Malaysiakini News

Going beyond Islamic vs secular state polemic

Howard Lee  |  Published:  |  Modified:

ADUN SPEAKS Secular vs religious; inclusivism vs exclusivism We cannot deny that our society, by and large is a very religious one.

This is the case across almost all the different ethnic groups. It is also undeniable that we are a multiethnic society. Anything that does not accommodate religiosity and the multi-ethnicity of Malaysia is fait accompli by default.

It is both unethical and against natural justice to allow a nation building narrative that disregards or discriminates against a certain constituency.

With that as context, many would say that our journey of nation-building is at a set of crossroads, but I would challenge that view and propose that we have passed that juncture and are already divided down two disparate paths. The distance between the two paths is increasingly further apart.

The path of exclusivism

The path that many have chosen is one towards religious, racial exclusivity and/or assimilation towards homogeneity. Self-superiority drives the march down this path, those who are not 'in' by lineage and/or assimilation are simply banished or left behind.

Though many Malaysians label this as the struggle for an ‘Islamic state’ or Islamism, there are many albeit their relative silence, who strongly rebuts it. This path has also been labelled as the antithesis of secularism.

A good example of this is the current narrative lobbied by those calling for Malaysia to be an ‘Islamic state’, with the background chantings for single race supremacy, threats to strip away citizenships of their detractors, and body and baby snatching incidents etc. That in itself is a betrayal to Islamic principles of equality, love and humanly brotherhood.

One cause amongst many, for this dogmatic approach championed by the Umno-BN, stems from deep-rooted insecurity and survival instincts that are inherent in the human psyche, when played up is a powerful tool to wield influence; when perpetuated is a formidable formula to maintain power.

The Islamic state agenda, in the Malaysian context is one that is bent on the continuation of this whilst leveraging on religious illiteracy and mis-indoctrination of the Malaysian populace.

This is what we are now seeing, and this exclusive approach to nation-building sponsored by the current government and their proxies such as Perkasa and Isma, will only drive mutual respect between constituents of different religions and ethnicities further and further apart; further and further down the two disparate paths.

The path of inclusivism

The notion of a secular state is often misunderstood or misinterpreted as anti-Islam and/or anti-religion. Perhaps France, with reference to their ban of the wearing of the hijab, is one of such examples that have painted this inaccurate picture of secularism, where the dogmatic secularism has developed religious characteristics to the point of discriminating against certain religious practices.

This is not the secularism that Malaysia needs, nor is it the secularism DAP is a proponent of. Britain is good example, which is a secularly administered nation where the ‘official religion’ is Christianity, where the propogation of Islam is unrestricted.

Islam is the fastest growing religion, and is currently the second largest religion. Muslims, whether by birth or conversion enjoy equal rights and legal protection against discrimination, despite being a minority.

Muslim political representations at all levels are high, despite there not being any positive discrimination to ensure it.

The secularism that DAP is championing for is in fact very similar to that of Britain, where everyone is not only free to practice their own religion, but they are protected from being discriminated against for doing so.

 It is also a secularism that separates the administration of the nation from religion, for the very purpose of further empowering its citizens’ right to practice and profess his/her chosen religion.

With that, all the ethics and principles behind all religions being practised in the federation will organically, through the democratic process be encompassed in to administration of the nation.

Not zero sum game

Secularism by definition is essentially the separation of religion and state, and in the Malaysian context is in view to provide objective basis of governance to ensure the majority interest is reflected and minority interest is also protected.

Ultimately, secularism should say; ‘nation-building need not be a zero sum game, where your gain need not come at my expense.’ This will not be found on the path of exclusivism.

For a long lasting, sustainable harmony between the various constituencies of our pluralistic society, there must be a mutual respect and unconditional acceptance of each other as Malaysians; without which the dogmatic path is much easier.

Rather than being defensive about one’s own view, one has to respect others' choices and accept the view of others as equals. This of course will not be found on the path of exclusivism.

Malaysia does not need a dogmatically imposed secularistic administration, just as much as it doesn’t need a dogmatically imposed religious administration, whether it being Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu or Christian.

What Malaysia needs is a state identity that allows its citizens to happily profess their religion without fear or persecution or maginalisation. This runs counter to those walking the path of exclusivism.

Dogmatic debate going nowhere

Neither Islamism nor secularism are monolithic; in fact they are both fluid and very hotly debated concepts the world over. The current Malaysian discourse of secular state vs Islamic state is proving more damaging than it is productive.

It is due to the fact the framework and context of the debate is stuck within a quagmire, whereby proponents of both sides are presenting a dogmatic picture of their agenda, and the debate is conducted in a dogmatic way.

This stalemate that we are living in right now must be addressed and I am of the view that all stakeholders must take stock of their positions.

I am of the view that perpetuating the Islamic state vs secular state debate will not end in a conducive manner anytime too soon. It is time to start asking Malaysians whether we want to walk the path of confrontation and conflict versus the path of harmony and respect vis a vis the path of exclusivism versus the path of inclusivism.

We must not allow ourselves to be forever burdened by this heavily baggaged debate.

I strongly believe that the path of inclusivism is what Malaysians need to take.


HOWARD LEE is DAP Pasir Pinji assemblyperson.

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