim because East means Christians and Buddhists and Hindus.

So, this was really about Muslim identity in the West, and how confused they've become. I also talked about this earlier when I said how some Muslim parents raised their children in an isolationist manner, and about how everything is haram.

So we had a dialogue with, Flemming Rose, the Danish publisher who printed the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. One thing he came to learn was that there was a really diverse Muslim world out there besides the ones who are fanatical and threatening his life and his family's. So, that in a sense, was an educational process for him. For us, it was a way for us to inform them of our unhappiness over (the cartoons).

For me, personally, it was stupid, the cartoons were really stupid. It wasn't worth my while. And, I feel really disgusted with the violent reaction of the Muslims. Two wrongs don't make it a right, you know! All the stereotype in the cartoon, we justified it! The Muslims just fell into it!

And then there's the issue of censorship, of self-censorship and that also goes back to us as Muslims always censoring ourselves. We are not allowing ourselves to push the envelope, to challenge, because we're too afraid to do that.

When we talk about ijtihad, we're talking about how we read the Quran, and how we're censoring ourselves. We're afraid of the violence that it might elicit.

Um, I'm not afraid of that necessarily because I live in America but if I lived in Europe, I would be. I wouldn't be as vocal. Um, so, Denmark really highlighted a lot of the identity crisis that Muslims have, and in some aspects, I can see some of the similarities in America but I think the beauty about America is that you have the American pie dream that means, you come, you build, you make your money, you can own a part of America, end of story, whatever religion you are, whatever colour you are, it's not so relevant.

Because America is about the land of the immigrant. Whereas in Europe, it's not about that. My husband is from Holland. There, even if you're a Turk and you're born in Holland, you're born a Turk, you die a Turk. There's no such thing as a Dutch of Turkish descent, you know. It's hard for them to really accept that Holland is a multi-cultural country. Denmark is now a multi-cultural country and it is very hard for them to accept that too. They have been a pure white, Dane, uniform, one-way-of-thinking for a long, long time, for centuries but they are trying.

So, what are some of the lessons from this conference that you think can be applied in the context of Malaysia?

Well, one thing was obvious. Flip the other side. We, Malays are the original nationals, the majority and then all the immigrant Chinese and Indians came and they are the minority. So, the Malays are the Caucasian Danes. We are the flip side of Denmark!

If we want minority Muslims in the Western world to be given the rights and respect (they deserve) then we have to do the same here! Simple. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror before we point fingers at others.

Do you want to add anything else?

Ya, on the arts. I'm also the co-founder of the Interfaith Arts and Music Festival called God Loves Beauty. I co-founded it with an Episcopelian Church to break down barriers through arts and music, and to work together. You make the best friends when you work together. That is the first priority.

The second is to nurture female Muslim artistes and painters, and we have been successful in that already. They don't have any other channel, so I'm just creating a channel for them. I would love for someone to duplicate that in Malaysia. It's an open invitation. I want the whole world to duplicate it. Take the idea, make it better, build communities of peace and understanding. That's what I want to do.


9/21/2006 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger spyz said...

[ arghhh.. finally...
ada jugak yg come forward to respond... ] - spyz

Interviewee has much to learn about her faith
[ ]

The prime minister has given a directive to the media to stop publicising provocative and corresponding emotive opinions/responses surrounding religious issues, but unfortunately denigrating the practice of syariah around the world and deliberately highlighting in some cases validly pathetic circumstances continues to be given wide publicity by English newspapers in the country.

We refer to the misinformed and prejudiced interview with Zuriani "Ani" Zonneveld (eXtra!, Aug 27 and Sept 7). The headline, "Challenging Core Values", took a belligerent stance on the core values of Islam.

If values are to be challenged, all the values in the tenets of all religions need to be challenged as the so-called adherents continue to wage "crusades" of modern times in a more barbaric and murderous fashion - all because they are intent on making others like them and therefore "if you are not with us, you are against us".

It is indeed laughable then that Ani happily basks in the limelight of that "crusading environment" and ignores the fact that she has becomemalleable in the hands of those who are anti her self-professed religion.

For her to quote verses from the Holy Quran and her spurious interpretations egged on by the margins of her own group (Progressive Muslim Union of North America) smacks of conceit and delusion. This can only stem from a lack of understanding and her void of personal identity. If only apart from "Singing About Faith", she would commence the journey of learning about faith can she then credibly take on the cudgels in defending what she believes is worth defending.

Otherwise, it can be only a little more than embarking on a vendetta of sorts derived from a personal identity crisis and her own personal quagmire of cultural despair.

It suffices to pick one or two of her many pontifications in her eagerness to show "others are wrong" illustrates a lack of understanding of the evolution of Islamic thought.

For example, "leading congregational prayers" is made an issue that should be examined within the context of rational thought that seeks clarification and searches for relevant meaning; and one cannot simply discard its evolution if one wants to do justice to the issue.

Again, the exhortation of every person unto himself - "you unto yours and me unto mine" is asserted, devoid of its contextual relevance.

Finally, while she accuses those she disagrees with as being arrogant and self-righteous, she herself manifests those traits. And as she forthrightly puts it, "I don't claim to be a Muslim scholar. I just challenge them (ulama) to go learn, go study! Don't assume you know your faith."

She too, should look in the mirror and take that advice for herself that isn't it just possible that she needs to go learn and study her self-professed faith!

Yusri Mohamad
Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia

9/21/2006 02:44:00 PM  

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