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Open letter to Anwar Ibrahim: Is a secular Malaysia the only way to save Malaysia?


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The fault line between the Islamism of various quarters and the secularism of others is only an argument over terminology. Malaysia, argues Ronnie Ooi, should be left uncategorised in line with the Constitution.

Dear Anwar,

The next general election will see Pas entering the fray in multi-cornered contests. To win in rural and mixed constituencies, Pakatan Harapan (PH) has to counter the Pas threat by establishing its own Islamic credentials.

This will run counter to the views expressed by Commander (Rtd) Thayaparan in his articles in Malaysiakini, and supported by a significant number of non-Muslims, including, let us be frank, the MCA and the DAP. I quote him only because his articles are readily available in Malaysiakini.

He sees a professed Islamist as an Islamic extremist who wants to set up an Islamic state and make “Malaysia more like Saudi Arabia”. He thinks opposition politicians are wrong and cowardly to have “convinced themselves that they need to be ‘Islamic’ to win the votes of the majority of the Malay community”. He sees the separation of Islam from politics as crucial for the salvation of Malaysia.

So as the leader of a multi-racial and multi-religious coalition, you Anwar, have to answer the question, is a secular Malaysia the only way to save Malaysia?

My own answer is no. Let me explain why.

Why does Islam bring religion into politics?

Non-Muslims are angry because they fail to understand why Islamists insist on bringing religion into politics. Christianity and Buddhism allow the concept of separation of church and state whereas there is no such thing in Islam. In Islam, all aspects of life eg faith, politics, business must be infused and guided by Islamic principles.

Why is Islam different? I myself believe it is because Muhammad was not only a prophet, but the commander of a conquering army and the ruler of a state. Sharia, the divine Islamic law, is based on the Qur’an and Sunnah ie the teachings and practices of Muhammad and his successor caliphs, recorded as they performed their private rituals of faith and their role as rulers. On the other hand, Jesus was a victim of the powerful, and Buddha gave away wealth and power to lead a spiritual life.

Let us call this view of Islam resurgent Islam. Others call it political Islam.

Tharapayan’s desire to separate Islam from politics can never be achieved because many Muslims will regard it as equivalent to asking them to renounce their religion.

Are all Muslims the same?

Thayaparan in his articles uses the term Islamist profusely, but who is he referring to? The inability of many non-Muslims to differentiate between the different types of Muslims leads to the lack of inter-religious understanding we see today.

I offer a basic categorisation of the Islamic political forces in Malaysia. Other categorisation criteria may then be superimposed on the basic categorisation.

  • The conservative fundamentalist Islam of Pas where race is unimportant. Resurgent Islam is woven into the very fabric of fundamentalist Islam.
  • The nationalist (racial) Islam where the religion is an important identifier of the race – “to be Muslim is to be Malay”. This is the version of Islam of Umno and their rivals PKR and Bersatu.
  • The progressive Muslims who want the religion to be less authoritarian. Their viewpoints are often very similar to those of the non-Muslims.
  • A small group of unscrupulous, dishonest people who exploit religion for their own benefit.
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Other criteria for categorising Islam:

  • Narrow and close-minded versus rational and moderate

Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin described the approach to Islam of Zamihan Mat Zin, the Muslim preacher who considered the Chinese to be “unclean”, as “narrow and close-minded”, in contrast with the majority who “take a rational and moderate (wasatiyyah) approach to Islam”.

It is certainly true that there are “narrow and close-minded” Muslims in all political parties, such as those who cited “Muslim sensitivity” as the reason for calling on the authorities to ban beer festivals in KL and Selangor. But it is also true that there are “rational and moderate” Muslims in all political parties, such as the Pas outreach groups who visit churches and temples.

  • Taliban or not a Taliban

The term Taliban is often bandied about and applied to Pas. However much we may dislike Pas and its objectives, it is certainly not Taliban because it strongly believes in parliamentary democracy. For the Taliban, democracy is against Islamic teachings and the caliph must be obeyed implicitly.

  • Who are Islamists and what is the Islamic state?

Thayaparan does not define the term, but from the way he uses it, I think he uses it to refer to fundamentalist resurgent Islam. But nowadays, nationalist Islam – ie the Islam of Umno, Pribumi, and the PKR – has embraced resurgent Islam. On this definition, the only Muslims who are not Islamists are the progressive Muslims.

The underlying assumption of Thayaparan’s use of the term is that all Islamists are narrow and close-minded extremists who want to set up an authoritarian and repressive Islamic state where Muslims and non-Muslims lose their freedom to think, speak and act.

But the Perlis mufti has pointed out that the majority of Muslims (Islamists) are rational and moderate and Islam “respects the rights of other races and religions”. So, the religion itself does not preclude an enlightened and democratic state. It all depends on whether it is the narrow-minded or the rational and moderate Muslims who are in power.

Those of us who worry about creeping Islamisation agree wholeheartedly with Thayaparan that Islamic tyrants have used Islam to control their Muslim populations. They have used Islam to subvert the democratic process. I agree with the diagnosis but not the remedy: this subversion using Islam can only be defeated by good Islam, not by secularism.

For those who believe there is no good Islamist, I recommend they read this article by Amanah’s Khalid Samad. In it, he attacks fascist Islamists for using the religion to place the interests of Muslims above all others and to repress minority rights. He states Islam is a blessing for all and the concepts of democracy, human rights and minority rights are an integral part of Islamic belief.

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Can resurgent Islam be defeated?

Those who want Malaysia to be secular, always point to the constitution. Malaysia’s Constitution does not state whether the country is secular or Islamic. It is not 100% secular as it establishes and recognises a legal system of Islamic family and criminal (eg khalwat) law. It protects the religious and democratic rights of Malaysians, but gives no support to those who want Malaysia to be called secular.

I know that many non-Muslims yearn for the days when the nationalist Islam of Umno combined with the non-Muslims to keep fundamentalist Islam, ie Pas, in check. But relations of the non-Muslims with both Umno and Pas have broken down, and it is only to be expected that the two will want to come closer together.

Joceline Tan in a perceptive article in the Star on 2 July 2017 writes: “Non-Malays lament that Malays have become ‘too religious’. But Islam has become an inexorable tide that affects the way they think, live, work and even how they dress.”

This tide has turned all Malay politicians into Islamists who cannot commit to a secular Malaysia for reasons both of personal belief and political survival.

A secular Malaysia is not on offer. This is the political reality of living in a Muslim-majority country which we, the urban, non-Muslim community must face up to. If we face up to a problem, we can solve it, if we deny there is a problem, we cannot solve it.

Black cat or white cat?

The big mistake made by Malaysian secularists is that they think not secular means only Islamic.

By rejecting secularism, the Islamists are not also rejecting civil and criminal law, accounting standards, medical treatments, iPhones, cars, etc, which originate from secular thought, secular technology or secular countries.

Malaysia will always remain as it always has been: open to input from both Islamic and secular sources as long as the input is not against Islamic teachings. The state that rational and moderate Muslims want is nearly identical with the state secularists want.

So, all we are fighting over is the word secular – a word which by itself gives no advantage and no protection to non-Muslims whatsoever. By the same reasoning, there is no advantage in calling Malaysia Islamist. Malaysia should be left uncategorised in line with the Constitution.

We should follow the advice of Deng Xiao Ping who said, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”. Shakespeare had the same idea several centuries earlier, when he wrote: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We should lose our blind attachment to the term secular but hold fast to its concepts, substance and practice.

There may be some who are unconvinced by these arguments and wish to persist in calling Malaysia either secular or Islamic. There is no harm if we all agree to disagree on this. A problem arises only if secularists insist all others must also call the country secular or refuse to work with Islamists. The same goes for Islamists.

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If we non-Muslims insist on only talking to and working with secularists, we cut ourselves off from the mainstream. It will stop us from allying ourselves with the rational and moderate Muslims who want the same things as us.

Fault lines in Pakatan Harapan

There are two important fault lines in PH: one is over race, the other over religion. The public deserves an honest explanation whether these fault lines will cause PH to break apart.

In an earlier letter, I had already outlined how the conflict between Bersatu’s core political ideology of discriminating in favour of Bumiputeras and the PKR, the DAP, and Amanah’s ideology of economic policies based on need and not race should be handled.

In this letter, I have argued that the fault line between the Islamism of the PKR, Amanah, and Bersatu and the secularism of the DAP is only over the word secular, ie only an argument over terminology and not an argument over substance.

So long as the DAP does not insist that all component parties of PH must call the country secular, no harm is done. The idea that the Malaysian public will only be impressed if all PH MPs sing the same tune all the time is outdated, counterproductive and stands in the way of achieving desirable political objectives. PH must be a broad tent with room to agree to disagree.

On the other hand, I cannot see how Hadi Awang can object to the DAP’s Malaysian Malaysia on Islamic grounds. The DAP’s Malaysian Malaysia is exactly equivalent to Najib’s 1Malaysia. If Hadi Awang can accept 1Malaysia, he should accept Malaysian Malaysia.

Anwar, whatever your answer to the question – is a secular Malaysia the only way to save Malaysia? – let the rakyat know so that there is clarity on the issue and the rakyat will not have false hopes and make unrealistic political calculations.

To members of the public reading this, I say it is counterproductive to demonise all those whose ideas we do not like. The quicker we are to demonise, the more numerous our enemies will be and the more likely it is we will be defeated. Those who have feedback and ideas to give are invited to contact me at [email protected] so that by banding together, we have a stronger voice.

Your old friend,

Dr Ronnie Ooi

Dr Ronnie Ooi is a retired medical doctor. Thirty-five years ago, he was active in Malaysian politics until he left for the UK, where he lived for 20 years and gained a knowledge of UK politics. He returned to Malaysia in 2008 and is now not involved in party politics.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Joe Fernandez
6 Jan 2018 7.01am

Secular Malaya in the Constitution, unless Islamic Revolution comes

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