July 30, 2013
Clash between Morality and Liberty in Malaysia
by Aerie Rahman
The train of modernisation is accelerating at breakneck speed, without an end point. Concomitants to modernisation such as urbanisation, individualisation, liberalisation and secularisation transform the world as we know it. A consequence to these “-isations” is a rupture to much cherished traditional social arrangements.
Every society is touched by modernisation. Resistance is a natural reaction. But what makes a society genuinely progressive is not modernisation per se. It’s how they choose to deal with the side effects of modernisation is what makes the progress sustainable.
Of late, the clash between morality and liberty in Malaysia has intensified. Morality has always reigned supreme ever since the rapid Islamisation of Malaysia. However, the bastion of morality is facing a sustained assault by the forces of liberty.
Female Malay Muslims are forbidden to enter beauty pageants while their Muslim counterparts in Indonesia are allowed to do so. The Shiite sect is proscribed. The tentacles of moral policing are far reaching.
Khalwat raids are pervasive, victimising Malay Muslims. Malay Muslims are forbidden to consume alcohol. Malay Muslims are punished if they gamble. Fasting in the month of Ramadan is compulsory for Malay Muslims.
The religious authorities mete out punitive measures – with state backing – to victimless crimes. Hardly any third party is directly harmed as a result of these so called “immoral activities” – yet they are punished for their different standards of morality. These punishments would surprise anyone from any liberal democracy, infused with enlightenment values.
The screws of repression are being tightened by the self-appointed custodians of morality.Why do these conflicts happen? Why do religious moralisers seek to impose their will upon another human being? Shouldn’t people deserve to do whatever they want as long as they don’t harm others?
The evolution of morality
The cultural and moral strains that Malay Muslims are facing do not happen without a cause. Structural forces determine how we behave. Our circumstances and social situations are major influences that condition our behaviour. We act and react in response to the surroundings and environment we are in. Cultures around the world are different because they encounter different social problems and solve them in numerous ways.
The rapid modernisation that Malaysia is facing is changing the moral and social landscape that we are in. As Karl Marx pointed out, the base (economy) determines the superstructure (laws, behaviour, religion etc). Economic development in Malaysia empowers the individual. Malay Muslims interact and are able to relate with ideas that celebrate liberty, egalitarianism, rationality, relativism, utilitarianism and the right to be left alone.
These ideas might originate from the West, but it doesn’t mean that they are exclusively applicable to the West. An idea’s origins will have universal application if it passes the litmus test of rationality. After all, aren’t the origins of Islamic values, which are deemed universal, from the deserts of the Middle East?
Most Malay Muslims go through a partial transvaluation of values. For most, Islam is still their religion. But they go through re-interpretations and process of rationalisations of Islam, accepting some beliefs but suspending beliefs in some. Call it cognitive dissonance, if you want.
We are all aware of that Malay Muslim friend who “drinks and parties but would never consume pork while prays 5 times a day.” Or the Malay Muslim who will commit all sins in the present but will repent after marriage or hajj, sometime in the future.
In short, the changing social milieu is changing the habits and behaviour of Malay Muslims – especially among the urban, Western educated, English speaking and bourgeois.
For every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction
Malay Muslims who are embedded in traditional beliefs react differently to the changing social landscape. They feel that the traditional social arrangements are collapsing in front of them. Public morality is being upended by liberty. Thus they appoint themselves as sanctimonious moral guardians – in charge of preserving the sanctity of morality.
In Pierre Bourdieu’s fascinating The Outline of Theory of Practice, he represents practice theory in a cycle of social reproduction. The structure (the world as it is) fosters habitus (durable dispositions, our unconscious embodied habits). Habitus determines practice (how we reproduce the structure). The practice recreates the existing structure we live in, the world as we know it. And the cycle continues.
By this logic, traditional social arrangements would exist in perpetuity. But external elements which intervene (in this case modernisation) restructure the structure.
Traditional Malay Muslims desire the ideal Malay Muslim society, a homogenous blob where everyone acts similarly. They dream of a Malaysia where every Malay Muslim conforms to the orthodoxy – denying the heterogeneity of individuals. Those who deviate from the right path are brandished “sesat”, “murtad”, “hina Islam”, “liberal tegar” and severely punished for their moral infractions.
Punishments are used to ensure Malay Muslims toe the line. The punishment acts as a mechanism to reproduce the structure – the world that these moralisers believe that we all should live in. The sanction of the law conferred to the moralisers act as a conduit not only in trying to reproduce the structure. It is also a seal of moral superiority – it is no secret that religious officers pour scorn and ridicule to moral offenders.
Oscillating and vacillating
The political class, be it the opposition or the government appears to be facing a moral dilemma. On one hand, they need to pander to the rural, more conservative segment of Islam. On the other hand they need to appear progressive and not too medieval in their thinking to urban Malay Muslims. A lot of vacillating is done but it’s not so much walking a tightrope as it seems.
The favourite ploy of the political elite is to brandish themselves as moderates. In the international community, Malaysia is self-portrayed as a moderate Muslim country. But nothing could be further from the truth.
An interesting event that I would like to highlight is the Kartika Dewi Shukarno saga, where a Muslim woman was caught in flagrante delicto consuming alcohol. She was sentenced to whipping, though some claimed that Sharia whipping is less harsh than conventional whipping. This was accepted with enthusiastic support from conservative Malay Muslims. However, conscientious members of society voiced their staunch opposition to this. Two forms of discourse clashed. The international community paid attention.
Reputation is everything in communal Malaysia. The muka (face) is of utmost importance. Kartika’s sentence was commuted to community service. Malaysia’s moderate reputation was saved. This case serves to show the strains between the two main discourses in Malaysia. But what if another fiasco erupts again? A precedent is already set when Kartika’s sentence was pardoned. Would it be a policy of consistent pardons?
The political elite tend to favour the conservative segments of Malaysia. They are after all the majority. The international community would never be there to condemn Malaysia’s harsh treatment of moral offenders. They were never there during the numerous Ops Valentine and khalwat raids which destroyed the lives of many a “moral offender”.
No politician is willing to voice out their concerns against moral policing. The feeble attempts materialises in requesting for “proper procedures” and to treat offenders better. For reptilian politicians, what is popular is more important than doing what is right.
Quo vadis, Negaraku?
Resistance to modernisation is inherent in any society. Ask any Samurai (if any still exists). The Tokugawa Shogunate imposed the sakoku – a policy of isolating Japan from the rest of the world to resist modernisation. Public morality laws existed in the Western world, once upon a time. In fact, alternative sexual groups are still being stigmatised in certain parts of the West.
Uncertainty is the root of fear. It is easier to feel secure with the social arrangements that we know of. But resistance of the inevitable is futile. People will change, unless we revert to atavism (like Pol Pot’s Cambodia or North Korea). Modernisation will continue, untrammelled.
Have we considered the costs of persecuting moral offenders? The costs are insurmountable. How many lives are shattered because of jail sentences due to khalwat convictions? How many will continue to live in fear when committing acts which are laughed off in any liberal democracy but given the severest of punishment in Malaysia?
It’s high time we resolve these internal contradictions to pave a way for a compassionate, tolerant and progressive society. – July 30, 2013.