The demonisation of secularism

Zairil Khir Johari
The Malaysian Insider
17 June 2015

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude (dare to know)! Have courage to use your own understanding! (Immanuel Kant)

The discussion on secularism in this country is a problematic one, chiefly because the term has become trapped in the narrow framework of identity politics dominated by the hegemony of ethno-religious nationalist discourse. As a result, secularism is now an emotive expression invoked as a label to paint its targets as anti-religion. In the Malaysian context, that always means anti-Islam.

Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), the foremost religious authority in our country, for example, has issued warnings against conspiracies by “enemies of Islam” to manipulate them through ideas like secularism, pluralism, socialism, feminism and positivism. In May last year, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, added “human rightism” to the list of offending ideologies that threaten the faith of Muslims.

Why has secularism come to be so demonised?

Some have tried to explain this obsession by inferring that the popular understanding of the term in Malaysia is drawn from the Kemalist experience in Turkey, which is admittedly a traumatic affair. Hence, this narrow definition of secularism tends to pervade, especially for religious scholars educated in West Asia.

However, I would suggest that this only forms part of the story. Certainly, we can be sure the Prime Minister knows what secularism really entails, given that his own father had advocated the ideal when the latter was leader of our country. Yet, if that is the case, why then does Najib and his government continue to vilify values like secularism, liberalism and pluralism?

In my view, this problem is caused by two mutually reinforcing factors, namely the social construction of “the other” and its associated insecurities, as well as the resulting dependency syndrome propagated by the state.

From cosmopolitanism to peasantisation

As we are no doubt aware, the Malay world or the Nusantara, being maritime in character, has always been cosmopolitan in its societal makeup. This is true even before colonial times, as the region was a key trade route between the east and the west, a fact that led Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires to say: “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.”

It was a time when the peoples of the Nusantara were bold and outward looking. Besides trading with merchants from all corners of the globe, many were also seafarers and explorers. In fact, some had sailed to as far as Madagascar and the Pacific islands. This interaction with the outside world helped turn Malay society into an open-minded and cosmopolitan one, a fact that is evident in the many foreign cultural elements that have since been subsumed as local.

However, the colonial experience brought an end to the worldly exploits of the Malays. As the three main Malay ports of Penang, Malacca and Singapore were turned into British Crown Colonies, Malay society became more and more confined, both geographically and socio-politically, until they began to lose their connections to the outside world.

At the same time, the roots of what would eventually evolve into modern day Malayness began to form with the advent of colonial capitalism, a phenomenon that saw the systematic mass migration of Chinese and Indian labour into the Malay world. This created a clear and artificial economic division between the different ethnic groups, as opposed to the more naturally evolved relationships from trade and travel in days before. In this new demographic configuration, interaction was limited and controlled by the colonial powers.

In fact, the evolution of Malay identity can be clearly tracked through British censuses conducted from the mid-19th century onwards. In the beginning, census reports would indicate a myriad of different ethnic groups, such as Achehnese, Boyanese, Bugis, Jawi Peranakan, Minangkabau and the list goes on, but all the various ethnicities of the Nusantara slowly became collectivised under an all-encompassing umbrella category called “Malay.” This gradual process eventually led not only to the formation of a collective identity for the Malays, but even more significantly, the social construction of the “other” in the form of the Chinese and Indian migrants, a concept that had hitherto been non-existent in the weltanschauung (worldview) of the Malay world.

Thus began the mental siege on Malay society, a trend that was further exacerbated when the Malay Sultans – the symbols of Malay sovereignty – saw their power eroded as they became subservient to the appointed British Residents (in the federated states) and British Advisers (unfederated) – innocuous titles that belied their powerful roles.

Post-independence, the resulting political and socio-economic divisions that were markedly defined along ethnic lines gave rise to narrow Malay nationalism in opposition to the existential threat of the non-Malay “other.” Spurred by increasingly conservative discourse, it was not long before opinions opposed to the orthodoxy would be maliciously labelled “secular” or “liberal,” and correspondingly depicted as an attempt to impart “Judeo-Christian” values on the Malays. It is precisely this insecurity that would eventually lead the Malays to believe that their faith would be threatened by the very sight of a crucifix, or if they were to read the Bible in Malay, or if non-Muslims were to be allowed to use the word “Allah.”

Just as a damsel in distress requires a saviour, the prevailing insecurities of the Malays vis-à-vis the non-Malay “other” created the perfect opportunity for the state to legitimise its role as the protector and arbiter of all things religious.

A dependency syndrome

Following the racial riots of 1969, the state began to play a more active role in the realm of economics and socio-politics. While there is no denying the positive aspects of state involvement in those areas, suffice to say that the state did not limit its concern to poverty eradication and the abolishment of the identification race by economic function.

Soon, the state began to encroach upon religious affairs as well, in part as a reactionary measure against the Islamic revivalism of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In order to defend its hegemony against the rise of Islamic social and political movements, the state began to institutionalise its influence over religion through the inculcation of Islamic symbols and characteristics in the public service, and the strengthening of religious authorities at all levels, including the elevation of the shariah court to be on par with the long-established civil court. This saw the evolution of Malay ethno-nationalism into Malay-Muslim ethno-religious nationalism.

It is through assuming such a dominant role that the state was able to mould itself as the provider of societal order and stability, particularly with regards to religion. In fact, so total has the control of the state over religion become that the religious authorities now decide what Muslims in Malaysia can eat, wear, touch, read and even which school of thought they are allowed to follow.

Thus, in the context of a society that, on the one hand, feels under siege and in constant competition with their antithetical “other,” and on the other, psychologically dependent on big brother to protect their faith, it is not difficult to understand why any kind of ideology that seeks to separate the state from religion – such as secularism, or that encourages questioning and freedom of thought – such as liberalism, would be deemed as radical and deviationist, not only by the state, but also by the pathological society at large.

So how do we resolve this deep-rooted problem? Overcoming the entrenched fear and dependency syndrome in Malay society requires deconstruction of the “other” and the dismantling of the state’s ideological monopoly. But while that may sound straightforward enough, such a feat is predicated primarily upon the existence of an enlightened society that is able to understand and think for themselves. That, therefore, should be our aim. In the worlds of Immanuel Kant, sapere aude! – June 17, 2016

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