"Religion. It's given people hope in a world torn apart by religion." - Jon Stewart

COMMENT An old PAS hand who reads my articles in Malaysiakini ranted, "Of course, PAS sees no wrong in (PKR vice-president) Nurul (Izzah Anwar)'s speech. These days they see no wrong in anything Pakatan does when it comes to Islam."

This PAS supporter, one of my oldest and dearest friends, often jokes that he does not belong in the ‘PAS for all' camp but rather in the ‘PAS imposed all' faction. "So, aren't you going to take your jab, Thaya?"

Hudud forum Nurul IzzahWell, as someone who attended the 'Islamic state: Which version? Whose responsibility?' forum and who has devoted space to the question of the role of Islam and the political parties which propagate it, I thought I would look beyond the "manufactured outrage" as author Salman Rushdie categorises such Islamic grievances.

What is more interesting are the numerous uncomfortable ideas that Nurul's statement raises beyond the issue of compulsion in the Islamic faith as practiced here in Malaysia.

Under the rather quizzical title 'Nurul not anti-Islam but a true Muslim', Malaysiakini subscribers have been quick to render qualitative judgements on Nurul's Islamic stance. PAS has been praised on its nuanced response to the onslaught of Umno propaganda and there has been all this baloney on how the ‘quality' of a person's faith supersedes religious dogma.

What exactly is a "true" Muslim or "true" Christian for that matter? Someone who believes that religion should not be politicised? Someone who believes that you should not mock another's religion? Someone who believes that religion should not intrude in the private lives of members in any given society? Someone who believes that there should be a separation of church/mosque and state?

These are not "true" religious values but rather true secular values or secular humanist values, if you like. It is pointless and disingenuous to attempt to define what a "true" Muslim is considering the fact that said values are in fact anathema to traditional Islamic thought and especially by non-Muslims, who project their own agendas as to the qualities that make a good or true Muslim.

In other words, a "true" Muslim as defined by those who have been on the receiving end of Umno-influenced Islam all these years, is a Muslim who conforms to the political and social conventions of the so-called moderate stance espoused by Pakatan Rakyat.

The "true Muslim" oppositional meme is one of the contradictory aspects of the "one size fits all" ideology of Pakatan that if left unchecked will prove disastrous in the long run.

Christian hypocrisy

Nurul's statement should be taken as one more small step in the civilising process of Islam (to borrow a Christopher Hitchens phrase) that Christianity has already undergone.

This is why we have Christians who have rejected the bigoted and/or social constraining values of their religion or at the very least been forced to sublimate them and achieve some sort of secular equilibrium with the rest of society. This, of course, is the Western liberalism that former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad so fears.

The civilising process that should have taken root in this country considering our colonial past and the infrastructure in place after independence was halted by Umno in the following years.

The slow process of Arabisation and the use of Islam as a tool to enthrall the Muslim population and as a weapon to instill fear in the non-Muslim population meant that the process, which would have created a "secular equilibrium" in this multi-religious country, was cut short for long-term political gain.

Non-Muslims played their part as well. Since the concept of "rights" was always defined by religious and communal expectations, there was always never any solidarity based on the premise that "rights" should be enjoyed and applicable to all.

NONESteve Oh's Malaysiakini letter, (which for some reason warranted a visit by the state's security apparatus) in support of Nurul, is loaded with the usual Christian hypocrisy that the calcification of the Malay mind happened in an Umno vacuum.

Race politics is by its nature reactionary and while Umno used Islam for its own purposes, the same can be said of PAS, which (in a reactionary nature) retreated deeper into itself propagating the idea that religious piety was the panacea for Umno corruption.

Meanwhile, non-Muslim component parties were more than willing to toe the Umno line in exchange for an unequal slice of the economic pie, which saw the majority Malay community who were supposed to be the masters of the land languish in perpetual serfdom.

The Chinese community dominated the private sector all the while engaging in a subtle form of systemic discrimination that the Umno regime overtly practiced in the public sector. This fueled the Umno perception that Malay hegemony was under threat by an ungrateful non-Malay community. The racial fault lines in this country have always been between the Malays and the Chinese.

christians praying church attacksThe whole Christian issue is merely the natural consequence of growing section of the mainly Chinese community falling under the sway of a worldwide capitalist/Judeo-Christian revivalist movement, which is leading the way in demanding equal religious rights (which is their constitutional right) after years of Umno corrupting every institution that was supposed to safeguard those rights.

Always remember, the growth of the evangelical Christian movement here in Malaysia happened under the Umno watch and that the nexus between the corridors of Umno power and the business community with strong links to the evangelical movement was engineered during Mahathir's era, not to mention a culture of corruption and cronyism that benefitted a Chinese-dominated private sector.

Oh, who got involved in a memorable spat with Josh Hong on the issue of Christianity and homosexuality in Malaysiakini, brings his own Christian assumptions to the mix.

Just as he objected to "counterfeit" Christianity in that exchange, I am sure there would be many Muslims like my PAS friend who adhere to a narrow interpretation of their holy text. Muslim and Christian each thinking that theirs is the more "authentic" interpretation.

Freedom to reject dogma

Moreover, the beauty of secularism is that it enables an open market place of ideas when it comes to religious choice.

NONENow, Umno may fear this because if people had a choice between a religion that binds them to the dictates of the state (as it is practiced here in Malaysia) and a religion that allows them the freedom to reject dogma without the sanction of the state, which do you think would be the more appealing choice?

Therefore, in a field of competing religions it would be beneficial for the issue of compulsion to be addressed so that the business of winning hearts and minds could go on unabated. May the best religion win, so to speak.

Of course, if the state played no role in enforcing religion, nobody would feel compelled to leave it, but that is the tragedy of religion, all of it is the same but with different labels. The devil is in the details and without the civilising process, nobody - certainly not an ethnic group defined by their religion - gets to question which part of dogma to accept or reject.

This is why Pakatan (with its strong PAS backbone) engaging with the Christian community is vitally important. This nonsense about not politicising religion is the reason why Islamic appeasers have helped in the stagnation of the Islamic faith. The only way to resolve religious differences is by acknowledging them (in good faith) and from these tensions, secularism is the natural by-product.

The Umno state has a monopoly on Islam, which at the end of the day, means that anyone with an agenda of proselytising would get the short end of the stick. Understand now, that my position is that people should be exposed to a diverse range of ideas or agendas and make their informed choice as to what to accept or reject.

The big question is, will Pakatan relinquish this monopoly? Will it disband those religious institutions that "shackle the Malay Mind? Will affirmative action policies which are intimately linked with Malay/Muslim identity and which have contributed to the entitlement culture be dropped?

Meritocracy is a fine idea but how would it be imposed on a political and social landscape built on the injustices and apathy of a Malaysian public still playing the race game?

NONENurul's watershed idea is not that Malays/Muslims should be exposed to other ideas or religions especially since, those ideas/religions in my opinion are soul cages in their own ways, not to mention the agendas at play, which would be deleterious to a multicultural/religious Malaysia.

Her watershed idea is that she is following in the footsteps of those reformers who are advancing the internal dialogue within Islam. This rarely acknowledged tradition, which is nearly always met with hostility, is the most subversive of movements because it relies on the reinterpretation of dogma that has always been the zealously guarded province of those hardliners who garment themselves in piety that is the new fascism.

Propagandist like The Star journalist Joceline Tan may label her as a "little kid with big ambitions" but this "kid" in her nascent political life has advanced the political and social discourse more than the old uncles who inhabit the corridors of Umno power.

What remains to be seen is that will Pakatan and politicians like Nurul have the opportunity that federal powers allows to turn rhetoric into deed.

What would define her as a "true" reformer she claims to be, is that she does not back down from this controversy. She does not waffle in the face of religious hypocrisy and she continues to agitate the Islamic status quo because as long as the idea of compulsion is propagated, protestations of "quality" are meaningless.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.