One of President Obama's first acts in the war on terror was to officially de-emphasize Islam and its role in that fight. But in the Islamic world, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak is going in the opposite direction: engaging and mobilizing Islam to win the war against extremism. In a conversation I had with him in New York City this week, he explained why this is the right way to go.
Located in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is a country of more than 28 million, and the true definition of a melting pot. A former British colony, Malaysia is home to four major, and completely different ethnicities – Malay, Chinese, Indian and the indigenous people of the region. Although the official and predominant religion is Islam, this is a country where the constitution guarantees religious freedom. Living in peace together are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and more. This is a state that not only tolerates those faiths other than their own, but in fact celebrates them.
Much of Malaysia’s peace and prosperity is owed to the reformist and moderate policies of the country’s Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. At the United Nations this week, Najib laid out a path for peace between warring elements between the extremist elements of his Muslim brothers. Calling for a “movement of the moderates,” Najib hopes to show the rest of the Islamic world what a peaceful, harmonious, open society looks like.
In his speech to the UN this week, Najib said that the battle is not between Islam and other religions but, “between the moderates and extremists” in each religion including his own. He also noted that as a broader society, “we have inadvertently allowed the ugly voices of the periphery to drown out the many voices of reason and common sense.” For instance, the preacher in Florida had the right to burn the stack of Qur'ans recently, a right that many Americans have fought and died for, but as countless clam, rational adults have said, including the World Evangelical Alliance, a group of Evangelical Christian ministers, it was not in the preacher’s best interests or the interests of Christianity and the United States as a whole for him to do so. Besides the un-Christian nature of burning a foundational book of someone else’s religion, the spectacle would have given radical Muslim terrorists the perfect recruiting tool.
In Najib’s Malaysia, Islam does not look like Wahhabi traditions practiced in Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East nations, and by those like Osama Bin Laden. As Najib explained to me in an interview in New York this week, a fundamental tenet of Islam is peace, just as it is in Christianity. In the late 15th Century Catholics in Spain took an extremist view of their religion (and as a Catholic myself, my religion) and tortured and detained all those who would not bend to their faith. Of course today, you won’t find Catholics, or any Christians for that matter, stringing someone up in a dungeon for not following the same faith as them.
Through Najib’s moderate Islam, women aren’t segregated from society or restricted from an education or holding meaningful jobs. For instance, in Malaysia, women are not restricted from going to school as they are in Muslim nations in the Middle East. More than 60% of higher education students in Malaysia are women, a number that rivals that of the United States. Fozia Amanulla, is the C.E.O. and executive director of EONCAP Islamic Bank, and one of the first women to lead a bank in the Islamic world. That’s not a small feat for a majority Muslim society and an example that should be heeded by other Islamic nations.
Prime Minister Najib also sets an example on how a Muslim country can have constructive relationships with the US, and other Western countries. As a major trading partner with America, Malaysia has really come into it’s own, its economy growing at more than 6% a year, a statistic that seems only a distant memory to the current stagnant economy here in the states. As a contributor of military personnel to Afghanistan, a country that stood by the US and called for tough sanctions against Iran, and a nation that works with American educational institutions to share knowledge and students, Malaysia is a shinning example of how a majority Muslim country can embrace democracy, multi-faith and multi ethnic policies and become a peaceful, productive member of modern civilization. As Najib told the assembled world leaders at the UN, he hopes his call for moderation can bring about “a just, equitable and durable peace.”