July 24, 2014
By Dr. Wong Chin Huat@www.themalaysianinsider.com (07-23-14)
Secularism has been seen largely demonised amongst Muslims in Malaysia but widely embraced by Muslims from Indonesia in the east to Tunisia in the west. Does religion explain this stark difference?
While theologians may offer nuanced ideational explanations, allow me to offer a simple analysis from the perspective of group competition and power relations. Secularism is fundamentally about the impartiality of state in the religious sphere, and by derivation, full religious freedom for all. This could mean at least three things to different people.
First, it is about the relationship between the faithful and the atheists. Second, it is about the relationship between the faithfusl of different religions. Finally, it is about the faithfuls of different denominations within the same religions.
Secularism has been a dirty word for Malaysian Muslims largely because of the two legacies: the Kemalist legacy in Turkey and the British legacy in Malaya.
The Kemalist Legacy
Beyond Malaysia, hostility is the natural reaction of many Muslims to the militant secularism espoused by Kemal Atartuk. In Kemalist Turkey, generations of religious Muslims were suppressed and marginalised because of their faith, until the recent rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The state does not only refuse to be partial to practising Muslims but has become partial against them. Like atheist states, militantly or absolutely secular states see religion as a threat to their own existence. This is completely different from the past Muslim Empires – not unlike most polities with an established faith – which were explicitly partial to Muslims.
Perhaps more upsetting for many Muslims is that, in the making of Turkish nationalists, Kemal Atartuk denied Muslims both inside and outside of Turkey their political identity as Muslims protected and united by a Caliphate.
On the ruins of Ottoman Empire, the last Caliphate which met its end soon after its humiliating defeat in the First World War, Atartuk wanted to radically Westernise Turkey both politically and culturally so that it could cease to be the “Sick man of Europe”.
Not unlike what was advocated by some nationalists in China, then the “Sick man of Asia”, for Atartuk, modernisation required a thorough break with one’s own cultural root and imitating the enemies.This is of course emotionally traumatising and enraging for many Muslim nationalists, for whom Islam is the symbol of resistance and political unity.
Why secularism is seen as synonymous as atheism or anti-Islam by many Muslims is then perfectly comprehensible.
The indirect British Legacy
Interestingly, the negative image of secularism may have its second root in the British colonialisation, despite the British’s conscious efforts in grooming the Anglophile, conservative and secular Malay elites. Unintended consequence if you will.
What happened? If secularism essentially means state impartiality towards citizens of different faiths, then in the context of Malaya/Malaysia, it would have to mean impartiality between Muslims and non-Muslims, which is at the heart of the 1946 question.
This becomes clearer if we compare Malaya/Malaysia, with Indonesia. There, the Dutch colonisation not only did not create a religious majority as the communal core for the future nation. It led to the emergence of Christian communities, not just in remote islands like Ambon and Flores, but also in the main island of Java, fragmenting the indigenous communities.
Secularism became the rational choice of Indonesian nationalism both during and after the colonial era. Like multi-religious India, Indonesia may break up if secularism is replaced by the explicit dominance of any faith and religious assimilation creeps into the nation-building agenda.
In Malaya, the British moved beyond the port colonies of Straits Settlements to actively intervene in the inland Malay states only as late as 1874. Taking the lesson from the religiously-triggered Indian mutiny in 1857, the British decided to opt for indirect rule in the Malay states to minimise disturbance.
In doing so, the British not only strengthened the Malay states but, through affirming the Malay rulers’ power in religious affairs and Malay custom, also religion as the ethnic boundary of the Malays. That is the historical basis of why “Malays” are by definition Muslim, as stipulated in the Article 160 of the Federal Constitution.
With the Malays being all Muslims and the non-Malays being largely non-Muslims, secularism in the sense of state impartiality towards citizens of different faiths may basically reduce the differential in citizenship rights between the Malays and non-Malays.
In other words, secularism as religious equality is inherently contradictory to the logic of building a Malay-nation, an agenda crystallised in 1946 and established two years later.
Granted, UMNO’s Anglicised, Anglophile, conservative elites led by Tunku, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein and pre-Reformasi Mahathir never wanted an Islamic state.But they only upheld secularism as intra-Muslim religious freedom – in the sense of minimum penetration of the state by religious authorities, but not interfaith religious equality.
In fact, for Sabah and Sarawak, 51 years of Malaysia has been largely a process of erosion of secularism to serve the agenda of Malay nationalism, where non-Muslim Bumiputeras are to gradually become Muslim Bumiputeras and eventually Malays. Aggressive conversion of non-Muslims into Islam under Tun Mustapha’s USNO and Harris Salleh’s Berjaya was much despised by Christian Bumiputeras in Sabah.
Years before the word Allah became an issue, non-Muslim Bumiputeras had complained about religion-based discrimination in public sector employment and the enjoyment of Bumiputera privileges.
Many “liberal-lifestyled” Muslims supported UMNO in the past because it stood for intra-Muslim religious freedom, as compared to policing of Muslims advocated by hard-line Islamists in PAS. The question is: if secularism as interfaith equality must be weakened by the day to maintain the regime, how long can intra-Muslim religious freedom remain?
The intra-Christian origin of Secularism
Secularism has no future in Malaysia if it remains a dirty word and not a glorious cause for the Malay-Muslims. But should Malay-Muslims uphold secularism? Can secularism actually benefit the Malay-Muslims?
The answer is a clear “No” if secularism is still seen in the lens of Kemalist legacy, that it means de-Islamisation for the sake of modernisation. But why should secularism mean the denial of one’s civilisational root? Where the Arab Spring started, Tunisia under an Islamist government has just adopted a secular constitution and guaranteed religious freedom and equal citizenship.
From an ethno-nationalist perspective, the answer is also a clear “No” if this is all about giving the minorities equality.But this is where the history of secularism in Christian Europe should be revisited.
Secularism was not born out of the need of Christians to deal with the pagans, Jews or Muslims, or to grant these infidels religious freedom. Religious tolerance was not a virtue of Christians in the medieval Europe. The Jews were treated much better in the Muslim Empires than the Christian States. Neither was secularism established to advance atheism.
Secularism was much driven by faith. Rivalry between the kings and the Catholic Church and the growth of secular thought and capitalism did not turn Christian Europeans into atheists. These forces only divided Christians into Catholics and Protestants, many of whom died to defend and advance their faiths.
Today’s rigid view of secularism as absolute separation of state and religion is too much rooted in post-Revolution France, which influenced Kemalist Turkey.
Some one and a half centuries before that, the order of proto-secularism was actually laid by the 1648 Westphalia Treaty to end religious wars between Catholics and Protestants.
The treaty, on which today’s international system of sovereign nation-states are founded, affirmed the “religious freedom” of both the states and their subjects. The kings and princes were free to decide the official state of their polities, but their subjects were also free to choose their faith and entitled to equal treatment before the law. Religious disputes were resolved through secular procedures that excluded religious reasoning.
Secularism thus freed Christians of different denominations from unnecessarily deaths in the name of faith, and later by extension, provided for religious freedom for non-Christians including Muslims. While Christian Europeans later continued to die over nationalism and ideologies in the centuries to come, the Westphalian secularism removed religion from the list of reasons to kill.
One only needs to look at today’s European Union to see the benefit of secularism. Can the European Union simply be possible if the states need to choose between Catholicism, various denominations of Protestantism and Orthodoxy as her official religion?
Ever wonder what would happen to Palestine if the Arab League can be united like the EU? Ironically, the self-styled Caliphate of the Islamic State (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and Sham) actually hopes to unite the Muslims by slaughtering all who oppose their rule – the antithesis of secularism.
Hundreds more times of Muslims had to die in the wars in Syria and Iraq – hell will break loose if Saudi Arabia and Iran directly enter the battlefields – because these Muslim states were, are and can be partial either to Sunnis or Shias or Alawites. Muslims die and suffer, not so much over the theological differences as for each group’s survival.
Coming back to home, can Westphalian secularism benefit the Malay-Muslims? Yes, if the goal is to have the space to be both more pious and more united, as per the Amman Message, which recognises as valid all the main schools of Islamic thought – Sunni, Shia, Ibadhi, Ashari, Sufi and Salafi?
After all, spirituality is about what we can believe while dominance is about what others cannot believe, lest we get confused.