Crosscurrents: Saving Secularism From Its Detractors

The following 2 articles are printed together because reading them together helps to gain an understanding of the author’s complete argument.

The ‘Islamic State’ debate is upon us once again. Just when we thought it was safe to read the newspapers, we are now confronted with the same dilemma that has been haunting this nation for the past two decades. The recent publication (and subsequent withdrawal) of the government-sponsored pamphlet that explains just how and why Malaysia should be thought of as an Islamic state has left the public with more questions than answers. The public now waits with bated breath the publication of the follow-up pamphlet and PAS’s blueprint for the Islamic state in Malaysia.

Yet in the midst of all this, few of us have dared to ask the obvious questions: Just when did we cross the threshold that has brought us to the current impasse? Just when did the issue of the Islamic state become part of mainstream political discourse in the country? And why is it that so many of us now accept this idea as a fait accompli, and no longer have any will to question or resist?

The problems are manifold and there are no easy solutions in sight. For millions of ordinary Muslims the world over, to even question the idea of an Islamic state is thought to be bordering on the heretical. This situation has been made worse by the Ulama, who have gained control over the discourse of political Islam and who continue to remind ordinary believers that they alone comprehend the message of Islam in its totality. The Ulama have succeeded in closing the minds of Muslims in general, and thanks to them and their fatwas, many Muslims no longer have the moral and intellectual courage to challenge their narrow interpretation of Islam. To interrogate the moral and political logic of the Islamic state, we are told, is to challenge the status of the Ulama and by default Islam itself.

Then there is the obvious politicisation of the issue by practically every Muslim party and government in the Muslim world. As Muslim governments and opposition parties utilise the concept of the Islamic state in their war of words against each other, the hope to slow down the Islamisation race recedes further and further beyond the horizon of possibility.

As the Islamisation race gathers momentum, the first victim to this intra-Muslim struggle has been the concept of Secularism itself. For more than a century now, Muslims have been taught that Secularism is an evil invention of the West, designed to weaken the faith of Muslims and to diminish their will to struggle for a better future. Described as an infernal plot against Islam by its enemies, Secularism has been demonised to the point where it now stands as a counter-factual example of all that is un-Islamic.

Yet this understanding of Secularism is both a caricature and dangerous. For a start, it completely ignores the fact that Secularism is too big a concept to be reduced to such simplistic stereotypes. For in no way could Secularism be equated with crass materialism, hedonism and a purely sensate culture solely.

Secularism, it must be remembered, is a world-view that focuses on the here and now and the needs of the immediate present. This does not and need not mean that other dimensions of thought, belief and practice are to be forever relegated to an inferior, secondary register. All it says is that the worldly needs of the present are just as important in our struggle for daily existence. It arose as a reaction to an other-world outlook that belongs more to the medieval past where scientists and rational thinkers were burnt at the stake because they dared to think critically and desired to know more about the internal workings of the material universe around us.

Secularism also led to the cultivation of critical thought and scepticism, which paved the way for the intellectual revolution that freed us from our superstitions and taboos of the past. By doing so, it allowed us to base our faith and beliefs on firm convictions and not blind idolatry. This intellectual revolution not only gave added impetus to scientific and philosophical innovations, but also opened the way for radical changes in the socio-cultural and political order of the time. It was thanks- in part- to the changes brought about by Secularism that we came to understand and appreciate our status as free-thinking rational individuals endowed with reason and will. This then opened the way for the creation of modern day democracies where the rights of all are equally respected and treated with the same degree of deference and esteem.

These were also the foundational principles upon which Malaysian democracy was built. While it cannot be said that the secular rationalist culture of the West has always kept it on the path of enlightenment and progress (two world wars were fought in Europe and the Scientific revolution did not prevent the emergence of the anti-humanist Fascist and Nazi regimes), it cannot be denied that the values of secular democracy remain cardinal values that guide many political movements and political projects in the West and elsewhere.

It would therefore be prudent to pay respect where it is due and to understand that Secularism is not necessarily the ‘evil’ thing that its detractors claim it to be. Flawed though it may be, the secular democratic culture that we have today has proven to be the best (and in many cases, only) defence against the tyranny of majoritarianism and the rule of the over-zealous mob. While Islamists in predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia claim that Islam is the only solution to the problems of the Muslim Ummah, we should remember that in every other country where Muslims are a minority (India, Europe and the United States), Secular Democracy - and not political Islam - has been the goal that they have been fighting for, for the simple reason that it is in a secular democracy that the rights of religious minorities are best protected.

The Other Malaysia: Stepping into the Beyond? The Islamic State Debate Revisited

By Farish A. Noor

Note: This article is a summary of a talk given by the author at a public forum on the ‘Future of Malaysia and the Islamic State’ organised by the DAP party at the Malaysian Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur on 19 December 2001. Reprinted with the permission of the author


          The re-emergence of the thorny issue of the Islamic State in Malaysian politics reads like a local rendition of the theme of the ‘return of the repressed’: The more we try to avoid the issue, the more it makes its presence felt on the domestic political scene. Like it or not, we have to address the reality of the Islamic state issue. But what we cannot and should not accept from the outset is the idea that the Islamic state is a fait accompli, and that there is no turning back.

          These concerns have been raised by a number of political parties, social movements, NGOs and political commentators. Other religious groups have also voiced their concern about how the debate over the Islamic state is > progressing, demanding that their voices are heard and that they should be given the right to participate in the debate before it goes any further.

          In the past few weeks, the Islamic state issue has been debated openly by political parties like the DAP and MCA as well as NGOs like Hakam and Sisters in Islam (SIS). That so many groups- none of them linked in any instrumental coalition of any sort- could get so worked up over the question of the Islamic state should come as no surprise to us by now. The Islamic state issue is one that unites as much as it divides, and as soon as it entered the hotly contested terrain of Malaysian politics it managed to redraw the political and ideologicial boundaries of the nation in no uncertain terms. Though much has been said and written about the matter already, it is nonetheless useful to question some of the most basic premises upon which the whole debate have been set.

Islamisation and the State.


          A cursory reading of the mainstream media these days might give one the mistaken impression that the Islamic state issue has been hoisted on the Malaysian populace by one Islamic party in particular- PAS. Before going any further, we need to dispel this contemporary myth by pointing out that it was the Islamisation race between UMNO and PAS that has really brought us to the present impasse. To ‘blame’ PAS for bringing the country where it is today would be both unfair and inaccurate: UMNO has been just as guilty of playing the Islamisation card and it was the UMNO-led government’s Islamisation policy which began in the 1980s that really helped to normalise political religion in everyday life, marginalising whatever hopes there might have been for a secular political alternative in the country.

          If some senior UMNO leaders, bureaucrats and members of the Malay middle-classes are concerned about the tenor and form of political Islam in Malaysia today, they have no-one else to blame but themselves for it was they who helped to create the vast Islamist bureaucratic, institutional, legal and educational system that today has so much power and influence on the Malay-Muslims of the country. In its effort to out-Islamise PAS, UMNO had unwittingly laid down the institutional foundations of an Islamic state long ago thanks to its patronage and support for these institutions.

          What is more, the growing conservatism and defensiveness on the part of so many Malay-Muslims can also be accounted for by these institutions that have been at the forefront of the Islamisation race in the country. By projecting an image and understanding of Islam as a religion under threat of subversion and ‘contamination’ from external threats, they helped to create and foster the ghetto mentality that is prevalent in many quarters of the Malay-Muslim population in Malaysia. If UMNO leaders are worried about the narrow mindset of the demagogues and ideologues of PAS, they should look a little closer at the Islamic educational and bureaucratic institutions they have created under their care and tutelage, and the sort of Islamic education that has been dished out by the Ulama and religious teachers in the pay of the state as well.

          The net result of this race to out-Islamise each other is the raising of public expectations and the normalisation of wants and aspirations on the part of the Malay-Muslims in the country. After being told for more than twenty years that Malaysia is a country undergoing the process of state-sponsored Islamisation, is it any wonder that the Malay-Muslims in the country are waiting for the final installment of the Islamist project itself, i.e. the Islamic state?

          It is ironic that what began as an intra-Malay struggle has now spilled beyond the confines of Malay-Muslim politics and its consequences are set to have an impact on Malaysian society as a whole. For more than two decades, Malaysians in general believed that this clash over the interpretation and definition of Islam could be confined within the parameters of the Malay-Muslim political arena. Those who thought so have been proven wrong, and now the whole country is about to pay the price for decades of casual neglect and indifference. What began as a Malay-Muslim debate has now become a Malaysian debate, and its long-term consequences will affect all of us- Malays and non-Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The political, cultural and ideological terrain of Malaysia is about to be redrawn in no uncertain terms.


Many Malaysias, Many Realities.


          The Islamisation race which began in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s was unique in its apparent disregard for alternative viewpoints and beliefs. Thus it came to pass that the whole Islamisation project has managed to sideline the sensitivities and reservations of the non-Muslims in the country, who happen to make up almost half of the population of Malaysia. It is ironic to note that in the government’s pamphlet ‘Malaysia as an Islamic State’ (which was subsequently withdrawn) we come across the sentence that reads: “the reality of Malaysia as an Islamic state is something that can no longer be denied”.

          This begs the most obvious question: Which ‘reality’ is the author/s of the pamphlet talking about? There is no single reality that sums up the complexity of Malaysia’s multicultural and multireligious society, and there certainly cannot be a single simple blueprint that serves as the final solution to all its problems. When talking about the ‘reality’ of contemporary Malaysian society thus, did the author/s of the pamphlet spare a thought for the countless other ‘realities’ that may co-exist with his/their own? What of the millions of other Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians who may well prefer to live in a secular state where all religions are treated with the same degree of respect as their own? And what of those who prefer to live in a secular state where no religion- Islam or otherwise- would dominate the arena of national politics and serve as the mainframe within which all conduct of politics will be carried out?

          The narrow religio-cultural solipsism that is evident in the Islamic state pamphlet serves only to underscore the painful fact that Malaysian society remains as disunited and fragmented as it has ever been, with different ethnic and religious communities living side by side with each other but with precious little contact and understanding in between them.

This state of affairs could at least have been contained (however ineptly) by a secular political system that at least tries to give equal time and say to the various religious communities in the country. But the question of maintaining the fragile multi-religious balance goes out of the window altogether if and when a single religion becomes the defining framework for national politics.


Loyalty to a secular Malaysia or an Islamic Malaysia?


          Lest it be forgotten, any attempt to introduce an Islamic State in Malaysia will lead to a radical (and irreversible) change to the constitutional framework of the country. The conversion from an secular state to an Islamic state is not simply a matter of semantics. For the transition also involves the introduction and incorporation of an entirely new moral and political logic, which effectively redesigns and reconstructs the political framework of the country as a whole.

          In a secular state, concepts like citizenship, nationality and sovereignty are paramount. But these concepts are framed within a secular framework where one’s identity is based on the status of the subject as a private individual rather than the member of a faith community. Conversely, membership to a religious state entails a transition to a new ideational framework where some of the most basic political concepts like citizenship, identity and belonging will be altered for good. Belonging to a religious state where religion X is the dominant religion means that a different understanding of citizenship itself will be introduced, where those who belong to religion X will be the ‘natural citizens’ of that state and others not.

          The Islamists’ claim that their model of an Islamic state will give equal treatment and status to all members of the Malaysian public has to be challenged for the contradiction that it is. This is not to say that Islam alone discriminates against non-Muslims: The sad fact is that all religions discriminate as they single out and identify their respective constituencies and the Other. Political Islam is no different in this respect that the political expression of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other religion. All religions draw a neat boundary line between their followers and others. For every believer there is always the convenient infidel, heathen or ‘kafir’ to stand as his/her constitutive other. To claim otherwise would not only be naïïve- it is also politically machiavellian and dangerous.

          In such a religious state, the status and identity of those who do not belong to the dominant faith community will always be hanging in the balance. Are they expected to show the same degree of loyalty and commitment to a state which is built on the name of a religion other than theirs? Would non-Muslims be expected to be loyal to an Islamic state and would they be expected to give the same degree of sacrifice and commitment to uphold the values of a religion that is not their own? (To put it in another way that might make sense to the Islamists: Do the Islamists seriously believe that a Muslim would show the same degree of loyalty and commitment to say, a Christian state or a Hindu state? Would a Muslim be willing to fight, die or kill for a Christian or Hindu state?)

          Other equally difficult questions come to mind as well. If Malaysia is transformed into an Islamic state, how would this affect its foreign and economic policies? Would Malaysia align itself with the rest of the Islamic world and take up the causes of other Islamic states? Would an Islamic Malaysian state be prepared to go to war to defend another Islamic state? And would non-Muslims in Malaysia be expected to go along with these policies? And in cases where the non-Muslims object to such policies, would they be regarded as ‘traitors’ to Islam, and by extension the state itself (and vice-versa)? Would we- the citizens of Malaysia- be expected to pledge our loyalty not only to our homeland but also the religion of the state?

          These are some of the questions that haunt us till today, none of which have been answered by any of the parties and organisations that have been calling for the introduction of an Islamic state for so long. One can only come to the conclusion that the answers to these questions are not forthcoming for the simple reason that we all know what the answers will be.

          The reality is that the introduction of a religious state in Malaysia will bring about changes that none of us are really prepared for, and what is more these changes can never be reversed once they are installed. Instead, the Malaysian public has been sold tickets for a journey the course of which none of us have anticipated or charted. The trajectory of Malaysia and Malaysian politics may well be altered for good in the years to come, but as the passive Malaysian public sits by and watch these decisions are being made on our behalf by self-proclaimed leaders of the religion whom we do not know and did not elect.

          Malaysia may well be on the brink of crossing the threshold into the unknown, going where it has never gone before. Oddly enough, the only people who seem ignorant of this fact are we Malaysians ourselves.

Originally published in the New Straits Times, Malaysia. Reprinted with permission of the author.