Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Psychology, Culture and Indigenisation

(Below is an excerpt from my article bearing the same title above to be published in the forthcoming publication Psychology from the Islamic Perspective: A Guide to Teaching and Learning, Noraini Mohd Noor (Ed.), IIUM Press)

The primary task of this section is to clarify the differences between culture and religion. That the two concepts are different is a pre-conclusion of this discussion, and a deliberate attempt to confront the conventional assumption that religion is merely a component of culture.

'Culture' has been defined in many different ways in the different areas of social sciences. Some definitions focus on the functions of culture while others focus on the structures, representing respectively the functionalist and structuralist perspectives. The definition provided by Matsumoto and Juang (2004) attempts to integrate both these broad perspectives. Culture here is defined as:

"dynamic system of rules, explicit and implicit, established by groups, in order to ensure their survival, involving attitudes, values, beliefs, norms, and behaviours, shared by a group but harboured differently by each specific unit within the group, communicated across generations, relatively stable but with the potential to change across time."

Two key components of this definition are the structure of culture as a 'dynamic system of rules', and the function of culture 'to ensure survival'. Although a universally accepted definition of culture remains elusive, these two components are incorporated, in one form or another, in all definitions of culture.

'Religion' similarly does not have a universally acclaimed definition. However, what is arguably the most referred to definition of religion in the social sciences is the definition provided by social anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz (1973) defined religion as:

"a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

Geertz’s definition of religion, on one hand, is a positive recognition of the function of religion, but on the other, a subtle attempt to de-sacrelise religion. Religion is described here as a cultural system that may not necessarily have a divine origin whose effect on human behaviour and emotions therefore, are merely matters of human perception.

As a cultural system, religion has to be dynamic. And a dynamic system, essentially, is not static, hence is always incline towards change and continuous revision. This, however, is not in agreement with the views of scholars of religions. From their perspective, religion is a system that clarifies the answers for five quintessential issues: theology, doctrine and rituals, scriptures, cosmology, and eschatology (Smart, 1989; Eliade, 1981). While there are indeed certain provisions for hermeneutic change and revision, these five issues are essentially religious dogmas from which pillars of religion are based upon.

Islam is dynamic as there are indeed avenues for new interpretations of the divine law (shari’ah). The door for ijtihad (revised interpretation) remains open for Islamic religious scholars to explore in view of circumstantial and contemporary challenges (Kamali, 1994). However, this avenue is restricted both in terms of subject areas and individual qualification. The five pillars of Islam for example, are not open for new revisions, nor are the articles of faith and other doctrinal aspects. Furthermore, the majority of opinion amongst the ulama’ (Muslim relgious scholar) would subscribe to the view that only a mujtahid (one with sufficient knowledge) is given the provision to exercise ijtihad. A Muslim who is not knowledgeable about Islam is to seek guidance from the learned, and not to decide on matters of religion based on his/her own rational justification and logical deduction.

Is Islam a cultural system? The Islamic faith is not a philosophy open for individual cultural perspective. Islam is a revealed religion, revealed by Allah SWT to His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him). The message of Islam is preserved in the form of a book, the Holy Quran, which is divinely protected from all forms of corruption.

The cultural manifestations of Islam however, do exist. The two sources of the shari’ah, the Holy Quran and ahadith (Prophetic tradition); provide the general guide for Islamic conduct and responsibility. How these general guidelines are applied and manifested depends on cultural and individual preferences. For example, Muslim women are obliged to cover their awrah, which allows them to expose only the palm and the face. This is the general guide. How a Muslim woman fulfils this depends on her personal and cultural preferences. A Muslim woman in Malaysia would normally use the Malay traditional baju kurung, while a Muslim woman in Pakistan would normally use the traditional shawal kamis. Both these cultural manifestations are acceptable as long as they adhere to the guidelines in the shari’ah.

The religion of Islam is referred to in the Quran as ad-Din, a concept that explains Islam not only as a belief or cultural system but an all-encompassing entity that provides guidance for a distinct way of life and answers to the very purpose of one’s existence (al-Faruqi, 1982). Such attributes clearly goes beyond and above the realm of culture as explained in Western social sciences. With this Islamic worldview, compared to Western psychology, an Islamic indigenous psychology would naturally operate from a quite different epistemological assumption. As observed by Murken (cited in Khalili et al, 2002), secular Western psychology considers religion as merely one example of a cultural subsystem, i.e. a set of variable in research. In Islamic psychology however, religion (i.e. Islam) is the basis and framework for everything. Islam is not a variable to be evaluated, but the very principle that guides the judgment and understanding of Muslim psychologists both in research and practice. Herein lies the unique characteristic of Islamic indigenous psychology as espoused in much of the work on the Islamization of psychology.


Al Faruqi, I.R. (1982). Al-Tawhid: Its implications for thought and life. Virginia: International Institute of Islamic Thought.

Eliade, M. (1981). A history of religious ideas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Kamali, M.H. (1994). Freedom of expression in Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing.

Khalili, S., Murken, S., Reich, K.H., Shah, A.A. & Vahabzadeh, A. (2002). Religion and mental health in cultural perspective: Observations and reflections after the First International Congress on Religion and Mental Health, Tehran, 16-19 April 2001. The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion. 12(4), 217-237.

Matsumoto, D. & Juang, L. (2004). Culture and psychology. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Smart, N. (1989). The world’s religions. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

British Conspiracy Against Islam

All this hype on the latest James Bond movie reminds me of a little book I read a few years ago, Confessions of a British Spy and British Enmity against Islam. I first came across this book in 2001 at the masjid in Joensuu, Finland. A fellow postgraduate student from Turkey at the University of Joensuu had placed the book there because he was apparently uncomfortable with the influence of Salafi teachings among members of the congregation.

Confessions was allegedly written based on the memoir of a British secret agent named Hempher who served in various undercover operations in the Middle-East for the British government in the 19th century. The book presents in some detail what was arguably Hempher’s greatest mission: to engineer the destruction of the Ottoman Empire by empowering local rebellious groups. To gain control of the Arab Peninsular, Hempher sought the assistance of a local cleric and community leader Muhammad Ibn Abd Wahab from Najd, who went on to spread a puritanical and revivalist version of Islam known today as Wahhabism.

I do not wish to indulge too much on the content of the book (curious readers can access the entire book in PDF format by clicking on the full title of the book in the first paragraph). Sufficient to say its main thesis is, the Wahhabi movement and Salafi teachings are products of a British conspiracy initially designed to hasten the demise of the Ottoman Empire, and to sow a perpetual sense of ‘religious’ rivalry and antagonism among Muslims.

Of course, it would be naive (and stupid) to say that spies and espionage missions do not exist but to say that Wahhabism is a product of British conspiracy to me is more paranoia than reality. The fact is, the authenticity of Confessions has been put in serious doubt by both Muslim and non-Muslim researchers, which by right should render the book to a status of a work of historical fantasy and imagination. Nonetheless, the book remains very popular among Muslims especially among the young, idealistic and those with a political-reformist mentality.

Conspiracy theories are in abundance in the internet. I have to confess that I do occasionally go through them but I do so more out of curiosity and for entertainment. I used to attend a Salafi-Wahhabi study group and I clearly do not see how Salafism can be construed as something other than a genuine approach (among many approaches) to understand and practice Islam. What has given Wahhabism and Salafism a bad name are their alleged followers, those with extreme views and militant tendencies like Usama Bin Laden. Yes, Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, and in Saudi Arabia Wahhabism and Salafism are dominant, but just because Bin Laden and some of his followers subscribe to these approaches, does that make Wahhabism and Salafism absolutely bad and dangerous?

Extremists exist everywhere, in Wahhabi-Salafi groups as well as among followers of other approaches. A friend of mine once received an 'advise' from a Salafi sister that he should stop wearing trousers because wearing trousers is an imitation of Western-kafir culture. I myself was once 'warned' by someone that if I do not make bai’ah to his sheikh hence joining his tarikah, I will be led astray by the devil and end up in hell fire. These are examples of people with extreme views who genuinely believe that they are in the right while others are wrong. Nevertheless, it needs to be emphasised that while most terrorists are indeed extremists, very few extremists are in fact terrorists. There are millions of Muslims in the world who subscribe wholeheartedly to the writings and words of Ibn Taymiyyah, Muhammad Ibn Abd Wahab, Nasaruddin Al-Albani and Abdul Aziz Bin Baz. The views of these respectable scholars to many are extreme (refer to the collection of articles at Mas'ud Ahmed Khan's homepage), but very few among their followers went on to become militants and terrorists.

My point is, the Wahhabism-British-conspiracy theory is in fact a myth, likewise the alleged association between Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda with Wahhabi political ideology as well as many other so-called conspiracies against Islam associated with various international organisations (a subject I wish to address in future postings inshaAllah). We can be followers of Wahhabism, Salafism, Sufism, Ikhwanul Muslimin, Jama’ah Tabligh etc. In the end, we are all Muslims, united by the same Tawhidic doctrine amid our differences in some specific aspects of belief and practice. Let’s stop this paranoia with conspiracy theories and the seeds of distrust that it carries.


Friday, 14 November 2008

AUKU and the Generation of the Uncurious

"Our education system must change. Our children are just not curious enough. They must be curious about the world. They must ask questions." These are the words uttered by Deputy Prime Minister (and in-coming Prime Minister) Najib Abdul Razak in his opening speech yesterday at the Seminar on Creating a Blue Ocean in Education and Training Sectors in Kuala Lumpur.

Back in August this year, I attended a forum organised by the network of academic staff associations to discuss suggestions on amendments to be made to the University and University College Act (more widely known by its Malay acronym AUKU – Akta Universiti dan Kolej Universiti). AUKU (in its current state today) was enacted in 1975 to disallow university and college students as well as all academicians from being actively involved in political parties. The bill was tabled by the then Minister of Education Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in the aftermath of the Baling Demonstration organised by student and youth organisations and supported by many academicians. Anwar Ibrahim was allegedly the key youth leader who organised the demonstration, and Dr. Syed Husin Ali (then a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya) was one of the academicians who openly supported the event. Both were swiftly detained under the ISA, and both are now respectively the De-Facto Leader and Deputy President of the main opposition party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (National Justice Party).

In the AUKU forum mentioned above, the keynote address was delivered by a former vice-chancellor of a public university here in Malaysia. Reminiscing on the ‘good old-days’ of pre-AUKU, the former VC described the time when academicians were welcomed to express their critical views on political leaders and current issues effecting the country, student unions very active in various social-political activities, and student leaders celebrities in campuses across the country. But to me, the highlight of his presentation was his response to the oft-repeated statement that "AUKU is important to make sure students concentrate on their studies." His swift respond, "close all campuses... have all academic courses conducted online".

Let me add a bit more to the point above. Since public universities nowadays are pressured to become more financially self-sufficient, all lectures should be pre-recorded in an 'infotainment' format, mass copied in DVDs and then sold to students. Thus, at the start of every semester, after registering for a set of courses, student can go to bookshops as well as Tower Records and Speedy video stores to buy the DVD’s and then view them at their own convenience any time anywhere throughout the semester. If they have any inquiries, they can email the academic coordinator of the course, use Yahoo Messenger and other chatting programmes, or even use video conferencing for individual consultation. Students need only come to campus to take their exams. If this is done, not only will universities make money from the sales of these 'academic' DVDs, they will also reduce drastically their operation cost. Students would be happy having been given the freedom to study at their own pace and not troubled by the need to rush from class to class every day. Professors and lecturers can thus devote more time in research and academic activities other than teaching. Surely, this is a win-win situation, or is it?

Coming back to AUKU, if the reason to continue to have it is to prevent students from getting involved in partisan politics, I can agree with that to a certain extent. As my university’s former president once said, "there are no principles in partisan politics." But then, if that is the case, let us be fair and not selective. If students can be charged for misconduct because of their involvement in campaigning for opposition parties, students who act as 'volunteers' in UMNO gatherings should also be charged for the same crime. If the PAS youth movement is not allowed to infiltrate into campuses, Puteri and Putera UMNO should also be barred from recruiting members from among university students. If professors and lecturers are not allowed to become members of PAS, DAP and PKR, they also should not be allowed to become members of UMNO, MCA and MIC.

My personal view, and in respond to the DPM’s statement quoted in the first paragraph, let us abolish AUKU. Give freedom to students and academicians to explore their own sense of idealism without fear of punishment. Of course, if anyone transgresses; immersing oneself in politics while neglecting one’s principle duties as a teacher or a student, the person must be punished. But let’s not punish people for questioning the status quo and exploring differing political ideologies.

I am quite certain if the government decides to abolish AUKU, it will not result in an explosion of public support for opposition parties. When given the freedom to explore and reflect, people will eventually realise that while the current government is not always right, the opposition parties are not immune from mistakes and weaknesses either. The main thing is, students should be allowed to question and encouraged to develop a healthy sense of scepticism about everything they learn.

Three decades of AUKU has produced a culture of passive submission prevalent among university students and academicians. Should we then be surprised that "our children are just not curious enough"?

Monday, 10 November 2008

Bangsa Malaysia

In the book Introduction to Political Psychology (published by Lawrence Erlbaum in 2004), the authors assert that the best long-term solution to ethnic conflicts is "the development of an overarching common identity among the groups". In the case of Malaysia, this suggestion would call for the creation of a Malaysian Race (Bangsa Malaysia), a call embedded in the Vision 2020 (Wawasan 2020) blueprint announced in 1991 by the then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysia is indeed a country blessed with economic prosperity and decades of peace and harmony. Many other countries who gained independence around the same period (in the aftermath of World War II) have been beset with periods of instability due to ethnic-religious conflicts. In contrast, Malaysia has had only one major racial clash, the tragic event on 13th May 1969. Yet, the situation in Malaysia remains fragile, and to some superficial. Though violent conflicts are very rare, tension is very high, thus the need to ensure that the multiracial society of Malaysia remains solidly united.

How can we use psychology to promote Bangsa Malaysia? My personal view would mirror the ideas expressed by B.F. Skinner in his controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. According to Skinner (1971), to elicit change in a society, the culture of the society should be changed. To him, "designing a culture is like designing an experiment; contingencies are arranged and effects noted. In an experiment we are interested in what happens, in designing a culture with whether it will work." (p.69)

So, the question now is, how can we design a culture here in Malaysia that is geared towards the creation of Bangsa Malaysia? Changes can be made at different spheres and levels in the society through the education system and the mass media. These new initiatives are geared towards one simple objective: to promote greater ‘meaningful’ interaction among people from the various racial groups in Malaysia. This is in accordance with the contact hypothesis, which states that relations among groups can be enhanced by greater interaction, which brings forth greater awareness and understanding, and eventually a greater sense of solidarity.

At schools, students should be encouraged to learn about the cultures, religions and languages of other ethnic groups. Malay students for example, should be strongly encouraged (if not required) to learn Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil, and learn to appreciate and respect beliefs and customs of the Chinese and Indians. I once argued in a workshop on inter-religious dialogue here in Kuala Lumpur that we should re-introduce the subject Tatanegara (Civic Education) in our national schools. Tatanegara was a short-lived subject taught from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s as a core course at primary schools. Although the course was no longer taught when I started school in 1984, I have come across some of the textbooks used for the course. In reviving the course, the new syllabus should incorporate information on common values shared by different religions and customs. Values such as justice, honesty and filial piety exist in all religious teachings, and this ought to be emphasized to students of all religions and beliefs.

In the past several years, the government has been running the National Service Programme (Program Latihan Khidmat Negara) to promote greater interaction among teenagers (age seventeen) of different races. Similar programmes (with similar goals but far less logistic requirements) ought to be introduced earlier at the national level involving for example Year Six students (upon completion of their UPSR examination), and Form Three students (after their PMR examination). The programmes should be non-academic but involve meaningful activities such as humanitarian work and environmental projects. By working towards a common goal, students from different racial groups will learn to cooperate together and realize the importance and benefit of national unity and solidarity. Inadvertently, this may also help diminish whatever sense of prejudice they may have against people of different races and religions.

I have sought the opinions of my students this semester on how we can use psychology to create Bangsa Malaysia. Many of their suggestions are similar to what I’ve stated above while they are others who have argued for a more creative use of the media. Among those are proposals for ‘multicultural’ reality TV shows such as Academy Malaysia and Intercultural Explorace. And, in addition, the airing of more bilingual informative and entertainment programmes with multicultural characters and subtle use of cross-cultural messages.

In conclusion, after more than fifty years of independence, multiculturalism in Malaysia should strive towards the true spirit of muhibbah (love and understanding). To be a member of the Malaysian race is not to lose our respective ethnic and religious identities but to attain a genuine feeling of respect of and tolerance for others.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

2008 US Election: Understanding Voting Behaviour

Can Barack Obama still lose the election despite leading in all the polls less than 3 days before election day? Of course he can. Nothing is certain in politics. A lot can still happen between now and Tuesday. As Obama himself pointed out, "it’s gonna get nasty" in these last few days. Already, news of Obama's Kenyan aunt's illegal status in America has just 'conveniently' emerged. And the Republicans, not wanting to appear personal in it's attack, simply commented that "it is a family matter". Nice!

Analysis and predictions on how Obama could still lose the election range from sensational conspiracy theories to some very pertinent and real social psychological phenomena. Of the latter, one that I am most curious about is the Bradley effect. In 1982, Tom Bradley, an African-American, ran as the Democratic Party's candidate for Governor of California. All the polls before the election showed Bradley with significant leads against his White-American Republican rival. Bradley however narrowly lost the election and his defeat was attributed to a large number of White voters who voted against him despite proclaiming their support prior to the election in response to polling questions. Why? Because these White voters feared being labelled as racists if they told pollsters they were not going to vote for Bradley.

The Bradley effect will certainly come into play in this year's US Presidential Election. That is without a doubt. The only question is how significant will it be? Will it be significant enough to give John McCain an unlikely victory? Many political commentaters and Obama supporters think that it won't. The McCain camp agrees while at the same time hoping that it would. We'll just have to wait and see.

Whether Obama or McCain gets elected is not of direct concern to us non-Americans. However, once you consider that the US President is the leader of the world's largest economy and most powerful military, hence arguably the most powerful man on earth, we, citizens of the world should observe the elections with keen interest. There is no doubt that most people outside America want Barack Obama to win. His multicultural background indeed is a major factor, but above all, I believe Obama's plan to reinvigorate international diplomacy in his foreign policy; a refreshing change to the Bush doctrine, that has really endeared him to the international community.

Furthermore, for many non-Americans like myself, the choice is pretty obvious. As W Scott Thompson pointed out, "McCain came in near the bottom of his (Naval) Academy class, Obama the top (Harvard Law School). Sarah Palin had to try five times to get through college (earning a bachelor degree in journalism). Obama ran the Harvard Law Review — you can’t get higher. Why wasn’t the choice obvious?" I can't agree more.

Which brings me to the issue of political sophistication. In 1960, psychologists from the University of Michigan conducted a landmark study on how Americans decide on who and which party they would vote for. The survey's result, published in the book The American Voter, categorised Americans into four groups of levels of conceptualisation. The first two groups; the ideologues and near-idealogues who account for 2.5 percent and 9.5 percent of the American population respectively, are party loyalists who vote for their respective parties partly due to their strong belief in the party's ideology, but arguably more because of blind loyalty. The rest in the population are 'independent voters', who may be persuaded to vote for a particular party or candidate because of "group benefits" (42 percent of the population), "the nature of times" (24 percent), and for no reason whatsoever (22.5 percent, which represents the number of Americans who don't care and not interested about politics, and most likely has never voted in any elections). This study was of course done almost 50 years ago but a recent study published in the book The American Voter Revisited presents some very startling similar results.

What these studies have basically concluded is that the majority of Americans are unsophisticated voters; they don't understand the main issues in the elections and they don't do any research or serious thinking when they cast their votes. A damning revelation considering that the reason why we have direct presidential elections in the first place is to choose the best leader to lead a country. How can the 'best' person be elected if the majority of the population are ignorant on the issues? In reality, the person who is elected is one who has the most number of votes (in America, that would mean the electoral college votes), but when the people who voted them in are considerably ignorant, does the person who receives the highest votes really is the BEST person to lead the country? This is what we call the paradox of democracy.

If the reason not to vote for Obama is his inexperience, that is quite understandable. His lack of executive experience is indeed an issue but the fact that he has managed to run a successful and discipline campaign (he has never used race as an issue) against firstly the Clintons, and now against John McCain, shows what an astute person he is, a quality I believe is more important than mere number of years of experience (and a mounting political baggage that comes with it) in the senate. Even then, I can understand why some people would still vote for McCain because of his greater experience and image as a maverick.

What I don't understand is why many Americans are still supporting McCain's running mate Sarah Palin? The case for Sarah Palin is that she is an average American, a hockey mum, who connects with the American people. Well yes, she is just as ignorant! Her public statements in the last two months have shockingly exposed the vastness of her ignorance, which for a person who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency, is really unbelievable. In that sense, yes, Sarah Palin can relate to the hockey mums and Joe Six-Packs in America. But as Jon Meacham's Newsweek wrote, "do we (Americans) want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?"

I would argue for the latter for America and all other countries in the world. And for that to happen, voters need to acquire greater political sophistication.