Sunday, January 17, 2010

‘We do protect the rights of non-Muslims’ - Najib Razak in Saudi

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, leader of a modern and progressing Muslim state, has umpteen issues to tackle locally as well as fight the global challenges facing the Muslim World.

Faheem Al-Hamid, Executive managing editor of Okaz newspaper, caught up with the Malaysian premier during his visit to the Kingdom. The Malaysian PM discussed at length various issues ranging from Muslim-Christian riots in Malaysia to the global image of Islam.

Q. How can Riyadh and Kuala Lumpur join hands in solving the problems of the Ummah?

A. I think both the countries are well poised to play their part in trying to solve the problems of the Ummah and also to promote the interest of the Ummah worldwide.
First of all, I would like to say that Saudi Arabia commands a lot of respect within the Muslim World. Obviously, it is a strategic country and King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is well respected in the Muslim World and beyond. Similarly, Malaysia is seen as a progressive and moderate Islamic country with a very good track record of managing ethnic and religious diversity. And we have very good linkages with the rest of the world because of our diversity, history, efforts that we have carried out over so many years.
We have a very good international networking. So, we both are well-poised to closely work together. And one of the topics of my discussions with King Abdullah is to find out how we – Saudi Arabia and Malaysia – can work out a common strategy to help the Ummah.

Q. According to media reports, a row over the use of word ‘Allah’ by Christians in Malaysia resulted in the burning of around 10 churches. Is this a serious sign of growing extremism back home?

A. First of all I would like to clarify that only one church was burnt and only its administrative portion was set ablaze. The others were minor incidents, which do not really constitute burning at all. And in some cases various objects were reportedly thrown into the compounds of some churches. It should not be seen as a widespread attempt by the larger Muslim community to attack churches in Malaysia. The situation in Malaysia is well undercontrol because of the early intervention by the government that led to the conflict cooling down very fast.
Also vast majority of Muslims in Malaysia are peace-loving people. They are moderate and don’t condone acts of violence against people of other faiths as it is against the teachings of Islam. As a matter of fact, a fair number of Muslim NGOs also came forward to safeguard the churches from being attacked by conducting negotiations and asking all to avoid controversies.
I also visited the church that was torched and have announced government’s contribution to repair the church. By and large things are back to normal in Malaysia. In order to find permanent solution to such problems, we are engaging the Christian community by conducting a dialogue with them and trying to work out a kind of mutually acceptable solution. On one hand, we have the Muslims who believe in the indivisibility of Allah, which is contrary to Christianity.
However, it would be worthy to note that the non-Muslims in Malaysia have been using this term as a cultural practice for over 100 years. So, it is more of a cultural practice. They don’t mean any harm to the Muslims. So, we understand the problem. We know where both sides are coming from.

Q. So, you don’t think that extremist tendencies are prevalent in Malaysia?

A. I don’t think so. This is a minor aberration. National unity and mutual respect between various racial and religious communities in Malaysia has been a cornerstone of Malaysia for a long time. We’ve taken pride in this. I took office last April. I came up with the concept of “1Malaysia”, this could be the basis, concept and philosophy on which we are trying to strengthen national unity.

Q. US embassy in Malaysia has issued a travel advisory warning against terrorist attacks on foreigners. How serious is this threat? What security measures have been taken by your government to tackle any untoward incident?

A. I am quite surprised they (the US authorities) came up with the travel advisory. We have no credible information regarding the perceived threat. The Minister of Home Affairs is here with me. We have not received any intelligence in that regard. We would like the Americans to share with us the information they claim to have received so that we can ascertain whether or not it is based on sound basis. However, as far as we are concerned, you know our track record, no terror incident had been reported in Malaysia. Alhamdulillah, as we have taken pre-emptive measures against such attacks.

Q. Does that mean that there is a lack of coordination between the two sides?

A. We are trying to find out the same, we rely on our security agencies’ information and crosscheck other reports. But the issuance of an advisory was a unilateral act.

Q. What was the impact of the global economic meltdown in your country and what strategies has Malaysia adopted to deal with similar economic crises in the future?

A. As you know it all basically started in the US and was exported worldwide and no country including Malaysia was spared. We’ve been, in a sense, quite fortunate because we went through the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and we learned from that crisis and had the importance of a strong financial and banking system. So, when the crisis hit us, the impact was not as severe as for many other countries due to a couple of reasons.
One, we have a resilient financial system. Our banking system is strong; our liquidity is very high, which led to a lot of confidence.
Secondly, we moved very fast by introducing two stimulus packages one after the other and those were the one of the world’s largest comprising 9 percent of our GDP that helped our country sustain economic activity. However, the rate of unemployment slightly increased but the situation was not as serious.
By and large it has not been very serious except for the manufacturing sector. However, we are on track this year, provided there are no hidden surprises.
Besides, we have a new economic model that will come up in two months that will unveil our fresh strategy to improve the overall economic situation of Malaysia.

Q. Mr. Prime Minister, Malaysia of Mahatir and Badawai is different from the Malaysia of today. What is your vision of the new Malaysia?

A. Well, you are right that this is a new Malaysia. People today are much more educated. Their minds are much more open now because of education and access to information via the Internet. And information is available to every citizen much more than ever before. So we are dealing with much more complex (situation) with high expectations from the citizens. It is a challenge for me as to how do I deal with this new political milieu as compared to my two predecessors. Of course, during Abdullah Badawi’s times the Internet and the new media were coming to the fore. But during Mahatir’s time, these things were missing from the political landscape. So, I believe that I should build on what my predecessors have done. There should be continuity and at the same time there should be change because with every change of leadership people expect new ideas and new approaches.

Q. What kind of change?

A. I started with this new mantra for Malaysia, which is a clearing call based on the mantra “1Malaysia”. This will be our guiding philosophy. Apart from various programs, I have identified certain areas such as crime, corruption, transport, education, rural infrastructure, income level and enhancement of social safety net. My style of leadership is that I came up with the “walk about” approach. I will go down anywhere unannounced to get hands-on information on various issues facing the masses so as to come up with their solutions there and then. By doing so, I am trying to reach out to as many people as I can.

Q. Malaysia is a moderate country and an example of ethnic diversity. What role can you play to change the image of Islam in the West?

A. I think the key is to communicate with the world so as to make them understand the true teachings of Islam. And we should also present ourselves in a way that speaks for Islam itself. For example, people who visit Malaysia are pleasantly surprised by the fact that how open, moderate and progressive a society Malaysia is.
They are surprised to see the cordial relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities and the friendly attitude of Malaysians towards all foreigners including those from the West. (This) really plays an important role.
Of course, there are a few black sheep, there might be slight aberrations along the way but that should not change people’s perception of what Malaysia stands for or what Malaysia is all about and that we do protect the rights of the non-Muslims. We’ll try to communicate with the Western world.
The challenge is the pre-conceived notions about Muslims and Islam and the media portrayal of Muslims. We have a huge challenge ahead of us.

Q. Are you interested in coordinating with Saudi Arabia and the OIC in this regard?

A. We need to talk to King Abdullah to promote dialogue for a better understanding of Islam and for the removal of misconceptions. The setting up of KAUST indicates that Saudi Arabia is reaching out to the world. More such models should be showcased to the world.

Q. What prospects do you see for Malaysian tourism in Saudi Arabia?

A. We’d love to welcome Saudis and we hope that the number of tourists from Saudi Arabia will increase in the future. Saudis will instantly relate to the hospitality of the Malaysian people.
Apart from the interesting marine life, tropical jungle, exotic food etc., medical tourism is also on the rise in Malaysia as the medical procedures are relatively cheap and of high quality as well. – Okaz/SG

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