Islamic versus secular state debate rages on
ANALYSIS: In 1983, Malaysia’s first prime minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, said, “The country has a multi-racial population with various beliefs. Malaysia must continue as a secular state with Islam as the official religion.”
A few days later Tun Hussein Onn, the third prime minister, supported Tunku’s statement by stating that “the nation can still be functional as a secular state with Islam as the official religion”.
On the other hand, our fourth premier, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in September 2001 said, “Umno wishes to state clearly that Malaysia is an Islamic nation. This is based on the opinion of ulamaks who had clarified what constituted an Islamic country.”
So if our prime ministers have the power to determine the identity of our country merely by making such announcements, one question still remains: Is Malaysia an Islamic or secular state?
Last June, Islamic Renaissance Front chairman Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa (pix, below) urged Malaysians not to give Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat a two-thirds majority in Parliament to ensure Malaysia remains a secular state.
Farouk said that Malaysia is a secular state and by giving too much power to either coalition, the country could be turned into a theocratic state.
“Secularism does not mean the exclusion of religion from the public life of a society. The misconception that it does is one of the reasons many Muslims tend to be hostile towards the concept,” said Farouk, who is also an academician at Monash University.
Farouk explained that calling for a state to be secular is not similar in any way to the call for secularising the society.
“A state should be secular in the sense that it is neutral to all the differing religious doctrines.
“A secular state must embrace democracy. And democracy cannot be based on Sharia law, because this would denote a theocracy. A secular state would allow every living Muslim a true freedom. Freedom to pray and fast as he or she ought to, freedom to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet as he or she sees fit and freedom to submit to the will of God as he or she understands it,” he said.
Farouk stressed that secularism has played an integral part in shaping classical Islamic thought. The idea has been frequently discussed and debated in various disguises by many Muslim scholars and thinkers.
“The rights of God should be left to the individual and his conscience; the state should concern itself only with the rights of the people. So that secularism will emerge not at the expense of religion but as a method for reinterpreting and revisiting religion itself,” he added.
In the Federal Constitution, both terms – Islamic state and secular state – do not appear. Nonetheless, Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This provision has often been cited to support the claim that Malaysia is an Islamic state or at least not a secular one.
However, many believe that in a multiethnic society like Malaysia, it is important for the people to share elements of a common culture. This clearly indicates the importance of determining whether Malaysia is an Islamic or a secular state.
In this regard, it is worth noting Farouk’s quote: “Considering that Muslims have been divided into different sects, ideas and views, the only system that would be fair for all would be the one that would include all of them in the political process.”
According to Farouk, by taking also into consideration the significant non-Muslim community in our country who should never be considered as second-class citizens, a secular state that embraces democracy is the most logical option.
Secularism needs religion to provide a moral guidance for the community and, in turn, religion needs secularism to mediate the relations between the different communities that share the same political space and space for civic reason.
“Secularism is able to unite diverse communities of beliefs and practices into one political community simply because the moral claims it makes are minimal. And secularism is able to tolerate differing views in a religiously diverse community while maintaining its political stability,” he added.