Whither ABIM: Quietly and with Persistence

I wrote the following observations last year. It’ been almost 6 months. It’s been a strange season weather-wise.

It’s over for this generation of Islamic activists. We tried and failed, but time is on our side. We must plant the seeds for an Islamic future in the next generation through social change. We must alter the mindset and mentality of people through an Islamic value system. We do this through example and education. We do it quietly and with persistence.”

This comment made by a prominent political official in Hamas, the largest political faction in the Palestinian Islamic movement, reflects the thinking of many, perhaps most, members of the Islamic political leadership in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The statement tells us of the dramatic change taking place within the Palestinian Islamic movement, which is characterized by a shift in emphasis from political and military action to social/cultural reform and community development work. Although the Islamic political, and to a lesser extent, military, sectors remain active, the thrust of activity within the Islamic movement now lies in the social realm–in the provision of community services and the promotion of developmental initiatives.

Are there lessons to be learnt from the experience of our Palestinian brethren? The relevance of these words is persuasive within the context of Malaysia and its Islamic community. These changes have been occurring in Malaysian Islamic NGO’s for some years, especially in the case of ABIM, the most prominent of such Malaysian organizations. Recent developments, in particular the introduction and enforcement of the Youth Societies and Youth Development Act 2007, could substantially change the historical role of the organization and its ability to meet 21st century challenges.

In Malaysia, many of us in ABIM are waiting anxiously for the arrival of 31st December 2008. It is when ABIM, by now already mistakenly regarded by many as a youth organization, will have to submit itself to an all-too-restrictive act. This act , once it comes into force, will compel organizations which have, among other considerations, the word ‘youth’ in its organization’s name, or operate to provide ‘youth activities‘ as its core business, to come under the jurisdiction of the Act and have its ‘youth activities’ carefully controlled. Is this not yet another example of the Muslims’ “creeping fascism”?

The key question to be addressed is the true mission and vision of ABIM: Is it an organization providing services to Muslim youth, or is it a Muslim group which provides youth services as a part of its mission and vision? The answer to this question dictates whether it falls under the new act or continues to be regulated under the Societies Act. This distinction is not pedantic or academic. It goes right to the heart of the organization, its raison detre, if you will.

We are all aware that ABIM has been in the centre of socio-political changes in Malaysia for a substantial period of time, almost from its inception. It has brought about significant changes in many aspects of Malaysian history, including the establishment of important Islamic institutions and Islamic-related policies.

Changes within other diverse components of the Malaysian landscape command an advocacy and search for knowledge that speaks of our Islamic nature, not our age or the fact that we are under 40. Malaysia’s history and culture is one of diversity, respect, and consensus-building within a society which is factually and legally a majority Muslim country. ABIM’s role in helping form this great nation has been central. But it has represented the interests of all Muslims in seeking these collaborations and policies. It has represented not merely the voice of the youth of the country, but as the voice of all Muslims on Islamic matters.

What does ABIM look like after over 30 years? How and why has it changed? What position does ABIM now occupy within the sphere of the Islamic movement and what position does the movement occupy within the social constellation of Malaysia? To what extent and in what ways do ABIM and its leaders generally constitute a force of order and moderation rather than the disorder and extremism so often depicted in the media, both nationally and internationally? Will the Youth Act cripple ABIM as an Islamic NGO?

Each of these questions must be addressed. In the first instance, it is highly significant that ABIM is a now analogous to a conglomerate, with sections dedicated to education, outreach, charity, policy consultation on Islamic matters, and interfaith activities to encourage understanding and acceptance among all of us. These programs have evolved within the six major objectives spelled out in its constitution, of which only two are youth-related matters.

ABIM’s role has evolved a great deal since it originated. Focused on political impact, incorporation of Islamic values within the Muslim community, and our basic concepts of fairness within the national government, it was – and arguably remains – the leading voice of Islamic conscience among the country’s NGOs.Since 1999 that role has waxed and waned with changes in the political system and BN’s focus through 2008.

The 8th of March elections changed our political landscape. We now have two distinct political coalitions, which reflect different views of Islamic thinking and the role of varying ethnicities within our culture. ABIM’s role now, in these conflicted times, appears to be growing into one of clear Islamic reason in an ever more secular and race-based political environment. It is important to note that in Islam while the question of race has its own significance; it ultimately makes no man better than another, because superiority among men and women is only in taqwa, that is, piety and devotion. It is this role as rational broker of Islamic values in a society growing ever more conflicted that again engages ABIM’s core mission.

Collaterally, how will ABIM impact our society within the national and international media? It is more than noteworthy that the work of the organization in the areas of education, advocacy, interfaith initiatives, international networking, and position statements has received some attention in both arenas. Nationally, ABIM must overcome the prejudices and party alignments of the mainstream media, and make its role, its policies and its activities more accessible to the general Malaysian Public. And this requires a great deal of spade work. If we let our status be reduced and narrowed to that of a mere “youth” organization, then the capability to fulfill many of our prime missions is either diminished or removed. We will also miss the chance of expanding ABIM’s capability as an Islamic NGO into a wider spectrum of the changing Malaysian civil society movement; the role it has effectively resumed lately through its leadership in various Islamic NGO coalitions and engagements in strategic networking enterprises nationally and regionally.

It is also important to note that the time has come for ABIM to prepare itself as an organization of various ages, holding a common charter of protection and advocacy for the values of Islam. It is this omni-racial aspect which elevates the group to more than an exclusivist Islamic NGO. It speaks for universal values from an Islamic world view.

The answer to the question of whether ABIM will be crippled by the upcoming Youth Act must be based upon our understanding of the vision of ABIM and the impact of the new law, should we choose to be covered by it. Let us consider our constituent groups. What will happen with its Outreach program and its charitable components, if restricted to the under-forty generation? And would such an NGO be able to effectively issue statements on policies or issues affecting Muslims in general or which require Islamic community reaction?

To say that we are merely a “youth” organization is to abandon our charter, which is to abandon our faith in the power of Islamic conscience to affect change in an increasingly secular world. Personal ambition and internal politics must come to an end in order to uphold the nobility of this organization and to ensure its relevance and progressive continuity into the future. After over 30 years of its significant existence, we can’t afford to entertain small minds who discuss their peers with sarcasm and disrespect. The present ABIM central leadership must take a greater role in our noble mission and vision, and the 40-year age-limit should not be allowed to create even more of generation gap that already exists between our youth and their elders.

27th November 2008

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