Saturday, 24 May 2008

The "Secular" Controversy


"Had Allah willed He could have made you all one community? But He made you as you are (diverse) as a test. So vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah you will all return, and He will then inform you of the meaning of differences within you."

[Quran 5:48].

"Many of our perceptions are distorted by our prejudices, particularly if we perceive those prejudices to be convictions".
Ravi Zacharias


There is this constant "threat" of a spiritual war - at least in their minds.
In their fervour, the "religious right" never tire of debating on these matters.
These "necessary wars" go on ad infinatum, ad nauseaum, so as to keep the "fire of God" burning in the hearts of men.
Of late there have been a few articles published in Malaysia Today, catering to this debate - controversies starting with the Hijab, scarf, "sexy" school uniforms , and then the question of the "secular state".

Let us take the Malaysian political climate into consideration.
Here is a "Pakatan" at it's infancy (not a formal coalition, in the real sense of the word - they don't even have a common symbol or identity as yet) that is trying to achieve a paradigm shift in our political structure.
There are two stumbling blocks for this pact, towards achieving unity in purpose.
One is the question of "the secular state" - a tussle between the staunchly "secularist" DAP, and PAS - which is passionate about being Islamic.
The other is that of the agent provocateur on the sidelines who needs to dismantle this "pact", so as to perpetuate their racist/ religious hegemony in the interests of the "putra elite".

The debate about "Islamic State/ values" is the perfect tool to drive a wedge between the parties mentioned above, and have no doubt in my mind that it would be used to the hilt by the agent provocateurs to achieve their goals. Is it possible that more of these controversies would be highlighted by the Putra-philes so as to jeopardize the "uneasy pact" of the "Pakatan Rakyat"?.

Anyway, although the "secular" spirit has been articulated in general in our constitution without specifically stating it, many have failed to understand and accept this fact. To many a staunch Muslim, "Secular" is a "four-letter-word" - at least, as they understand it.

The argument often brought about is that the Malaysian Federal Constitution does not say that Malaysia is a secular state. Those who espouse this argument, need to understand why the constitution is worded in such a way.

Allow me to quote from The Australian Achievement: From Bondage To Freedom by Dr. Mark Cooray
"The rule of law requires both citizens and governments to be subject to known and standing laws. The supremacy of law also requires generality in the law. This principle is a further development of the principle of equality before the law. Laws should not be made in respect of particular persons. As Dicey postulated, the rule of law presupposes the absence of wide discretionary authority in the rulers, so that they cannot make their own laws but must govern according to the established laws. Those laws ought not to be too easily changeable. Stable laws are a prerequisite of the certainty and confidence which form an essential part of individual freedom and security. Therefore, laws ought to be rooted in moral principles, which cannot be achieved if they are framed in too detailed a manner."

For one thing, DAP needs to articulate what it means to be a "Secular State". They need to be able to articulate their ideas, so as not to alarm the "religious".
They need to be able to convince PAS and Islamists alike, that "secularism" isn't the "dirty word in Islam" (a popular notion in the Islamist's camp), that it is made out to be. For this to happen, DAP definitely needs to understand and relate to the philosophical basis of "secular humanism", Islam & the "Islamic politician's" psyche better, instead of simply "defining the constitution" and harping on the "secular state" rhetoric.
They need to have a think-tank who can articulate the idea that Islam is compatible with "secular humanism", as opposed to the stereotype perceptions.

There is a belief among the religious that "secular humanism" is "anti-God".Myths are created towards propagating these ideas while the achievements of "secularists" are conveniently ignored or belittled.

The advocates of theocracies need to understand that-

"Humanists are staunch supporters of freedom of religion, belief, and conscience, as laid out in both the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights protect the freedom of religious belief equally with the freedom of nonreligious belief, the freedom of religion equally with the freedom from religion.
Secular humanists would actually oppose advocacy of their worldview by schools or the government because that would violate the neutrality of a secular society, and the rights of religious believers. Secular humanists believe that a healthy society supports a variety of worldviews, just as it supports a variety of political parties. They also believe that religious and philosophical views should be every bit as open to debate and discussion as political beliefs."
-10 Myths About Secular Humanism

PAS on the other hand, needs to articulate their ideas on an "Islamic State" better.
One that can be inclusive in its ideas based on "Universal Values" (which are incidently, very Islamic), by not espousing arbitrary repressive laws that belonged to a different time, age and culture, which are supposedly "Islamic".
They should understand that resigning one's fate to "God-ordained" laws without sufficient intellectual debate or consensus, isn't an option in this era of ICT.

It is ironic that there are many prominent Islamic thinkers who believe that the philosophical/moral/ethical premises of the Constitution of USA is far more "Islamic" and superior than that of many a "chest-thumping Muslim" nation of the OIC - and rightfully so, too.
Academic debate on these matters at our hallowed halls of educational excellence is however, quite constipated at best (and we have the HP6 ideologues of our nation to thank for that) - usually dwelling on "accepted ideals".
These topics are deemed too "sensitive" - just as mentioning "May 13" was, not so long ago (unless it was to threaten for votes, of course). Our leaders believe that the masses are simply incapable of civilized conduct, and would foam at their mouths with the first mention of any misconception.

PAS should be aware that the lack of open inter-faith dialogue and exagerated sensitivities help "those with vested interests", in demonizing PAS in the eyes of the non-Muslims. It aids them further, should the masses
remain in ignorance and get emotional in response to perceived insults, without rationally addressing their fears and insecurities.
It is a formula for governance that has worked well over the centuries for the despotic regimes of theocracies, monarchies and many a pseudo-democracy or socialist state.
Therefore, one would do well to pay heed to what Voltaire meant when he said :-

“So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannise will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.”

Therefore, what matters isn't really the populist rhetoric of politicians advocating "virtuous" systems of governance (based on debatable ideas deemed "holy"), but the well defined and thought out set of progressive values and ideas that allow for freedom and embraces humanity as a whole, in all its diversity.


"It will not do to cling to the cause and wish the result away.
Reality does not play mind games.
What is more, to anesthetize the mind in order to abort what comes to birth
when wrong ideas are conceived and borne in the womb of culture,
will only kill the very life-giving force of the nation that nurtures the idea."

-Ravi Zacharias

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  1. Excellent article!

    If this is how secular is being portrayed, Malaysia is on its way to become a secular state soon enough.

    Whacking the religion itself, in this case Islam, will undeniably give personal satisfaction but will it lead to Malaysia being a secular state?

    The idea is this, if DAP could show that having a secular state will not, in any way, be an obstacle for a Muslim to become a good Muslim, then expect a substantial support for the cause.

    Back in the 70's, DAP does have a substantial support of Malays due to socialist Islam 'campaign' throughout the world. One of the contention of the campaign is this - socialism is not against Islam.

    That is what DAP should look into. Maybe there is hope that DAP would truly be multi racial and the most important- be seen as such.

  2. I am a practicing muslim, so are many others. There are also many practicing Hindu, Budhist, Christians and other religion.

    If we want to live in harmony, apart from trying to "dereligionised" practicing citizen; the secular should also

    (1) learn to be more open minded to respect the wish of many individual to practice religion.

    (2) stop interfering in the religious practice/indoctrine of any religion. For example, homosexuality is a sin in Islam; hence, the secular should respect that.

  3. Dear Anonymous,
    Secularism isn't about trying "dereligionize" people- it is about Freedom of and from Religion for the people.
    It only means that you don't impose while you practice or believe.
    More so in politics/ statecraft.

    While I agree with your point no.1,
    I don't understand the obsession with the sexual orientation on the part of religion - I don't see people forcing anyone to be "homos" or advertising such activities. Nor should we be judgemental on "God's creation" or their preferences, even if they give me goose-bumps.

    As long as they conform with the norms of society, there shouldn't be anything to complain about.

    Glad that you agree with me on this matter. As you say, DAP (and PAS, too) could do with a little help where tact is concerned.

    Cheers, guys!

  4. There you again.

    In the Quran, we are repeatedly asked /encouraged to advise other muslims to adhere to the Islamic practice. Infact, certain act which is deemed as a sin, is punishable. Hence, it is part of Islamic way of life itself to impose or advise certain matters to our fellow muslims.

    You may have not realise this, but your statement of "not imposing on others" is akin to trying to impose your idea onto the Islamic practice ,which is imposing/advising fellow muslims. In other word, you are telling the muslim not to do things which is part of the Islamic practice itself.

    Your next question about obsession with sex: I intentionaly gave homosexuality as an example to again explain what I meant by you trying to impose your idea on Islamic teaching. Homosexuality is a sin in Islam, and that's it. Claiming to be a tolerance person, you should not interfere with this religious belief.

  5. You may have not realise this, but your statement of "not imposing on others" is akin to trying to impose your idea onto the Islamic practice ,which is imposing/advising fellow muslims. In other word, you are telling the muslim not to do things which is part of the Islamic practice itself.

    I must say that you have a good argument there! Indeed it is imposing a value of non-imposition upon those who believe in imposing!

    Buddy, everyone wants their "ideas/ religion" to be popular.
    While you may proselytise, you may not "impose" - and that's very Islamic in nature. As you say, you may "advise".
    (Unto me mine, unto you your's?)
    Doesn't Islam believe in the laws of reciprocity, equality and compassion?
    Where required, the Prophet Mohamed(pbuh) practiced utmost diplomacy and understanding.
    To take his "war-time" words out of context would be an injustice, as the Islam I know is one of great compassion (unlike what many war/hate-mongers preach).

    Don't get me wrong - I don't advocate "Homosexuality" nor do I encourage it at all (No way, mate!). Definitely isn't in the interest of human procreation & evolution ............

    I'm willing to accept differences in people, though.
    Fine - homosexuality is a sin in Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism.
    And it has been frowned upon in many societies for ages, even without religion. That is why, it has been done behind closed doors in all nations for centuries/ ages!

    No religion or govt is gonna change differences in human preferences, in time to come - they'll always be part of society, whether you know about it or not; whether you and I, or our religions like it or not - so let's just stop victimizing them.

    I've met some really good "homosexuals" people, and some real bad "heterosexuals" who are truly inhuman despite their 'religiosity' in carrying out rituals and in their fashion sense.

    You can't deny that there are many "greater sins" being tolerated (and even accepted) in the name of God and religion (Islam, Christianity, Jew or Hindu)!
    I'm sure you can think up a few things.....

    Should we not address these issues before looking behind closed doors for scapegoats, to make ourselves feel good?

  6. Dear annoymous,

    As a Muslim, I have no problem accepting the ruling that 'homosexuality' is a big sin in Islam.

    And that goes for many other sins as well.

    But my question is this; could we have nahi mungkar, or forbidden evil just like at the time of the Prophet, when there is no equal amal maruf to match it?

    I believe that Allah is just but I do believe that in view of the wide differences between the early and present ummah, the best choice lies in secularism.

    What say you?


    Lim Guan Eng quoting Umar Abd Aziz is very heartening. That is the first step.

    As for PAS, there are too many conservatives or traditionalist in PAS and these people, sad to say, often give wrong priority.

    A good example is the state of Selangor. Look at Hassan Ali, what is he doing so far?

  7. Yes alhadee,
    Guan Eng had made a very significant statement in articulating his idea of secular humanism, by quoting Umar - that no good value is rejected, and thus that Islam is quite compatible with his ideas.

    I was really impressed with Dr. Asri's write-up on racism - I think he captured the spirituality in Islam, as opposed to the "religiosity" that is often espoused by many a "preacher-man".


NOTE: We do not live in a Legal vacuum.
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