On June 24, 1997, a joint meeting of the Islamic Affairs Development Committee and Islamic Consultative Body, chaired by the Acting Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, decided to introduce Islamic Civilization Studies as a compulsory subject in all public and private institutions of higher learning in Malaysia, effective from 1998. Announcing this decision, the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Datuk Dr Abdul Hamid Othman, said that it was intended "to promote tolerance and understanding."
The decision was made by a single religious body without consultation with religious councils or political organizations of non-Muslims, who make up about half of the total population of Malaysia. Needless to say, it was met with opposition from many social groups, including the youth groups of the three major Chinese-based political parties, such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Gerakan Party and the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
The MCA Youth Group, for example, expressed concern that the move could stir up confusion and misunderstanding in a multi ethnic and multi-religious society like Malaysia. The Gerakan youth opined that the course should be made compulsory for all Malays, but should be optional for other religious groups, and that courses on other religious civilizations should also be introduced to promote tolerance and mutual understanding between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
The DAP youth felt that the decision was discriminatory in that non-Muslims have to pass Islamic Civilization Studies without being given the opportunity to learn about their own civilizations. They stressed that while it is important for non-Muslims to study Islamic history, it is equally important for Muslims to study the history of non-Muslim religions to promote mutual understanding. "How can we promote understanding among various races [and religious groups] if the Muslims do not know about other civilizations?" they asked.
Several religious organizations also expressed their "concern and dismay." They included the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, and the Council of Churches, among others. The general consensus among the non-Muslim organizations is that all students should have adequate knowledge and appreciation for one another's religions to promote tolerance and mutual understanding. In fact, a few Malay individuals had also expressed cautions regarding the sensitivity of the issue out of fear that things might get out of hand at the practical level. Some political observers were equally surprised that such a decision was made at all. To them, the decision did not augur well for a country that has been promoting itself as a successful multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, and is now moving to become a regional hub for higher education. They viewed this move as the first unpopular decision made in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's stint as the Acting Prime Minister while Prime Minister Dr. Mohamad Mahathir is on vacation.
This might very well be a test of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's sensitivity as a future national leader in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. It could be an even greater test for his supporters' sensibility to see how far and how fast they can push their outmoded theocratic ideology into action. Following objections raised by the various non-Muslim religious and political organizations over the proposal, the Cabinet was quick to defuse the confusion on July 9 by counter-proposing that all university students should study other Asian civilizations besides Islamic civilization. A leading non-Muslim political party responded by saying that, under the new decision, "university students will have the opportunity to learn the history of major civilizations and thus become more open and tolerant towards one another," and that "this will promote harmony and peace in a multi-racial society." This sounds more like wishful thinking than anything else, although observers do not rule out its relevance and importance as part of the political agenda in nation-building.
While it is generally agreed that the new arrangement may enable university students to learn the history and development of major civilizations and thus enable them to better appreciate one another's religious civilizations, the actual test of openness and tolerance is not so much whether the university students have the opportunity to understand the history and development of major civilizations, but whether they as university students will look for the opportunity on their own free will and whether they can be more sensitive and empathic to the reality of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society and the world beyond, after having acquired an understanding of the major civilizations.