In August last year, 34-year-old Yusri Mohamad was entrusted with the responsibility - reluctantly, by admission - to head the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) for the 2005/2007 session. He takes over from Ahmad Azam Abdul Rahman, 46, who held the post for eight years. The International Islamic University law lecturer who is now doing his PhD in Islamic Jurisprudence told HUSNA YUSOP how he felt being one of the youngest NGO leaders during meetings with the government and why the previous leadership had decided on a younger line-up this session.
theSun: How do you feel after six months of leading Abim, one of the most prominent youth organisations in the country?
Yusri: I took over this post fully knowing it is going to be very taxing on myself personally, especially time-wise. It is a full-time job but I am not in the position to take this post up full-time. So, what I have feared more or less has come true, in terms of the burden, pressure and time constraint. Because, I am doing my PhD which is at the crucial stages, in a way, as time is running out as far as my PhD is concerned. And I am also, Alhamdulillah, a father and husband of a sizeable family. My fifth child is coming in May, InsyaAllah. The kids are at the stage where they are very active, very unforgiving and not very rational, as far as their demands are concerned. So this is the hectic nature of the situation. But I am not really complaining. It is something that I have already expected. Other than that, I feel very honoured to be a part of something which I feel is very important, as far as Islam is concerned. Because, it is an accepted fact that civil society is a crucial component in any society. Throughout history, Islam has always, as a religion, survived partly due to the social forces - the natural, independent social institutions and movements in the society. The civil society must be nurtured and supported if you really want to have a vibrant Islamic-inspired community.
What is the challenge, being a young person at the top of an organisation which has high expectations from the society?
If you look at the age class of the current Abim leadership, we are actually somewhere in between. We are not actually, strictly speaking, very youthful. Although I am 30 something, I am also already a father of four. You do not really think of somebody like me as a youth or teen, especially when you talk about the young people's problems. You do not really speak about their problems with somebody in my category because we tend to focus more on the late teens or early twenties. At the same time, we are also considered relatively very young compared to other youth groups in the country because we are still very liberal when it comes to youth associations.
Nowadays, when I attend meetings on behalf of Abim, with other NGOs or even other youth organisations, I tend to be the youngest in the meeting. So, we are somewhere in-between. So, the main challenge is, at this age, we are still in a very demanding stage of our personal and career lives. But that is one
natural challenge we need to take in our stride. We are not really complaining. Sometimes I do feel a bit, just a bit, uncomfortable when attending meetings when we are the youngest among those present as Abim used to be led by leaders in their 40s.
During such meetings, how do people react towards you or your ideas and views?
I think so far people have been kind. Alhamdulillah, I have not sensed any signs or indications or change of attitude towards Abim now that it is being led by somebody relatively young. I think Abim already has an established reputation and track record. People have accepted and treated me as an Abim leader.
So they accept you as the leader of Abim, not as someone relatively younger than them?
They treat the organisation as it is. There is no real problem as far as that is concerned. In fact, I am really grateful that nearly everyone I had come into contact with since I took up this post has very positively accepted and remarked the fact that Abim has adopted this exercise of rejuvenating the leadership, passing it on to the younger group. So, by and large, it is a positive attitude towards the change.
Is your exco line-up of people in their 30s planned?
It is planned. It is something that had been discussed in the organisation at various levels. We had deliberated on this issue for the past few years. So, when the time came for the actual change of guard, it was done very smoothly.
What was the main reason for the change?
Well, actually it is not extraordinary if you go by Abim's history. If you look at the past presidents, most of them started at around my age ... early 30s. So, it is not very strange. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, for example, was in his late 20s (when he became president). At that time, Abim as an organisation was really young. But now, since Abim has progressed not just as a youth organisation but also as one of the main Islamic NGOs in the country, the leadership has matured with the organisation. Now, some of my exco members are still in their late 20s. We do have quite a young line-up but it is not really extraordinary.
And the reason?
The main reason is for Abim to be loyal to its youth character. We want Abim to be a youth organisation in its true sense. We do feel it is an advantage to have the young to relate to the young. It is easier that way. At the same time, we believe in rotation. I mean, it is good that we have change. And, the immediate past president had been at the helm for four terms, which is quite a long service for a president. So, this is in a way, a timely or natural process.
So, perhaps because Ahmad Azam Abdul Rahman had been the president for quite some time, people forget that he was also young when he started his presidency?
Maybe. But, I think let the positive aspect of this change of guard be highlighted. We have fresh faces in the organisation, at the same time it is a continuation. It is not like a total break from the Abim tradition. I came from the organisation, I am not an outsider to the organisation, I have been with the organisation since my student days. So, at the same time it is not a radical break but it should also be perceived and taken as a fresh change, an opportunity to explore. I do hope our friends and partners in the government, the other NGOs, as well as the public accept Abim as their own, as their friend. I certainly hope the community regards Abim as its own, as one of its organisations. Even though they are not active members, we do believe a lot of people out there, in the community, regard Abim as close to their heart. And the new leadership would certainly hope this perception and feeling towards Abim is continued and increased. This is an opportunity for them to enhance cooperation and synergy with Abim.
So, it is a good strategy because the young can relate better to the young. Would you suggest other youth organisations have leaders below 40 years old too?
Yes, I would certainly suggest organisations which deal a lot with the young to open up sufficient space for the younger generations in their organisations to take up leadership positions. Of course, we cannot have a hard and fast rule for all organisations, but I would certainly say this should be a positive strategy. And we do note that political parties, from both sides of the divide, of course being very sensitive to their electorate since the young makes up quite a sizeable number, are establishing new wings for the young. But other than political parties, youth organisations should be earnestly serious about opening spaces for the young too.
People perceive Abim as inclined towards certain political parties but surely you want to portray Abim as being non-partisan. How do you tackle people's perception?
Abim is indeed a non-partisan organisation. We do operate as a non-partisan organisation. But people's perception is coloured by their own political inclinations. In the first place, I want to stress that we want to be true to ourselves. It is not just about perception but our programmes, our activities, everything is done as a non-partisan body. We take a non-partisan stand to have a good working relationship with as many people as we can, with everyone, both ruling and opposition parties, government agencies, NGOs as well as the public who are also politicised. We want to be able to have bridges, avenues, access to as many people as we know. We are not interested to join the race for political positions. That is why we believe in this approach.
But, I think the word non-partisan can be a bit misleading. To a certain extent, it sends a message that we've got to distance ourselves from politicians, that we are allergic to politics. It is not that. In fact the opposite is true because I believe any serious social organisation, youth or otherwise, must always engage with politicians. So, what we mean is that our engagement is not one-sided. It is more of a constructive engagement with everyone. That is a more precise and accurate description of our attitude to this issue. We want to be able to go out and work with everyone, (be) as comfortable as possible with everyone. So it is not a question of distancing ourselves, of playing safe, or being neutral everytime. No. We want to be able to go out and just call anyone, just drop by and meet anyone, if it relates to our work.
And Islam is being misrepresented, misportrayed in many ways these days. So Abim will play its role to make sure we do justice to this great religion of ours. Islam should not be commercialised or wrongly politicised. This is our concern. In order to do that, Abim has to be able to work with every party related to religion and as we know in Malaysia, religion is very central. It is part of the Constitution, it is part of the various laws. It is not just in the private space, but also public space. And rightly so. Islam should not be just in the fringes of society. It should be in the major decision-making (process) in the country.
How about the Anwar Ibrahim factor? Does it still have some influence in Abim?
Anwar is one of the images which are perpetually linked to Abim. But again, we have to be fair with the fact that he had left quite a legacy in Abim's history. He was one of the more outstanding leaders of the past. So, we cannot divorce Abim's history or try to have a total separation of Abim's history from Anwar Ibrahim. It would be unfair. It would be a distortion of historical facts. But at the same time, it is misleading to say Abim would always be shadowed by Anwar or be an extension of Anwar's projects or agenda or whatever. It is wrong and will lead to a lot of wastage of energy and loss of opportunities. It would be a situation of loss of opportunity if people distance themselves from Abim. Because they are not so comfortable with Anwar, therefore they conclude that Abim also should not be in their good books. That is what I think. On the other hand, of course, there are also a lot of people, those who are very pro-Anwar, who would come with a different set of expectation. They expect Abim to always be there, to make sure whatever Anwar plans, Abim should be the number one supporter. That is also a wrong perception.
When you were invited to talk or asked for comments, do you take into consideration the fact you have to be seen to be non-partisan, without any inclinations towards any party?
Not so much. To understand Abim, to know our stand, there is nothing like coming to us and listening to us directly, not just relying on inherited images, or perceptions of Abim, or hearing from third parties or some hearsay opinions, or gossip. So, I always stress on this direct communication of what we stand for. Because, we do believe we are no duplicitous. We are what we are based on clear deliberations, considerations, grounds, basis. We have strong basis for adopting our position, not just pragmatic considerations but religious, for being what we are. So, I feel very comfortable talking about Abim or about what we do and what we are.
Of course, there is no such thing as absolute freedom of expression. So, when you say something, you also need to take note of the social norms and limitations and the prejudices that may be. We also need to consider sensitivities of communities and this is very important in light of recent issues. I mean, we cannot live in a society where everyone just picks whatever comes across their mind, no matter how slanderous, seditious, defamatory it is to any other group or religion. That is not sustainable. People do have to have second thoughts before they come out with any remark, statement, action or drawing that can lead to negative results.
What would you say is your approach in dealing with the government, compared to previous leaderships?
It is a very dynamic situation. The fact that Abim has adopted different positions in the past is a natural thing, it should not be read negatively. It reflected on the dynamics of local politics as well. For example, PAS is one of the founders of Barisan Nasional. Anwar used to be the next in power. But look at where he is now. So, Malaysian politics is dynamic.
So if you ask Abim's position vis-a-vis the political equation of the day, of course it is also dynamic. It reflects negatively on Abim if Abim's attitude towards the political powers have always been uniform from day one until today. Unchanging. So now, I believe we are in a situation where we do not need to be confrontational. We can communicate in a positive atmosphere or setting with the government as well as the Opposition. It is very un-Islamic to be confrontational, to be loud-voiced, to be harsh in our approach when the other side is very receptive. When the other side is very receptive, all the more reason for Abim to also adopt a suitable, reciprocal position. If we can discuss, why fight? If we can sit down and talk, why should we shout? It is un-Islamic to shout when people are willing to listen when we speak softly. That is basically our situation.
Speaking about politics, are you interested in joining politics?
Personally, no. I am not interested in joining politics, otherwise I would have joined one of the political parties.
But being the leader of an organisation like this, surely there would be some degree of interest in politics.
I am interested in politics but not interested in joining politics as an active member of any political party. Of course, politics colour a lot of whatever happens around us, so I think as a concerned citizen as well as a good Muslim I have to be interested and aware of the political surrounding. But joining a political party and all the complications which come with it is not really my cup of tea. Otherwise, I am from Kelantan and Kelantanese are a very politicised society. If it is in my nature to be involved in political parties, I would have done so a long time ago.
How about 10 or 15 years down the road, do you see yourself in any political party?
I hope I do not have to. Because I do see political leadership as a very heavy and difficult responsibility. It is a do-or-die task. So I do not fancy myself as having to shoulder that sort of position. Given a choice, I do hope I do not have to go down that path.
From what I understand, if you have a choice, you do not want to be the president. Why is that so?
True. I do not know why. I think I am just not brought up to be a leader. Being a leader does not come naturally for me. I always regard leadership position, especially the number one post of any organisation, as something very daunting, something I would not like to be involved in. I am always very comfortable in the supporting role. I do not mind supporting a good leader any day. But being a leader, being at the number one position is not my preferred choice.
But usually people in an organisation aspire to be the leader or the number one.
Depends on what comes with being the number one. Of course a lot of people want to become the prime minister as you have more pay, more power, more perks and more everything. But do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting I am not so comfortable with this position because it does not come with so much perks and material. That would be misleading. It is just that if you know me personally, I am not the type (to be a leader). Even as a kid, I was not trained to give speeches in public.
But perhaps people could see your leadership traits and that is why you are Abim president.
Maybe, I have done some things (to this effect). But I think leadership positions should come naturally. The process should be natural. And again in Islam, that is also the way. I also take my appointment as Abim president as a natural process.
A learning process?
Yes. It is an opportunity. It is one of the best ways to learn, to improve yourself, to become a better person. Not just talking about picking up leadership skills. I do believe the better persons are the ones in various leadership positions. But I personally did not join Abim to become one of its leaders, what more its president. Never.
I joined the organisation with the main intention to improve myself as a Muslim. In order to complete your transformation into a Muslim, you have to be involved in dakwah (missionary) work, in volunteer organisations, in Islamic activism.
On to current issues. On the Danish newspaper's action of publishing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, do you think they simply are being rude or that it was a genuine mistake?
It can be all of the above. It can be many things. I do not have a definite position on the reason they did it in the first place. But, they are in the business, they should know. They should be aware. They cannot plead ignorance. It is in their business. I cannot dispel the idea that they intended to provoke (the Muslims) because, in a way, if it is true that was their intention, they have succeeded. They have succeeded in provoking Muslims to react and, to a certain extent, to over-react as we have seen in some cases where protests turned to violence. And then, they started to use it against Islam too. So, I cannot totally discount this possibility.
If it was truly unintentional, they should have just apologised and not prolong the issue. For me, it is ridiculous to use freedom of the press, freedom of expression as an excuse. This cannot be tolerated. There is no absolute freedom in everything. If they said depicting Prophet Muhammad in the caricature is part and parcel of freedom of the press, if you ask them honestly, are there not certain things they cannot carry in their newspaper? Why cannot they accept that there are limits to certain things which are sensitive to Muslims? They can criticise us in other matters, we can accept it, but not when it concerns Prophet Muhammad.
How do you feel about the government's action of suspending Sarawak Tribune? Is it fair? How about a television station which had also shown it in its news broadcast but nobody said anything?
The Sarawak Tribune should know better. I wonder what goes on in the mind of the editors in Sarawak Tribune. I see it as an interesting mystery. But for me, they should know better than to reproduce the caricature. It is unfortunate for those working in the newspaper. But, they are involved, so they have to bear the consequences. But, to their credit, they have admitted their mistake and accepted the decision well, that is it. This is an important lesson to all media practitioners. As for the television station, if it is true it showed the caricatures, I would say, it is lucky.
What lessons can non-Muslims, and Muslims, learn from this episode?
There are a number of lessons. Islam being one of the biggest religions in the world and being implicated in the recent case, you cannot avoid what happened. We are surprised we can no longer be Muslims in peace. We should be prepared for our religion to be scrutinised. We should be prepared to defend our religion in the best manner. Muslims are also slowly becoming more frustrated, desperate, pressured and cornered because of others' ongoing actions of putting Islam in the dock, in the accused's corner. Muslims are being more and more challenged and not given enough room to defend themselves. To a certain extent, many Muslims feel they can no longer tolerate this ... the continuous blame and finger-pointing towards us. The sense of being victimised. Just look at Palestine, Afghanistan and other places where Muslims are unfairly treated. So, in a way, it is quite easy to inflame the anger of the common Muslim men, and that can lead to untoward acts of violence. We are saying enough is enough. We are fed up with all the accusations.
But, is this not happening because of the failure of Muslims? Some said their faith is not strong, that is why some non-Muslims are daring enough to ridicule them.
Of course, there are weaknesses on our part but if others are determined to harass us, they will do so, regardless of whether you are strong or weak. Some people are just not happy leaving Islam alone and allowing it to develop as it is. No doubt, there are problems among Muslims. The percentage of Muslims who are truly practising their religion at the personal, individual and governmental level is still in the minority. We are still not a good Muslim ummah (community). We have yet to reach that level. It is not like it is difficult to find weaknesses or faults in a Muslim community or country.
But, I would say, if you push the Muslims to a corner, if you pressure them, they will put aside and forget about all their internal problems or whatever reforms they need to do and face the one common enemy. It is not like we do not have disagreements. We do have a case against ourselves. But, when a threat arises, everyone, as good Muslims, will have to react. Things like this are distractions. They distract us from discussing other improvements and reforms we need to do.