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Friday, 9 November 2012

Former Malaysian leaders were clear on Secularity of the Constitution but their successors today seem unclear!

Former leaders were clear about the secularity of the Constitution. Today, however, not all their successors in the political and judicial worlds seem to agree.

CONTROVERSY over our country’s position as a secular or Islamic state has flared again, motivated by politics, of course.

Headlined in this newspaper in 1983 were statements by Tunku Abdul Rahman (former Secretary-General of the OIC) and former Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn that Malaysia was and should continue to be a secular state.

Former Lords, President Tun Suffian Hashim and Tun Salleh Abas, were also clear about the secularity of the Constitution.

Today, however, not all their successors in the political and judicial worlds seem to agree.

The recent provocations have triggered recent forums on Muslim history and political philosophy, asking the fundamental question of whether Islamic text and tradition mandate a particular form of government, or merely describe the qualities and virtues that a Muslim society should have.

Even amongst proponents of the latter, there are arguments as to what extent the state should use its power to coerce citizens to mandate or promote Islamic values.

Indeed, Muslim political philosophy is just as lively as Western political philosophy, with lineages of thinkers promoting order and obedience on one side and individual liberty and responsibility on the other.

The historical record, too, shows huge diversity in Muslim governance structures, and still today there are Muslims who justify communism, dictatorship, republican democracy and constitutional monarchy – though in country comparative indices, Muslim monarchies usually fare better than republics, a distinction the Arab Spring seems to reinforce.

Some have pointed out that in drafting our Federal Constitution, our monarchs initially opposed including a declaration that Islam should be the religion of the federation.

Alas, the reason for this has not been properly explained. It has been claimed that it shows that the Malay Rulers were themselves “secular” (which some then incorrectly define as “hostile to religion”).

No, they merely accepted the co-existence of secular institutions alongside religious ones – nothing new, as the Ottomans amply showed.

More crucially, the Rulers and their predecessors had, in law and reality, been Heads of Islam in their own states for centuries.

The Federal Constitution would not, it was thought, affect that, and thus Justice Abdul Hamid’s recommendation to insert Islam as the religion of the federation for ceremonial purposes prevailed.

This idea that religion was a state matter was re-emphasised when Malaysia was created: the first of the 18 and 20 points that Sarawak and Sabah agreed as a condition of merger was that they would have no state religion.

Alas, the Rulers and founding fathers could not foresee how politics would alter the nature of religion in our country, nor predict how check and balance institutions would be weakened in favour of centralising ever more powers in the federal executive.

The administration of Islam was no exception, becoming concentrated in institutions at the federal level controlled by politicians and bureaucrats.

This is the main reason why Islam in Malaysia has become so prone to politicisation.

You can still experience the beauty of non-political Malaysian Islam: the meticulously maintained mosques and cemeteries, the tastes and smells of Raya, the blessings invoked at wedding kenduri, and the harmonies of accompanying nasyid.

The heirs of Al-Idrus, Al-Attas, Al-Habshi, Al-Qadri, Alsagoff and others continue to produce champions of Islamic leadership, philosophy, philanthropy and entrepreneurship.

Despite the noises of those who want to ban concerts on one side and those who support theatre on the other (I recommend Nadirah at KLPac), there is also space for the Maulids of the legendary Haqqani Maulid Ensemble and less famous ones like last week’s session at Istana Hinggap Seremban organised by Persatuan Asyraaf Negri Sembilan.

For centuries, Muslims here have known that Islam can flourish without politics.

The Rulers for their part have continued pushing for progress in this vein: in Perak one of the most exciting recent appointments to the royal court was of Oxford Fel­low in Islamic Studies Datuk Dr Muhammad Afifi Al-Akiti; in Negri Sembilan the palace has hosted efforts leading towards Egypt’s Al-Azhar University establishing a local faculty; and in Perlis the Raja recently hosted Prof Tariq Ramadan’s dialogue with 2,000 religious officials, and last week the Raja Muda graced an unprecedented interfaith forum in the state.

This is the kind of Muslim leadership the country is crying out for, rather than the ostentatious politicisation of religion which has only caused consternation and division.

In the meantime, there is not going to be a political resolution on the Islamic state issue at the federal level anytime soon, and thus it seems sensible to instead re-affirm the intentions of the Rulers and the founding fathers.

Only in this way can we rejoin the dynamic, intellectual, spiritual and moderate narrative of Islam that we were long a part of.

 > Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

Related posts:

Malaysia is a Secular state or an Islamic country? Oct 31, 2012

Malaysia a transit point for terrorists or a terrorist recruitment centre? Oct 31, 2012

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