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Reconciling religion and politics in Malaysia

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Arguing from a philosophical sense, Douglas Teoh says what needs to be acknowledged by both sides is the very process of democracy itself.

religion and politics

In the light of an upsurge of religious-related issues in the headlines, whether it was about the one-parent conversion law, the school canteen incident, the outright rejection of the archbishop Joseph Marino, I was struck by a fact, which I had taken for granted – that Malaysian politics is inseparable from religion.

The question that consequently arose from this was a troubling one: “How much should religion influence our government, and vice versa?” After some thought on the matter, my answer would have to be a pluralist one, where all parties regardless of their political leanings have to be included in the debate.

Secular vs religious forms of government

The very nature of this debate is driven by the perceived superiority of a person’s perspective.

On the one hand for the “secularist”, one draws on reason, objective arguments and evidence to show that the spiritual should not be even considered in governmental affairs.

On the other hand, the “religious” draws from historical, biblical and ethical knowledge to support a religious city-state.

What’s inherent in such a debate is a prejudicial position that effectively excludes the Other from any opinion of government and religiosity. In other words, both view the Other as extremists, in an almost ironic sense.

My response to that would be, there is no clear notion of right and wrong, especially not in politics. The people decide what they deem is right and wrong with their diverse cultural settings and rationalities.

To me, what is more important is to place such conflictual views in the public sphere. Democratic debate is a battle of opinions, and any possible positions in any discussed issue cannot be neglected. To admit otherwise is to adopt a paradoxical form of pluralist democracy.

So what needs to be done?

The secularists (one who advocates separation of religion from state e.g. no Shariah law) need to be mindful that being rational may also mean admitting a non-secularist government and to prepare to conduct dialogue and discussions.

I think that many liberalist scholars made the mistake of promoting discourse in a “moderate” fashion, where all arguments made by fundamentalists are dismissed as being extreme and harmful to civil discussion; thus they should act in “moderation.”

But some political thinkers like Joel Olson have pointed out that “extremism is neither a vice nor virtue but an approach to politics that emerges in times of profound social and political tension. Democratic theory has to speak to these times.” It is a question of context sensitivity.

For the religious, in its simplest philosophy, it is not “reason” (in the scientific sense of the term) that is particularly important. After all, a spiritual government may be effective in its own right – the constitution of Medina drafted out by Prophet Muhammad himself is such an illustration.

But Olson also makes clear that the moral aim of the fundamentalist and the secular is one and the same – not “to destroy” or “condemn”, but rather, “to convert”.

If the religious parties in Malaysia can approach the debate with such a mindset, I would say that certain sectors of civil society in the public opinion would be appreciative of and reflective on the essence of religion, perhaps in politics. It is when action is taken without convincing the rest that fundamentalism and radical politics turns into an ugly brawl between fanatics and the “sane”.

Arguing from a philosophical sense, what needs to be acknowledged by parties concerned is the very process of democracy itself. The notion of acceptance and tolerance is misdirected and oft-times overused: if we make ourselves see sense in someone else’s point of view, we do so at the risk of jeopardising our own beliefs, and possibly our sense of self.

If the people acting as a collective decide a certain issue in a democratic manner, we need to respect the decision – for a true democracy provides room for alternate and counter-discourse to take place in due course.

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