A Secular Islam Possible for Malaysia?

May 11, 2017

A Secular Islam Possible for Malaysia?

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee@www.malaysiakini.com

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The recent PAS Muktamar brings to the forefront – yet again – the question of whether secular Islam is a possibility in an increasingly racially and religiously acrimonious and divided Malaysia.

Secularism has been defined as the separation of public life and civil/government matters from religious teachings and commandments, or more simply the separation of religion and politics. It is an evolution that the great majority of the world’s nations have gone through – some quickly, others more slowly.

However, almost all nations, even as they develop at uneven speeds, have inevitably gravitated towards a separation of religion and state.

Today, except for a few countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran and Yemen, most nations – developed and developing – view a religiously-based state as a throwback to a more primitive form of government; and a historical era in which life was nasty, brutish and short, except for the religious elite.

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Secular states in which governments are neutral in matters of religion and public activities, and where the states’ decisions are not dictated or influenced by religious beliefs, are the opposite of theocratic states.

At the same time it needs to be noted that not all secular states are alike. Thus we find states with a comprehensive commitment to secularism; those that are more accommodating to religion; and others that, although committed to neutrality, will selectively actively cooperate with religions.

Whatever the degree of secularity, secular states, except those which morph into totalitarianism or autocratic systems, are committed to the implementation of national and international norms protecting the freedom of religion or belief, and abide by constitutions which guarantee the equal treatment of different communities of religion and belief within society.

In sharp contrast the theocratic state has a God or a particular deity to be the supreme civil ruler. Also the God’s or particular deity’s commandments are held to be the definitive law of the land; and the authorities and their representatives who interpret the commandments claim a superior or divine duty in running the affairs of state and society.

Debates on merits ongoing, but no poll held

Debate on the relative merits of theocratic and secular states has been ongoing for several hundreds of years in both Muslim and Christian worlds. In our era, a poll of the world’s foremost leaders – including religious – on what they may view to be a superior form of government – secular or theocratic – has never been held.

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The Late Karpal Singh is right but when he was Prime  Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir had the audacity to claim that Malaysia is already an Islamic state, while his successor promoted Islam Hadhari and Najib Razak embraced Hadi Awang’s Hududism and Zakir Naik.  As a result, the Malays have become a confused people.–Din Merican

But if one were to be undertaken today, I will not be surprised if the polled group of religious leaders – despite their concerns about the negative impact that a sharp break separating public life from religion could have on their congregations – will agree that a secular state is the correct path to progress and a better life for their religious communities.

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I expect too that few among the religious leaders would want a return to the days when there was a fusion of religious and political authority, even if they may personally benefit from the shift of power in society.

For, make no mistake about it, history – past and current – is replete with examples of how theocratic states, even after co-opting or hijacking secularised concepts of equality and justice, have invariably lapsed into religious tyrannies with dire consequences for all of the citizenry.

As Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States noted, “Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity.”

The crisis in Malaysia

Secular Malaysia today is facing a crisis with Muslim politicians from both sides of the political divide seeking to strengthen conservative Islam through castigating its moderate and liberal proponents, and by making the case that supporters of a secular Islam are kaffirs, traitors and enemies of the religion.

The situation has become so bad that few Muslims in the country are willing to take a public stand on the issue or declare support for secular Islam for fear of reprisal by religious extremists.

The sole exceptions that have stood out have been non-political figures, such as Mariam Mokhtar, Noor Farida Ariffin and some other members of G25, Syed Akbar Ali, Marina Mahathir, Haris Ibrahim, Din Merican, and Farouk Peru, and an even smaller number of politicians, notably Zaid Ibrahim and Ariff Sabri.

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One sees in their messages to fellow Muslims in this country some of the same concerns that are animating liberal and secular Muslims in other parts of the world, viz:

  • The rejection of interpretations of Islam that urge violence, social injustice and politicised Islam;
  • The rejection of bigotry and oppression against people based on prejudice arising from ethnicity, belief, religion, sexual orientation and gender expression;
  • Support for secular governance, democracy and liberty; and
  • Support for the right of individuals to publicly express criticism of Islam (see ‘Muslim Reform Movement’ by M Zuhdi Jasser and Raheel Raza et al).

Unfortunately, these messages – partly because they are communicated in English and partly because the mainstream Malay (and English ) media have chosen to ignore them – are unable to reach the Malay masses – whether in rural or urban communities. They have even failed to elicit support from the unknown number of open-minded and liberal Muslims who are now openly branded as “deviants” by Islamic religious authorities.

In the Malay world, it is Malay politicians and the Islamic elite and bureaucracy who have a monopoly over the variant of Islam that is propagated to the masses. It is a variant that is currently feeding on heightened ethnic and religious insecurities and jealousy, so as to make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to have a rational discourse on secular Islam, save that advocated by Umno and PAS.

LIM TECK GHEE is a former World Bank senior social scientist, whose report on bumiputera equity when he was director of Asli’s Centre for Public Policy Studies sparked controversy in 2006. He is now CEO of the Centre for Policy Initiatives.

15 thoughts on “A Secular Islam Possible for Malaysia?

  1. A feeling of aghast ( yes even disgusted ) , if the author talks of ‘ possibility ‘ , whereas it is a ‘ MUST ‘ : Secularism is to do with worldly things , relating to world of matter & bodily organs . For Eg. in ancient or primitive times , man had to use barks of trees to cover their necessary bodily parts to ‘veil’ their private things. Slippers or shoes even, were from bark of trees…..(well yes, in its crude form they were ‘scientific ‘ ) ……

    But look at how ‘ Scientific ‘ things have improved their garments….well knit….proper leather shoes to protect his feet. and sole, Indeed all Scientific things have generally improved the degree of ‘ civility ‘ ( or civilization , due from scientific advancements ) …..

    NB . the earliest Scientists were ‘ Muslims ‘ : Ibnu Sina, Ibnu Khaldun, Ibnu Batutah….they survived for only 600 years, after which , they were clobbered by the ‘ Syariah ‘ group, who blamed them as ‘ sinners ‘ , and that was the end of Islamic scientific advancements….

    What happens now to the Islamic community ? Riddled with PERVASIVE ‘ guilt consciousness ‘ …….& are heavily veiled or garbed from head to foot….1

    Why that thick, thick burqa for the hair ? Leave it be..women look beautiful & gorgeous with their FLOWING hairdos , beautiful God-given hairs flowing to their shoulders …..does it not depict them as ‘ angels ‘ in the context of worldly existence , quite like angels in their future heavenly abode of bliss …..”

    • “In ancient or primitive times , man had to use barks of trees to cover their necessary bodily parts to ‘veil’ their private things” – a cute observation !

      So veiling is man induced and not prophet(s) induced.

  2. It appears Islam, perhaps, is the only religion that calls for its adherents to kill the infidels (the non-believers and those who oppose Islam). No Muslim clerics or secular Muslim moderates have addressed or dare address this existential flaw in the religion. They will keep mum or skirt around the issue and speak and write about other virtues of Islam.

    Another frightening diktat is that if a Muslim leaves Islam it is the pronouncement of death for him or her. Hence over populating themselves and none leaving it, makes Islam the most expanding religion on planet earth. Can it be otherwise?

    So, ring-fenced and insular, what is going to be the future of Islam? Is it going to be a clash of civilisations of a different kind – Islam versus the Rest. The grip seems to be taking hold in the Western world in particular, and will get tighter and tighter in time to come.

    Islam at its core is beautiful with noble elements like being spiritual always (praying 5 times a day), contributing a small part of one’s regular income for charity, fasting (to taste hunger and help the poor in need) and undertaking Haj pilgrimage, at least once in a life time ( to ask for forgiveness and continue life afresh with new outlook and purpose).

    For others to embrace Islam, get rid of infidels killing and imposing of death penalty on those leaving Islam. Make it free-spirited like all other religions. Then, and then only, will others see Islam in a more positive light.

  3. @ HE , some or few who call themselves ‘ Muslims ‘ may be the greater Infidels than non-believers, who perpetrate the widespread culture of ‘ SUICIDE BOMBINGS ‘ in the name of Religion….this culture is not in any religion…..I truly believe ALL religions are emphatic about ‘ God ‘ , though the mode of, or approach to the One & Universal Creator, may be different….. – (nafsi. nafsi….)

  4. There is no secular Islam or moderate Muslim………either you are a real and true Muslim or you are not.

    This labeling of Islam and Muslim is used by Islamist politicians, extremist and terrorist to create divisions and cause troubles for power and/or wealth.

  5. ‘’ Malaysia today is facing ‘’ CRISES , not ‘’a crisis’’ , brought on by politicians from the divide, with their twisted agendas, for attaining and or sustaining power, largely for personal gains and greed, all in the names of serving the people, their race, (Malays,Chinese, Indians,…)and religions (islam, Chirstians,.… )…It is all b..sh.t.

    The Political leaders should Stop pretending, and mislead the people that we have a Constitutional Issue on secularism, race or religion which are used as convenient tools to divide and to distract, for personal gains of the politicians.

    This country has serious a functional/dysfunctional crisis issue(s)/problems brought on from those past and present leaders who practice of the culture of MAACP due to the lack of Accountability, Competency, Governance and Transparency, ACGT.

    And this is the Crisis Issue that politicians are trying to deny and evade the responsibility and duty to make people aware of it and together, help solve the problems- the key to Saving Malaysia from the ruin and doom, going forward.

    The Rakyat should wake up too !

  6. I like many points mentioned in above youtube. Just thought of sharing the above conversation that is taking place in my new found foreign land also.

    I don’t think Dr Lim could convince anyone with rhetoric mentioned in this article.
    katasayang, at least the good doctor Teck Ghee has the guts to put his thoughts on secularism and hudud in writing. None of my readers, especially in Malaysia have dared to do so. I agree with the views of the Lawyer and DAP Chairman that we are a secular state with a secular Constitution. Hudud is unconstitutional. Hudud is all Malay politics when Mahathir as the UMNO President tried to outdo PAS, followed by his successors, the inept Badawi and the corrupt Najib who played around the Islamic fire. –Din Merican

    • That is true, Dato. In Malaysia, secular state is indeed under attack.
      But, I am still hoping that Muslims would find a solution out of this very difficult situation. After all, what can other non Muslims help do? Anything non Islamic would only complicate things. A few years ago I read a book about the thoughts of the Deobandi school. I learnt their yearnings to preserve Islam within India is not much different from the yearnings of my generation of pendatang insisting in getting educated in SRJK in spite of the fact how it would only be a hindrance to my growing up in a post colonial world. My parents did not tell me anything about May 13. My mother did not tell me about her grandfather. I know they did want me to be a Malaysian. But, they couldn’t allow me to not learn about a language that they inherited, for all of the baggage it came with.
      The same is true for this generation of Muslims. Secularism is indeed the best way to preserve Islam. I pray would see how the Muslim faith when practised within in a secular world could be so much more beautiful. I am thankful for Dr Lim’s effort to preserve Secularism. I lend my support for his effort with a theist bend.

    • Exactly Din,
      The Federal Constitution rules supreme.

      The problem is politicians, especially the Umno Baru leaders think they can rule supremely with their own interpretations of the Federal Constitutions and conveniently ignore the separations of power for the Executive, the Judiciary and Administrative—abusing and misusing them in making race ( Ketuanan Melayu) and religion (Islam),as easy tools to divide and rule ( intimidate, suppress), in sustaining power for their personal gains, and for those well connected.

      An glaring example is, when making race= religion and vice versa, whether it is secular or not, it is unconstitutional. Unfortunately, for Malaysia, it happens to be Malay=Islam, where no country, not even the Islamic ones, in the world, would adopt.

  7. Islam is constantly used as a political weapon by Islamist politician, extremist and terrorist to intimidate, bully and threaten to silence their opponents.

    It is the most powerful political weapon in underdeveloped and developing Muslim countries where free of speech and accurate, fair and balanced information are limited…….where most ordinary Muslims are naive and ignorant.

    When you mixed politics with religion, together with bad and corrupt political leadership and culture, you are asking for destruction – just a matter of time.

  8. Even if liberal Muslims do not want to stand up for the religious rights of others, one would expect they will stand up for their own rights. But only a tiny few are willing to do this. So sad. Why I ask myself? Is the liberal/moderate image just superficial? Is it because they are all afraid? What are they scared of?

  9. What is Secularism ? It pertains to this world ( of reality, or physical dimension ) –

    So, Islamic secularism pertains to only five (5) things : 1 ) Proclaim the syahadah ” there is No God but Allah , and Muhammad SAW is His (last) Prophet & final Messenger ” ( Lord Muhammad died @ age 63 ) ; Pray five times a day ; Once a week Congregation in the Mosque on Fridays ; Fasting during Ramadhan ; Giving of alms ; Once in a lifetime Pilgrimage to Mecca/Medina – THESE PERTAINS TO ‘ ISLAMIC SECULARISM ‘ ( Hence, it does NOT preclude all Scientific things so far discovered & innovated by the West for the last 500 years
    (Scientfic discoveries & innovations are good for ALL of Humanity, so Muslims must ACCEPT all good things found & invented for Mankind as a whole ) –

    I realize, there may be objections to that effect , that it is CONTRADICTORY to talk of ” Spiritual Secularism ” (of Islam ) ? – No, Secularism pertains to this worldly, so those five (5) things above , relates to this world …

    Islamic ‘ Spiritualism ‘ ? ? ( repeat ) :

    ” Well then , if the Qura’n were his own invention, other men could rival it . Let them produce ten Verses like if they could; and its obvious they could not ; then , let them accept the Qura’n as an outstanding miracle ” – H.A.R Gibb , Mohammaddanism, 1953….

  10. Please also see this Miracle ( repeat ) , quote :

    ” Philosopher , orator , apostle , restorer of rational dogmas , of a cult without images, founder of twenty terrestrial empires and one (1) spiritual empire , that is Muhammad . As regards all standards by which human greatness is measured, we may well ask , is there any man greater than he ….? – Lammartine , Paris, 1854 .

    ( Founnder of twenty Terrestrial empires & one spiritual Empire , in his short Ministry of 63 years….dear readers , you must accept the fact that all Chosen Prophets , of the Chosen Elect, they are VOUCHSAFED by Al;’Mighty from Above …)

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