The current polemic surrounding comments made by YB Nurul Izzah Anwar has done exactly that - it has lost sight of the fundamentals. This article is one humble attempt to remedy this by exploring in detail three broad options available to the state in dealing with apostasy.
I think the future of our country would be much better off in the hands of Izzah and those like her than in many, many others.
It does not seem to me that she went into the forum on Nov 3 intending to state an encompassing position regarding religious doctrine.
She answered a question posed to her as best she could, performing a somewhat vague balancing act between conscience and political correctness.
The discourse since then has been short on specifics, and long on shouting - primarily about who is the better defender of Islam, who is trying to sell out the Muslims, et cetera.
Instead of discussing in clear detail the issue of apostasy - an undertaking deemed to fraught with political risk - we are back to name-calling and giving people a reason to be cynical about Malaysian politics.
Mature vs immature politics
If indeed this is how immature politicians handle a situation, how might we expect a mature person to do differently?
Let us take the bull by the horns here, ignore the tangential theatrics, and begin to discuss with sincere hearts an issue that is a genuine challenge for our diverse society: apostasy.
I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on religion, Islam or apostasy. I apologise for not waiting years to become one before writing this, and for any mistakes I may make; no doubt this article fails to take into account a great number of legal and religious considerations.
While not an expert, like many others I am a Malaysian who feels that we need to find a sustainable way forward together out of the quicksand we find ourselves in - whatever our background or beliefs.
I posit that the question at the core of this tension is this: How should the state treat an individual who wishes to leave the Muslim faith?
My limited imagination has thus far produced three broad categories of answers: Firstly, that the individual be granted absolute freedom to do so; secondly, that the individual not, under any circumstances, be permitted to leave the faith; thirdly, that the individual be subject to a process, at the end of which he or she will have the ultimate freedom to decide whether or not to leave the faith.
Absolute freedom to leave?
I know that many friends of mine with whom I feel I share many principles would love to see the first option come into being - probably based, among others, on the notion that the constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
In our present time and context however, I am personally not in favour of such an approach.
Here we wade a little into the waters of political philosophy. In a democracy, does the view of the majority automatically constitute a 100 percent moral or 100 percent correct view?
I believe the answer is no. I also believe however, that in a true democracy, a view that is not held by the majority cannot - for purposes of deciding state policy - entirely be considered 100 percent moral or 100 percent correct either.
In other words, I feel that state policy should more often than not reflect the views and values of the majority.
Of course, prevailing views change. Where once racism and segregation were thought of as morally acceptable, the prevailing view has come to be the opposite.
Views such as these are transformed over time as a result of immense effort by brave activists who are convinced of the rightness of their cause. It is no small thing to sway the hearts and minds of the masses.
In Malaysia, my guess is that the prevailing view of the majority is that Muslims should not be allowed to renounce their official status as Muslims simply and instantly by declaration.
There is a fear - possibly a founded one - that this would result in the near instant apostasy of a sizeable number of Muslims in the country. Amidst a local perception of international Islamaphobia and the centrality of Islam to Malay identity, such a situation is viewed as an unacceptable threat.
The value, correctness, wisdom, etc of this view can be debated ad nauseum. If it is indeed the prevailing sentiment however, I feel that it must be appreciated as such and appropriately reflected in state policy - at the very least until such a time as it no longer prevails.
On the other end of the spectrum arises the option of completely disallowing apostasy.
The central challenge to this option lies in the question: if an individual has completely renounced a faith in his or her heart, then what meaning can there possibly be in the state retaining an empty, administrative and ultimately inaccurate label on that person?
Just as labelling a state ‘Islamic’ does not make it one (an interesting article for another day), labelling an individual ‘Muslim’ does not make him or her one.
To consider an individual that does not believe in Allah (swt) and has no intention of living according to Islamic precepts a Muslim seems an ill reflection of reality.
True, said individual may once again embrace the faith at a later time; but until such a time, is he or she indeed a Muslim?
Just because his or her identity card states ‘Islam’, is he or she more Muslim than an individual whose identity card says ‘Buddha’ but proclaims the shahada, prays five times a day, contributes zakat, fasts during Ramadan and performs the haj?
The case of Revathi Massosai (left in photo) must be mentioned here: a woman who was born to Muslim parents but raised since birth and lived her entire life as Hindu. What logic is there in the decision of the authorities to detain and forcibly attempt to make her a practising Muslim, essentially on the basis that her identity card states ‘Islam’?
A functioning state should reflect reality, not paranoia. Refusing to recognise and reflect the current truth about an individual can only be considered symptomatic of a failed system.
Permitted under stringent conditions?
The situation now seems to put us between a rock and a hard place.
This may be a naive suggestion, but is there a middle ground? A way to ensure that the act of apostasy is viewed with grave seriousness and a journey never to be taken lightly, without closing the door entirely?
Is there maybe a way to ensure a humane and dignified process through which a Muslim who truly wants to leave the faith be eventually allowed to do so? A process perhaps with as much consultation and counselling as deemed reasonable, but completely devoid of any coercion?
The details of such a process would certainly be a point of great contention, but the question posed here is whether a move in that direction would be possible to begin with.
The quote from the Quran that “There is no compulsion in religion” has been heatedly debated.
I can accept the view that context applies originally or more commonly to the question of converting non-Muslims to Islam - stating that this can never be done forcibly.
At the same time however, the question that it seems Malaysian Muslims need to address is again, whether a Muslim who is forced or compelled against his or her will to continue being a Muslim (via the enforced lack of any viable alternatives or option to leave) truly a Muslim?
Before the state rushes to judge and control its fellow human beings, perhaps we must ask: on judgment day, will it matter what is in an individual’s heart, or what it says on his or her identity card?
Live together, die alone
At the end of the day, it will matter less what one newspaper or what one politician says. Whether or not we are able to move forward will depend entirely on our desire and ability to together seek out a solution that is as fair, just and accommodating as humanly possible.
If we cannot, then at best we will be stuck in this same place generations from now, just like we were in the time of Lina Joy. The ‘at worst’ scenario does not bear describing.
If we can however, perhaps we will in this case at least have successfully broken free from the mire of squabbling officials, and taken one step closer to becoming a mature democracy.
A long time ago, NATHANIEL TAN co-edited the book ‘Religion Under Siege? Lina Joy, the Islamic State and Freedom of Faith’ with John Lee.