Following Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s recent visit to the United States, our Higher Education Ministry offered to send experts in Islamic studies to the United States to help counter Islamophobia by giving the people lessons on Islam.
There is no doubt that hostility towards Islam and towards Muslims in general has risen across the United States. The 9/11 attacks by a group of terrorists invoking Islam to justify their actions invariably turned many Americans against Islam and made them wary of their Muslim neighbours.
Unquestionably, the media have worsened the problem with their distorted and sensationalist coverage, while right-wing politicians have further fueled the flames with often incendiary comments.
It is, of course, terribly unfair for an entire faith to be judged by the actions of a few misguided followers.
Much can be done, however, to minimise the backlash and counter negative perceptions.
What is needed, as Najib pointed out in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly, is for men of faith and principle to clearly, categorically and unambiguously condemn those who preach violence and intolerance, and do all in their power to counter them.
For far too long, as Najib noted, the extremists have been allowed to frame the dialogue between nations, religions and ethnic groupings. He is absolutely right in insisting that the moderates reclaim the moral high ground and drown out the voices of extremism and intolerance.
In this connection, Najib highlighted the example set by a group of American Evangelical Christian leaders who worked tirelessly to convince a misguided Florida pastor that burning copies of the Quran was both unChristian and unhelpful.
There are other examples as well. In the wake of the attempted bombing of an airliner last Christmas, Imam Syed Soharwardy and other Canadian imams took a stand against terrorism by issuing a fatwa calling on Muslims not just to condemn acts of terrorism but to see terrorism as an attack against Islam itself.
It is such clear and decisive positions taken by political and religious leaders alike that will do more to counter Islamophobia than anything else.
Islamophobia in America will fade quickly when Americans start hearing the voices of moderation rise from within the Islamic world.
That is why Najib’s speech was seen as so significant by his US audience; he didn’t just assert the relevant teachings of Islam concerning peace, fairness and tolerance but he also demanded that Muslims live up to them in their interactions with other nations, faiths and peoples.
Having summoned the world to action with his call for a “global movement of moderates”, it will now be incumbent upon Najib to lead with decisive action both at home and abroad.
To be sure, he cannot accomplish this on his own; other international political and religious leaders must also play their part.
For Malaysians, already caught up in the cross-currents of rising religious and racial intolerance, Najib’s remarks have particular significance.
His reminder that “being moderate, being fair and just, not only to Muslims but also to non-Muslims is … one of the pillars of Islam” resets the standard for dialogue and cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia.
While Malaysians are right to demand more than just nice words from their Prime Minister, they should not allow cynicism to keep them from appreciating and welcoming the voices of moderation whenever they are raised.
It is, after all, part of the process of drowning out the voices of extremism.
The Higher Education Ministry, for its part, can best contribute to this effort not by sending its experts on Islam to America but by sending them to our own schools and institutions of higher learning, and especially into the civil service, to promote the Prime Minister’s message of moderation and tolerance.
Our politicians and senior civil servants also need to take to heart Najib’s exhortation to take the high road when it comes to managing issues of race and religion. They must be the voice of reason that he alluded to, the voice that wants to engage constructively, to cooperate rather than confront and threaten.
In Malaysia, we have long promoted the mantra of leadership by example. We now have the opportunity of distinguishing ourselves as a nation by being a true example to the world of tolerance and moderation.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “We must be the change we want to see in the world”.