Thursday, 25 October 2012

'Islamic-secular state' wrangle caused by semantics

  • Terence Netto
COMMENT The wrangle over whether Malaysia is an Islamic country or a secular state that has welled up again in the public arena in recent days is more a matter of semantics than it is due to conflicting apprehensions of relevant clauses in the federal constitution.

Words are so chameleon-like they can take on slightly different meanings in the course of history or even in a protracted argument.

When the constitution was drafted in the immediate prelude to the proclamation of Merdeka on Aug 31, 1957, the words "official religion" and "secular" - though the latter term, as Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz pointed out, does not appear in the wording of our constitution - were not considered antithetical.

Then, the meanings conjured up by both terms were not understood as being diametrically opposed as they are now.

A country could be Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Protestant, Catholic or Islamic in the sense that a distinct majority of its citizens profess one or the other of these religions and still the same nation would be considered secular if its written constitution made the proper obeisance to what is considered church-state separation.

pakistan terror school 071204 badshahi mosquePakistan was not considered an Islamic state - as distinct to an Islamic country - when it was created in 1947. It was only in 1978 that General Zia ul-Haq proclaimed the country an Islamic state, contrary to the aspirations held for it at its birth by the country's founder, Mohamed Ali Jinnah.

The separation between church and state, in countries that otherwise were considered partial to the religion of its majority, merely meant that the state would disdain taking sides in religious disputes should they arise, that it won't be unduly influenced by the precepts of the religion in its administration, and that it won't allocate an undue amount of the country's resources for the sustenance of the practices of the majority religion.

These caveats were the fruit of the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke, who in the late 17th century erected the ideological scaffolding on which were built the concept of church-state separation.

The notion that a country could have an official religion, such as Anglicanism in Britain, and still be secular in its politics was held to be not only feasible but also desirable.

Things changed from 1979, with the establishment of the Islamic regime in Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The blood that flowed in the immediate prelude and aftermath of Khomeini's rise to power and the totalistic view of the Islamic conception of life under a clerical regime ("Islam is politics or it is nothing," Khomeini said) induced a revulsion among non-Muslims, especially those resident in Muslim-majority countries, against the notion of an "official religion" or anything that smacked of theocracy.

‘Secular state' and sexual orientation

Paralleling the growth of this aversion among non-Muslims was the rise among Muslims of opposition to the notion of a "secular" state when it became evident to them that such secularity as is envisioned by the term entailed the lifting of prior legal disbarments on homosexuality and consequent recognition of same-sex marriages.

ayatullah khomeini iran spiritual leader 290509 05Muslims consider the latter practises anathema. When it became obvious in recent decades that what is encompassed by the meaning of "secular state" with regard to the sexual orientation of citizens and the state's neutrality in respect of differences flowing there from, Muslim opposition to the term hardened into an article of faith.

Hence now you have a situation where, generally, non-Muslims are opposed to the notion of an "official religion," that they take to mean a theocracy, while Muslims find the whole notion of secularism repugnant.

This gulf in apprehension of the terms "secular" and "official religion" has been influenced by world history of the last half century, specifically the lifting of the legal disbarment on homosexual conduct by British Home Minister Roy Jenkins in 1966 and the establishment by Khomeini of rule in Iran by Islamic jurists in 1979.

Thus when proponents of the "secular" and "Islamic" standpoints clash over such terms as the meaning of "secularism" and "official religion," it is akin to the effect of an argumentative voice on the deaf.

Would things have been so had not arch-liberal Jenkins led the liberalisation of sexual mores in mid-1960s Britain and arch-Islamist Khomeini not come to power in Iran more than a decade later?

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