The recent advice by the Sultan of Selangor for the Minister of Religious Affairs to attend himself the Bon Odori festival in order to get a first-hand understanding of what is culture and what is religion shows, among others, the need to reevaluate the qualification criteria of JAKIM officers and the leadership of that institution itself as well as the curriculum and pedagogy of religious schools.
I have written many articles on the aspect of reinforcing and complementing the religious curriculum of madrasahs and university subjects of Islam with other disciplines such as art, world history, culture and music so that the new crop of Islamic trained graduates would be able to adapt to a global presence in their effort of creating a more harmonious society instead of a society at odds with each other.
Firstly, I would recommend that the recruitment of JAKIM officers should contain two kinds of disciplines. The first kind is of course the traditional Islamic discipline but the second kind should come from various disciplines of mass communication, art and architecture, business studies, sciences and even music.
Those with the training of traditional studies must be given scholarship to train for a postgraduate degree in anthropology, mass comm, philosophy, education and anything else except Islamic studies.
Those with non-religious disciplines should study the Islamic postgraduate studies.
All these officers should be placed in countries where Islam is the minority population, so that all of them can feel the problems and understand the issues of the minority before they come back to Malaysia where they are the dominant majority.
The idea is to teach humility before they become officers with airs and arrogance thinking they know everything under the sun and thumb their noses on anything deemed un-Islamic or having nothing to do with Islam.
Secondly, I would suggest that all state religious affairs departments and JAKIM institution establish a board of advisors or experts committee whose members should comprise of Muslim professionals with backgrounds like medicine, arts, design, engineering and social sciences who have written or researched on aspects of Islam in their own disciplines.
These will ensure that they understand the issues of pronouncing fatwas even though they do not directly decide on any fatwas but act only in the advisory capacity.
I would also like the committee of experts to comprise of non-Muslims from differing faiths such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and others. This will ensure that the fatwa committee deciding whether one can put up a Nativity scene at the mall or display an Hindu idol as a decorative replica in public spaces to mark a national festivity will all be understood and presented in its proper context.
We need to have adequate contact with other cultures and communities aside from our own in order to create a more inclusive citizenry.
The third suggestion is for the Minister of Religious Affairs himself to get off from behind his plush office and visit the different houses of worship and break bread or makan nasi there in order to justify that his salary as a minister for all faiths in Malaysia is halal and not haram because he visits only mosques.
The minister must also visit minority groups like the LGBTs and try to understand their predicament in the society and have conversations with many Muslim prostitutes to find out why they suffer being unskilled, uneducated and shunned by the society.
I am disgusted at hearing sermons extolling great virtues of morality by those who do not know what they are talking about because they have not come to the ground and actually understood poverty, being uneducated and rejected by their own families without any social support that eventually drove them to these ‘vices’ of ‘immorality’.
This is what I think the gist of the Selangor Sultan’s statement when he advises Idris to come and tengok sendirilah dulu before judging things and people.
The fourth thing is to ensure that all madrasahs or religious schools have adequate contact with other cultures and communities aside from their own in order to create a more inclusive citizenry.
We have international schools, vernacular schools and religious schools that should be having activities together like sports, art performances and elocution contests, and not just sit behind high walls of exclusivity.
What kind of Malaysians are we producing this way?
The Bon Odori issue shows that we either address the problem of arrogance, incompetence and indifference of religious officers in the highest offices of governance or we risk destroying the very concept of Malaysia by intolerance and relegate Malaysia as the pariah nation in the global context.
(Prof Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at a local university and his writing reflects his own personal opinion entirely.)