Secularism and a more honest Islam

Zairil Khir Johari
The Malaysian Insider
4 October 2014

Secularism and liberalism are not unfamiliar terms in this country, although how Malaysians understand them is a different matter altogether.

In the halcyon post-Merdeka days, our founding fathers would proudly proclaim such ideals to be their philosophical bedrock, so much so that the word liberal actually appears in the preamble to the Rukunegara (national principles). To be secular and liberal was to be constitutional and inclusive.

Things have changed much since then. Today, the very same terms are used deleteriously as a mark of shame, such that it has become the proverbial scarlet letter of the Malay-Muslim society. To be secular and liberal is to be ungodly and aberrant.

A dichotomy

To make matters worse, some are beginning to define these terms in contradistinction to Islamic ideals. Take, for example, remarks made at the 60th PAS Muktamar held in Batu Pahat, Johor last weekend. In his closing speech, the president of Malaysia’s second largest Malay-based party after Umno, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, took an unequivocal stand in differentiating his party’s Islamic struggle from his coalition allies’: “PAS members must understand that there is a difference. PKR is based on pragmatic secularism” while “DAP is based on socialistic secularism”.

Whether he realises it or not, Hadi’s statement envisions a dichotomy between Islam and secularism, as if they were two disparate concepts that were not only different but also antithetical to each other. In other words, one can either be Islamic or secular, but not both.

Although our first three prime ministers would disagree with Hadi (and the first and third have actually taken public stands to that effect), the unfortunate reality is that such an opinion now reverberates amongst most Malay-Muslims in the country.

One only has to drive around our universities, community centres and even mosques these days to see the proliferation of banners peppered with phrases such as “the dangers of secularism”, “secularism: the main threat to the Muslim ummah” or “Islam vs secularism”.

Meanwhile, this perception is further propagated by the government-controlled media, with columnists quick to label those inclined towards secular and liberal ideals as Jewish or American agents. Coincidentally, these agents almost always turn out to be opposition politicians or sympathisers. As we can see, no rational discussion can take place whenever these terms are invoked.

In fact, it wasn’t too long ago when my parliamentary colleague, Nurul Izzah Anwar, spoke in a forum on the issue of freedom of religion. Specifically, she mentioned that such rights had to be consistent between non-Muslims and Muslims. In her mind, she was merely repeating a sacred commandment from the Quran itself, which prohibited compulsion in matters of faith. Yet the next thing she knew, a furore broke out and she was accused of supporting apostasy amongst Muslims.

While one may expect such extreme reactions from hard-line conservatives, the apostasy issue actually gained such mainstream traction that Nurul Izzah had to defend herself rigorously. From this episode, it is safe to conclude that while not every Malay-Muslim thinks the way Utusan Malaysia editors do, the community continues to be haunted by fears and insecurities.

Conflation between Islam and the state

One may ask, at this point, why does an intrinsically human value such as freedom invoke so much fear amongst the Malay-Muslims in our country? Why is it that they would go so far as to insult Islam by implying that the religion would not be able to survive if its followers were not bound to it by force of law? Are Malay-Muslims so insecure in their own faith that they think mass apostasy would occur the instant they are given the freedom to do so?

The origins of this deeply-rooted fear in the Malay psyche can perhaps be traced back to the colonial experience and the ensuing need to perpetuate a feudal relationship between the ruling class and the masses.

Following the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874 between the British and the Sultan of Perak, the Malay rulers began to lose their absolute power. In fact, they were soon left only with authority over matters relating to Malay culture and religion. This effectively meant that authority over Islam became the main source of legitimacy for the rulers.

Today, the sultans and rajas have been relegated to playing a largely ceremonial role as the symbolic protector of Islam. However, because there was a need to maintain the same power relationship, the state, being the new ruling class, has thus assumed the rulers’ previous role as defender of Malay-Muslim culture.

Hence, from the 1970s onwards, the state began to strengthen its monopoly over Islam by forming various Islamic institutions to better protect (or control) the faith, such as the Islamic Dakwah and Training Institute (INDAH), the Malaysia Islamic Economic Development Foundation (Yapeim), the Malaysian Dakwah Islamiah Foundation (Yadim), and the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim), to name a few. The culmination of this effort was the creation of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) in 1997, a central body meant to coordinate the administration of Islamic affairs in Malaysia, despite the fact that Islam is supposed to be devolved to the states.

As a result of this systematic attempt to institutionalise the religion, Islam in Malaysia has become characterised by tight state control over its interpretation and administration. In other words, the state dictates every aspect of the Malay-Muslim life, from whether it is permissible to use Facebook, practise yoga or dance the poco-poco, and even right down to determining what schools of thought can or cannot be practised, as if God required help from the Malaysian government. Thus, it is obvious that the conflation between Islam and the state has resulted in a relationship of dependency that has correspondingly reinforced Malay-Muslim insecurities.

Greater freedom is a threat to the government, not Islam

Seen in this context, any ideology that encourages freedom of thought and conscience is therefore seen as a threat to the state’s monopoly on Islam. Hence, the Islamic authorities’ newfound obsession over the “perils” of secularism and liberalism.

The truth in this matter is in fact ironic. Far from threatening Islam, a secular state based on democratic ideals would actually emancipate the religion from the vested interests of the state. This would in fact further the cause of Islamic thought and discourse.

We only need to look next-door to see a contemporary example. Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country that is constitutionally secular and culturally liberal, yet there is no great fear amongst Muslims there that they are in danger of losing their faith. In fact, it is generally recognised that the practice of Islam in Indonesia is more diverse, more vibrant and, in the absence of Big Brother Ulamak, more honest.

It is the same case when we consider how Penang in the late 19th and early 20th century became the regional centre for Islamic islah, or reformation, during a time when it was, for all intents and purposes, a truly secular state with no mufti or sultan to mind the people’s religious affairs. At the time, Penang housed many reformist Islamic journals as well as producers of Quran commentaries (tafsir). It is arguable that this would not have been the case had there been controls imposed by higher authorities over religious matters.

It is therefore clear that greater freedom poses no threat to Islam. If the Malaysian authorities fear the freedom that secularism and liberalism may entail, it is because they fear losing their ideological monopoly over the people, and hence their legitimacy.

To the contrary, it is suggested that secularism and liberalism are philosophical ideals that would strengthen and embolden Islam. A truly Islamic society is one that is free in thought and conscience, where Islam is practised honestly and where rituals are performed out of firm belief and not out of fear or pressure. – October 4, 2014.

  1. #1 by good coolie on Sunday, 5 October 2014 - 10:13 pm

    Mulsim society has to develop from medieval moorings; but it also has to keep faith wth the Quran and Sunnah. In interpreting scripture, “liberal” theologians would emphasise the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it, where the two appear to conflict. Interpretations of relgious law that bring people together should be preferred to interpretations that keep people apart.
    There is also, a heirarchy of principles: the principles of love and respect for humanity take precedence over righteous anger and vengeance.
    Always, one should prayerfully reflect on the will of God.

  2. #2 by sotong on Monday, 6 October 2014 - 5:47 pm

    Looking at the divisive political environment and deadly conflicts in Muslim countries around the world, Islam is not ready to be the true guardian of peace, freedom and democracy for generations to come.

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