What’s in a name?

8 Dec 09 : 8.00AM
By Deborah Loh

Is Malaysia an Islamic or secular state?

IF there is one enduring debate in Malaysia, it is whether this country is an Islamic or secular state. No less because successive prime ministers keep making declarations that it is an Islamic state to much public confusion.

Islam is the official religion of the federation. But what does "official" mean? Are we being made to choose between an Islamic state or a secular one?

At the Bar Council's launch of its Constitutional Law Committee's MyConstitution or PerlembagaanKu campaign on 13 Nov, the public forum that followed the launch saw this issue being raised again with a question from the floor.

What is Malaysia?

The panel of lawyers and academics were divided. Human rights and constitutional lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said a secular state was good for Islam to flourish.

Universiti Malaya law lecturer Assoc Prof Dr Azmi Sharom said the Federal Constitution was a secular document, from which even the syariah courts derived their powers. The state was secular, he argued, because none of its institutions got their powers from religious authority, but from the constitution.

"Any sort of religious system of governance makes democracy difficult. In democracy, one should be able to question everything. But in a religious state, you cannot question because [the argument is stopped by claiming] God says so," Azmi said.

His fellow law academician Prof Dr Aziz Bari from the International Islamic University disagreed. If Malaysia were secular, he said, religion would have no role in government administration at all. Whereas, the constitution allows public funds to be used for Islamic purposes, and Islamic rites and prayers are allowed in government events. Malaysia is not secular, Aziz continued, because Islam is the religion of the federation.

"This subject is of academic interest and doesn't mean anything to the vast majority," Aziz told the forum.

Sulaiman AbdullahAnother prominent constitutional lawyer, Sulaiman Abdullah, agreed with Aziz.

"To be technical about it, 'secular' means divorcing religion from the state, from everything, totally. If that is the definition of secular, then Malaysia is not a secular state. And if we are not a secular state, so what? Islam has no requirement that everyone must be Muslim in order to be an Islamic state.

"This issue is brought up to divide us," Sulaiman concluded.

Constitutional law professor Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi from Universiti Tekonologi Mara said the debate was being reduced to "black or white", when the reality in Malaysia was more complex. We are neither fully secular, nor fully Islamic, he said.

"This is all semantics. I personally think that we are a hybrid state," Shad Saleem stated.

Speaking for God

Audience at the launch of MyConstitutionWhat is for sure is that Malaysia is a Muslim country, which is merely a description of its population. But as a state, where syariah law exists in parallel to civil law, Malaysia is not a pure Islamic state where syariah is the ideological foundation for political and public institutions.

Former PAS president, the late Datuk Fadzil Noor, in 2001 said a prerequisite of an Islamic state is syariah law as the supreme source of all laws. But what should an Islamic state look like? There is no formula in the Quran and hadith on how one should be structured. Rather, there are concepts of what a society based on Islamic values should be like. Hence, the emphasis on justice, plurality, gender equality and rights for minorities, which are in themselves democratic and universal values.

"There is no textual blueprint of what is an Islamic state. The whole idea of the state, not just an Islamic state but the political organisation of the state itself, is an invention of the last few centuries.

"This idea of the state may well continue to change," Shad Saleem said in a subsequent interview with The Nut Graph.

Mohd AsriAn Islamic state also need not be authoritarian, adds Shad Saleem. It can adopt many elements of democratic practice, such as consultation or syura. In theory, the Islamic state works for human rights and equality and an independent judiciary. It denies the idea of a sovereign state which makes its own laws as law can only come from God.

But, as with good ideas, the problem lies with fallible human implementers. Can a theocratic state guarantee democracy if its administrators are human?

"This is the problem that has happened in Muslim societies. Who decides who speaks for God in a theocratic state? It ends up being a small group that seizes the monopoly to speak in the name of God.

"Look at the arrest of [former Perlis mufti] Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. That had nothing do with Islam, but with authoritarianism," Shad Saleem observes.

Back to the beginning

The panellists themselves were divided on whether the Federal Constitution is secular or not.

Although there is Article 3 which upholds Islam as the official religion, Shad Saleem says the framework of the constitution and clarifications on the meaning of this article imply that Malaysia is not a theocratic state.

References to the effect that Malaysia is a secular state are contained in the reports of the Reid Commission and the Cobbold Commission. These and other interpretations that Malaysia is a secular and not Islamic state are substantive.

But whatever these external sources have said, it is not enough to settle the dispute over the semantics of what "secular" means.

As seen from the divided views of eminent lawyers and academics on the panel, those like Sulaiman and Aziz are holding "secular" to its narrower meaning — the absence of any religious influence — to explain their position that Malaysia's constitution and its state are not secular.

The opposing view, however, takes "secular" to mean institutional separation between religious authority and state apparatus.


Differing interpretations have allowed politicians to move into the vacuum for their advantage. Hence the propaganda war between Umno and PAS in 2001 over whether Malaysia was an Islamic state.

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in September 2001 declared Malaysia an Islamic state. His justification was not because syariah was the law of the land, but craftily, because non-Muslims had specific rights. This non-compulsion on non-Muslims was in line with Islam, he had said.

PAS's reaction, as seen by its late president Fadzil's rebuttal, was to debunk Mahathir's claim and insist that only when syariah law ruled the land supremely could Malaysia be considered an Islamic state.

Mahathir's government followed up with the publication of Malaysia adalah sebuah Negara Islam by the Information Ministry. It detailed the duties of an Islamic government and so far seems to be the clearest definition yet by the ruling Barisan Nasional government on how it envisions an Islamic state.

Mahathir's successors continued the debate over Islamic-secular semantics. Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Malaysia was "neither a secular nor theocratic state" in early August 2007, before changing his mind within the same month that Malaysia was indeed an Islamic state. He said Malaysia qualified as an Islamic state because it was administered on Islamic principles.

A month before his boss, then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak in July 2007 said Malaysia was not a secular state. To avoid the scholarly definition that syariah had to be the supreme law and ideology of the land, Najib said Malaysia had its own interpretation.

In contrast, first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman of then-Malaya said the constitution was framed on the basis of a secular state, and clarified again one year after independence that this country is not an Islamic state. Islam as the "official religion", to Tunku, meant that it was for ceremonial purposes in government events.

Do semantics matter?

Are we being made to choose? Is it even a real choice, when regardless the label, syariah law already governs the personal morals of Muslims and affects the lives of non-Muslims through the conversions of spouses? And even if not law, religious fervour already influences government policy on the use of words like "Allah" by followers of non-Muslim religions.

Lawyer Malik Imtiaz, back in 2007, already wrote about why defining labels accurately is important: The rule of law will be undermined because of "attempts to reinterpret law to make it more Islamic compliant. This is wrong in light of the understanding underlying the Federal Constitution".

And, it raises the question of who will define Islam "for the purpose of reinterpretation of law and the development of an 'Islamic' policy. The monopoly over Islam potentially hurts Muslims as much as it does non-Muslims."

In short, the political reality of an Islamic state comes down to who's in charge, and whether as fallible human beings, they can be trusted not to exploit religion for political power and personal agenda. From the arrest of ex-mufti Asri, it appears as though religious authorities can and do act arbitrarily.

Shad Saleem thinks being a hybrid state is a blessing because the balancing act required can protect plurality.

Shad Saleem"A hybrid state allows us to harmonise different interests. Given the fact that Islam is the defining feature of Malay [Malaysians], the idea of an Islamic state will not go away. But given the fact also that 45% of the population is non-Muslim, being a hybrid state is the best middle path we can take," he says.

While some may disagree with Shad Saleem's "hybrid" terminology, he does identify a significant part of the problem: The confusion between ideals and realities. Certainly, the ideal of the Islamic state is premised on justice, accountability and equality, but then so is the ideal of the secular state. The question now is: What has been the reality when modern nation-states have experimented with either the Islamic state or secular state? Have the ideals of either ideology been translated effectively into reality? And based on the reality in Malaysia right now, Malaysians therefore need to decide the best way to foster greater democracy and justice.

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