Pluralist Democracy or Islamic State


Recently, DAP leaders criticized PAS for insisting on establishing an Islamic state while Syed Hussein Ali of the PRM called for a public debate on the issue. He suggested a compromise which seems to allow for some form of Islamic governance. Not surprisingly, leaders from BN were quick to exploit the situation by pointing out that the coalition between the opposition parties has no credibility if they could not agree on such a crucial issue.

Significantly, politicians who reject PAS’s Islamic state have not gone beyond a negative rejection and proposed a positive alternative while a forthright rejection of PAS’s proposal is appropriate, especially since PAS has characteristically dodged objections with the vague suggestion that the apprehension non-Muslims have about the Islamic state is simplydue to their inability to understand the true nature of the Islamic state.

PAS’s attitude towards non-Muslims can be described as condescending. Non-Muslims clearly understand that PAS’s Islamic state will impose Islamic law on all citizens in a such way that their religious freedom will be violated. Indeed, PAS’s politicians are being disingenuous in suggesting that non-Muslims are against the Islamic state just because they want freedom to eat pork, operate casinos or dress indecently in public. The fact is non-Muslims are more concerned about the fundamental issue of citizenship rights.

I recall a forum where YB Nik Aziz was asked whether non-Muslims could play a meaningful role in the legal system of the Islamic state PAS has in mind. Would they have a genuine say in the formulation of laws and public policy? Would non-Muslim lawyers be allowed to represent their clients as advocates in courts? Would non-Muslim judges be allowed to make judgments in the Shariah courts? YB Nik Aziz’s response was very revealing – he did not give an affirmative answer to any of these questions. Instead he gave a roundabout answer which suggested that non-Muslims would accept Islamic law when they properly understood it. In effect, he evaded the issue that most troubles non-Muslims, that is, whether PAS’s Islamic state effectively disenfranchises non-Muslims from the legal system.

Worries about legal disenfranchisements are inevitable if PAS’s Islamic state maintains a distinction between Muslim citizens and non-Muslim subjects by categorizing the latter as dhimmis. Muslims may enjoy the full legal status under the Shariah law while dhimmis are assigned a subordinate role. This subordinate role is epitomized by payment of the poll tax, the jizyah and kharaj. Indeed, in 1999, an attempt to impose the Kharaj on non Muslims was put off only after a public outcry against it. Dhimmis cannot assume authoritative positions in PAS’s legal system precisely because unbelievers cannot understand the Shariah law. Dhimmis are also excluded from holding senior positions in government. Maudidi, an influential jurist from Pakistan explained that the Islamic state is an ideologcal state and as such non-believers who do not share its ideology cannot share political power. But does not such exclusion amount to legal apartheid? It would be easy for PAS to allay the anxieties of non-Muslim by declaring decisively that it will not implement the dhimmi system and that all citizens will be accorded equal rights and legal status. PAS appears reluctant or unwilling to do so. As long as PAS fails to undertake this pledge, we can only regard its assurances about tolerance and justice as inconsequential concessions and empty rhetoric.

Let it be stressed that the anxieties of non-Muslims are not abstract fears. Indeed, they have for some years experienced painful restrictions on their own religious rights even under an UMNO led government. For example, some government officials – acting from a narrow interpretation of Islam – make it difficult for non-Muslims to gain approval to build places of worship. Some state governments even prohibit non-Muslims from using some crucial technical terms like Allah, Iman, Wahyu, Injil, Kitab,Nabi etc. In effect, non-Muslims are denied the right to talk about the central tenets of their own religion. Non-Muslim religious literature have been confiscated on grounds that they contain such words. Is it any surprise that non-Muslims fearfully anticipate that PAS – with an even more narrow interpretation of Islam – can only make matters worse?

In the light of these grave concerns, the non-Muslim’s objection to the establishment of an Islamic state should not be taken as an act of animosity towards Islam per se. It is, rather, a reaction towards a serious threat against one’s fundamental citizenship rights. Polarizing citizens into contesting groups – divided along the criterion as to whether they are for or against the Islamic state – would only cloud the real issue. As such, conflictive politics should be replaced by a positive approach concerned with defending the inalienable basic rights of all citizens as enshrined in the Constitution.

It is therefore appropriate to clarify the relationship between religious and political institutions envisaged by the Federal Constitution. Of direct relevance is the clause which states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” The additional Constitutional provisions that empower the government to render assistance to Islam, especially pertaining to education, require lawmakers to be sensitive to the concerns of Islam. But the status of Islam was clarified by our first Prime Minister when he explained that the clause referred to the ceremonial role of Islam at official functions.

To put the matter in historical perspective, we need to recall that the original architects of the Federal Constitution assured the Sabahans and Sarawakians during negotiations for the formation of Malaysia that the clause “does not imply that Malaysia is not a secular state.” Put positively, Malaysia is therefore a secular state. By a secular state is meant a state that adopts religious neutrality in a pluralistic society. Notice that neutrality is far from hostility towards religion. Indeed, a secular state should maintain a benevolent neutrality that respects the integrity and equality of diverse religions of the nation.

Two consequences emerge if we demarcate a clear boundary between state and religious institutions. First, the state is judged as lacking competence in matters religious. The Latin term saeculum (from which the word ‘secular’ comes) means pertaining to temporal matters. The call for a secular state is to remind state authorities in a democratic society that the electoral mandate given to them in elections only pertains to temporal matters in society. The state should respect the autonomy of religious institutions even though both institutions work together in promoting a moral society.

The act to remove religious institutions from state sovereignty should not be seen as an act to undermine religion. On the contrary, the act alleviates the status of religion since its institutions become independent public institutions capable of censuring state authorities if it should arrogate for itself the final authority in human affairs. If anything, state authorities are morally held accountable to a higher transcendent authority.

Second, the separation between state and religious institutions is necessary to avoid possible conflicts in the event that some politicians exploit religious sentiments and incite disgruntled citizens to resort to violence. A quick look at Nigeria and the Indian sub-continent should serve as a salutary reminder against the temptation to mix religion and politics. Maintaining the precarious harmony between the various racial communities in Malaysia is already a most difficult task for any government. Confusing the boundaries between religious and political institutions will make matters worse given the conflictive nature of politics.

Some Muslims who are sympathetic towards a progressive and tolerant form of Islam may nonetheless feel obliged to back away from talk of a secular state because of the misconception that to support for a secular state is to betray one’s religion. Indeed, now and then, some Muslim activists accuse those who argue against the establishment of the Islamic state of insulting Islam. In the process, emotional rhetoric ends up forestalling efforts to develop an objective and rational approach towards resolving differences. The status of Malaysia as a secular state in our Constitution cannot be gainsaid. But we should move away from forcing the issue of having to choose either the secular state or the Islamic state. Instead, we should focus instead on the task of building a strong pluralistic democracy in order to avoid unnecessary emotional reactions.

The goal of strengthening pluralist democracy is a positive agenda. Acceptance of plurality is a vital prerequisite for building overlapping consensus among citizens with different ideologies and religious beliefs. In this respect, the goal of a pluralist democracy is to provide manageable platforms for the resolution of differences among citizens. That being the case, there should be a separation between religious and state institutions to ensure that national consensus is one that emerges from grass root interaction rather than one that is imposed from above.

Fundamental to pluralist democracy is the recognition of equal rights of persons regardless of their religious affiliation and their unrestricted participation in civil society. This is based on three democratic principles. First, the libertarian principle or principle of toleration. The state simply recognizes the inalienable right of citizens to practise – or even not to practise – religion. It is therefore inappropriate for state institutions to interfere with this religious freedom.

Second, the equalitarian principle requires impartiality of the state in not favouring a particular religion to the extent that it discriminates against other religions. This principle also demands that public offices should not be restricted exclusively to citizens professing a certain religious affiliation. This principle accepts that there can be different degrees of establishment of religion. Still, it deems the establishment of religion as, in general, an obstacle towards the maturing of democracy.

Third, the neutrality principle says that the state should not favour citizens simply because they are religious. The state must maintain impartiality between the religious and the non-religious, or between citizens of different religions. A pluralist democracy promotes a citizenry that is capable of transcending partisan politics and of exercising rounded judgment and careful weighing of ambiguous alternatives.

Hopefully, the above discussion will help dispel the common and unfair stereotyping of pluralist democracy – or even the secular state – as one that is inherently against religion. More importantly, the call for a pluralist democracy springs from a recognition of the fundamental concrete realities of Malaysian society. Furthermore, only a pluralist democracy is able to mobilize the resources from all citizens to ensure that our nation is able to cope with the unrelenting onslaught of globalization.

Ng Kam Weng

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