Are you a Singaporean?
No. I was born and raised in Singapore, but moved to Malaysia in 2008 at the age of 14. My family and I are now Malaysian citizens and we have renounced our Singaporean citizenships.
Are you a Muslim?
Yes, I am.
Is your father Othman Hamzah, the 80s singer?
Yes, he is.
You speak a lot on religion, but do not wear the hijab. Why?
I have written about my views on the hijab here. Other than the fact that I believe the hijab is not mandatory, I am not one to change my exterior just to please a crowd. The problem with a lot of Muslims is that they emphasise on the superficial. We are so afraid of the ‘unknown’ that we expect people to portray who they are on the inside, on the outside, but simple observation of our surroundings will show that looks can always be deceiving. I think it is necessary that we complicate the image of Muslims so as to let the world know that our creed is not a monolith and that our identity is our spirituality – not our cloth.
But don’t you think that religion has rules?
Yes, they do. However, I believe that the fundamental tenets of every religion is compassion and mercy. What separates us is our form or worship and our different beliefs in the manifestations of God (or a Divine). The problematic part about religion is ironically also the most beautiful – the diversity of interpretations, theologies, and philosophies within the particular religion itself. While I hold true to the underlying foundational beliefs of Islam, I believe that rules can and should be contended, especially if there is still a discourse surrounding it.
You always emphasise on ‘different interpretations’. Why do you do that?
Because it is important to acknowledge different interpretations of Islam. The religion does not exist in a vacuum, it affects different people – Muslims or not – in different ways because of the chosen interpretation of a particular system, society, or community. If there are injustices and oppressions committed in the name of religion, we have to dissect the problem and understand where the justification comes from.
We should just listen to the consensus. Why do you question the ijma?
In this column, I explain that “Historically, what is or isn’t mainstream (in Islam) has always been a function of power, not of truth.” (Iyad El-Baghdadi) I think it is worth noting that a lot, if not most, of the consensus regarding religious issues were issued by political rulers. There are many instances in which agendas or cultural practices turn into theological ‘truth’, thus we should continue to question and seek answers to learn to draw the line between our spirituality and politics. Remember: Those who obey blindly are those who enable the actions of tyrants.
Why do you always rebuke religion?
There is a difference between rebuking the religion in itself, and rebuking a particular interpretation of the religion. What I constantly criticise is the way the religion is practiced and the interpretation that we chose to follow. Most of what we understand of Islam today is taught to us through education and culture – it has nothing to do with Truth and it is mostly political (refer to above Q&A).
What is your objective in doing all this?
My journey of a short few years in studying Islam not only made me realise that there are so many interpretations of the religion, but that there are also other interpretations of a supposed Islamic practice that does not instil prejudice into the believer. I raise awareness regarding the diversity of theology in Islam so that I can present alternative interpretations on a certain subject that is inherently more compassionate and merciful than the conventional way it is being practiced today in hopes that it will reform the attitudes of contemporary Muslims. However, I understand the risks involved in doing this. What makes this form of activism harder is the fact that most people no longer are able to tell the difference between religious politics and religion itself.
But in studying religion, we need to talaqqi. Do you do that?
Yes. I think the common misconception here is that whenever someone wants to learn more about Islam, they need to refer to one teacher. I may not have one fixed teacher, but I have met a vast variety of Islamic scholars and/or preachers who each have their own knowledge of the religion to teach and pass on to me. The different knowledge that I have received from different people at different times opened me up to the reality of a diverse Islam. I’ve never agreed with the concept of following or listening to only one teacher because it ultimately limits the kind of information you get. I have also realised this common phenomenon in which people who respect and look up to their teachers ‘too much’ tend to be prejudiced towards anyone else who believes in anything different from what their teachers taught them.
Why do you always criticise certain ulama?
While I believe in trusting scholars, I do not believe in trusting all scholars. I give credit where credit is due, and someone who uses religion to preach or justify segregation, supremacy, divisiveness, sectarianism, racism, homophobia etc. is a scholar not worthy of my respect. I think it is also important to know that criticising an ulama is not akin to criticising the religion.
What kind of Islam do you follow?
I am against sectarianism in all its forms. I am a Muslim, and that’s that. People do not own my religious experience, and the only person that I need to answer to is God.
Why are you still a Muslim? Isn’t it easier to just leave?
I am still a Muslim because I still believe in the fundamental tenets of the religion. Also, it is not ‘easier to leave’ as institutionalised religion has taught us that moral sins such as blasphemy is worthy of shame, or in extreme cases, even death. Religion today insists on playing God. You can read the story of openly ex-Muslim, Juli Jalaludin, here.
Aren’t you afraid that what you are doing is against God?
Sometimes, but I rarely think about it. The Afterlife is not something I stress myself over. I do my activism with good intentions, aiming for the betterment of humanity. I have vowed to myself that if I do not strive to make the world a better place than when I first found it, I do not deserve Heaven. If God was All-Knowing, He would understand. But if my attempts at emancipating the oppressed is sinful, it’s fine. I’d rather go to Hell for trying to make life Heaven for others, than go to Heaven by making life Hell for others. As long as there are people telling me that fighting for human rights is ‘against religion’, I will follow my moral compass straight to Hell.
Aren’t you tired?
Extremely. There are many days where I feel like giving up and stop going against the tide. But the messages that I get from people daily thanking me for speaking up on behalf of them because they are afraid to do so themselves make me realise that this fight is bigger than I am. And even though I might not live to see the changes I hope to make, it is enough for me to know that I was a part of the fight before I pass.
Why do you despise Malays so much when you are one?
I know a lot of wonderful Malays, but also a large and very significant amount with extremely regressive mentalities and a fear of what they do not understand that’s so strong that they attack, discriminate and slander anyone who is remotely different than them.
I was born into and raised within a Malay community, and working in activism for the past few years introduced me to a larger group of Malay people (both online and offline) that extend beyond what I was exposed to when I was growing up and when I was in school.
These are hardline political Malays who’s supremacist ideals are more important than our forefather’s dreams of turning Malaysia into the secular state it was supposed to be. What better way to make a nation of God-abiding people succumb to you other than by telling them that it’s no good to question and we should just follow our authorities and scholars?
The easiest comparison to make of them is that they’re akin to Trump – despite what people have said about them, more than half of the country still love them and vote for them every time. These hardline political Malays win their constituencies time and time again, they pander to the conservatives (which makes up majority of the Malay population) thus earning them an extremely large, loyal, and blind following.
The Marrakesh Declaration got it right when it said “in these lands where the government’s central authority is weak, fading, or failing, the Muslim majority, in reality, is often no better off than the religious minorities.” In Malaysia, Malay = Muslim, and it is a reality that with the use of religion in politics, the Malay majority are actually the more oppressed people due to the rigid policies founded on Wahabbi interpretations of the religion, which, when are implemented into law and taught from young, is indistinguishable from ‘truth’.
Why do I despise the Malays? If you delve into politics and religious politics, understanding history and policies, knowing how it has actually affected the way we think ever since we were young, met the people that I’ve met, saw what I saw, heard what I heard, and listen every single day to the lies these people spread about you and your peers… You’d despise them too.
Nonetheless, I obviously do not hate all Malays. It’s just the prevalent mentalities and attitudes that exist in a significant amount of us.