Separation between Religious and State Institutions (Part 1)

Separation between Religious and State Institutions (Part 1)

The qualified-secular status of the Malaysian Federal Constitution is been challenged in current debates on religion and society. Some Muslim activists reject the provision for the separation between state and religion since it does not grant due recognition to Islam as the religion of the majority.

It is granted that religion (this includes all religions and not just Islam) is an integrated worldview and way of life. As such, practicing religion entails engagement with social life. It is futile, if not wrong to dichotomize these two spheres of human activities.

When we talk about separation between Church/Mosque and State, we are not suggesting a dichotomy between religion and society as spheres of human activity. We are suggesting the need to separate religious institutions from state institutions. We are calling for institutional separation. The separation is necessary both to protect state authorities from exploiting religion for their own political agenda and to prevent religious authorities from exploiting the state apparatus for their own (sectarian) religious agenda.

Muslim activists who reject the call for separation argue that it is the duty of the government to enjoin virtue and prevent vice. I refer to the excellent study by Prof. Lamin Sanneh from Yale University on Shariah in Nigeria, Note the caution regarding the hazards to democratic justice that flow from the attempt to bring together (confuse) religious and state institutions.


Excerpt from Lamin Sanneh, “Shariah Sanctions as Secular Grace? A Nigerian Islamic Debate and an Intellectual Response,” Transformation vol. 20 (Oct 2003), pp. 232-248:

El Zakzaky, an economics graduate of the University of Zaria, has acquired national prominence as an opponent of the constitution which he regards as an instrument of secularization. He declared:

Islamic law is meant to be applied by an Islamic government in an Islamic environment. If you introduce Islamic laws under [sic] an un-Islamic environment, under a system of government which is not Islamic, then it is bound to be an instrument of oppression.

On its own terms, however, the distinction between the Islamization of society and the Islamization of the state offers a potentially productive way of re-framing the debate on the proper relationship between religion and statehood in Muslim thought in general, and among Nigerian Muslim leaders in particular. Its great intellectual merit is to shift the focus from the role of the state exclusively to the role of civil society in dealing with issues of tolerance, diversity and pluralism. The distinction does not deny the challenge of secularism, but instead mitigates it by restructuring it as a matter of the civil order. As a general matter, modernist Arab thought, for instance, has tended to oppose a public role for religion as something outside the purview of public reason, and instead to embrace secularization as the proper domain of democracy. The reasoning is that religion is incompatible with freedom and diversity while secularization is conductive to freedom and oneness. But that reasoning leaves us in a cultural muddle about diversity as something that saves our difference and is to be embraced and about difference as something that threatens the truth that we are all one and so is to be suppressed. Diversity as remedy becomes, in effect, the denial of difference.

State: Friend or foe? Critique of Muslim jurisprudence
The northern strategy to advance its political aims by deploying theological arguments, namely that religion is too important to abandon it in private hands as personal choice, evades the other half of the argument, namely that religion is too important to entrust to the state, whether civilian or military. Gumi’s defence of the northern strategy perpetuates the problem, however much it may resonate with pious sentiment that sound religion requires collective state endorsement; for without public enforcement the ideals of religion are empty and pander to wrongdoers and the wicked. In this reasoning, the law of God demands the law of the state for proof and safeguard. Gumi, accordingly, concedes that Muslims and non-Muslims, including Christians, cannot be equal under one government. One principle, Muslims would not accept the authority of a non-Muslim ruler except under special circumstances, such as military rule. Gumi saw partition, perhaps on the Indian model, as the radical answer for Nigeria, though it is not clear whether he means by that secession by the Muslim north or a loose confederal system allowing for local autonomy. El Zakzaky, for his part, comes at the same issue from a purist angle. The secular state, according to El Zakzaky, is the illegitimate child of the secular constitution, and to overthrow the state it is necessary to overthrow the constitution that gave it birth. Only so can Muslims save themselves from what El Zakzaky calls the idolatrous worship of the secular state. A sovereign secular constitution and a sovereign national state represent a ummah. They are an unholy alliance, and must be opposed by Islam’s ittihad (unitary mandate).

These religious arguments, however, are laden with flaws they wish to remedy. The argument against compromise with the secular state, for example, spirals into the requirement of a shahadah-based state of Shari ‘ah prescription. Yet religious or secular anointing of the state does not solve the problem of the state; they merely exacerbate it. A religious state would allow government to guard revealed truth with political sanctions, the ideological counterpart to the normative secular state elevating political expedience into a sovereign national dogma. It is in that sense revealing that both Shaykh Gumi and Shaykh El Zakzaky offer little theological critique of the history of military rule in Nigeria in spite of the doctrinaire secular state that military rule fostered and in spite of the conspicuous absence of a religious warrant either for military rule or for an ideological state, both vanguards of secularism.

The Muslim opponents of Shari ‘ah law, for their part, insist that state sponsorship threatens the moral foundations of religion (la ikraha fi aldin, Qur’an 2: 256), and that, far from solving the secular challenge within, Shari ‘ah rule leaves Muslims helpless before it. For these opponents, if religion is too important for the state to co-opt. Shari ‘ah belongs with the end and purpose of our temporal and eternal felicity, not with the stratagem and means of state control.

Not a word has been uttered about third world debt relief
In the secular scheme, by contrast, political innovation is the right of the sovereign national state, with the elected legislature the inviolable shrine of the people’s will. The argument by the secularists for constitutional separation belongs with that of popular sovereignty and, as such, provokes among the Islamists a counterproposal of state-sponsored piety. Given the reality of weakened and ineffective government institutions and structures at both the federal and state levels in Nigeria or elsewhere and of the accompanying widespread public disenchantment with failed reforms, it is easy to see why Shari ‘ah law has popular appeal and why it has been a magnet for the disenchanted. Yet amidst all the contentions and diverse agendas of Shari ‘ah advocates, it is striking that not a word has been uttered about third world debt relief or about programmes of poverty alleviation. The question remains then, as to whether even a Shari ‘ah-mandated state can do better against the existing failures of mismanagement, public incompetence, judicial corruption, social injustice, the absence of safety and security, failing standards of living, and widespread loss of morale, or whether, instead, Shari ‘ah would aggravate the problem by making God a party to the divisions. In the end, whatever the moral merit of a cargo, it cannot save a ship out of trim.

Religious injunction and cultural imperative: A postscript
We must recognize that the secular status quo from the left and right is bedeviled with this polarizing controversy. In mitigation, we should take seriously the moral insight that the things of God and those of Caesar belong to separate domains and are entitled to radically different conceptions of truth and values. The bidding of Caesar holds us to temporal obligations for our mutual safety and security while the injunction of God calls us, albeit also here and now, to the holy and transcendent for our eternal good. Obedience to Caesar draws on obedience to God like the shadow on the sunlight: the connection between the two is one of outward temporal necessity, not for the public good, but its roots lie in another realm. That means the fruits of religion have unreserved divine safeguard. Usefulness, accordingly, is not a truth claim just as faith is not just a public convenience. The costs of postponing open public discussion of how, in that light, religion may impinge on politics to tame doctrinaire secularism, and to thwart its radical religious nemesis, are high. The modern cultural project of acceptance of difference and tolerance of diversity is at stake.

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