Of secularism and religious states: Malaysia, a moderate, modern Islamic nation that respects all

Secularism and religion, which have in various degrees been the basis of governance, are the antithesis of one another. A secular state separates religion from governance and regulates it.

All its administrative decisions are made independently of any religion. It espouses religious neutrality and does not endorse any specific religion or impose religious values on its citizens.

A religious state, on the other hand, is dictated by the prevailing dominant faith. From the time of the early organised primitive society, every facet of the people’s lives was governed by their faith/belief, initially in animistic forces, which they believed dictated their existence and survival. Rituals were performed and offerings made to placate the spirits to aid them in their lives. For example, all aspects of the rites of passage, agrarian activities, and interactions with the environment required some form of ritual to placate the spirits and to seek their blessings.

Rituals were elaborate, becoming more varied and complex, as primitive societies evolved into traditional societies, where an array of rituals invoked and placated animistic spirits or deities to solicit their blessings for the wellbeing of the community, with respect to life’s activities that sustained communal wellbeing and existence.

When mankind stood in awe of his environment and was subservient to the forces of nature, he rationalised his existence by ascribing the vagaries of his life to the work of the spirits that must be invoked and placated to ensure his wellbeing and survival. Thus, Man struck a balance with his environment.

With the process of modernisation, spurred by the advancement of scientific knowledge and the emergence of existential philosophy, Man arrogated unto himself the power of destiny; mankind, and not the supreme being, decided his fate, giving rise to agnosticism. This resulted in faith and divine intervention being discarded.

The advancement in scientific knowledge unravelled the mysteries of natural phenomena, which earlier was attributed to religious belief in the workings and dictates of spirits and the superior being.

With this development of technology that allowed men to utilise and control the environment to the extent of desecrating it, he became arrogant and assumed that he is master over all that he surveys. Disenchantment of nature set in; discarding religious or spiritual overtones in nature.

Nature is no longer divine, now devoid of any magical or spiritual attributes. Thus, men could abuse nature without any fear of retribution from spirits or the Supreme Being.

Thus, religion and belief in a supreme being that determines one’s fate is no longer tenable. He is in control of his destiny and believes that his ingenuity determines his present and future wellbeing. Religion is no longer an integral part of his existence; merely ceremonial and decorative.

This is the deconsecration of values, having secular values without religious imperatives. Such secular values change and evolve according to the prevailing circumstances.

Contemporary Western societies have become secularised in which governance is based on man-made constitution that prioritises the imperatives of the dominant group. Politics is desacralised with the abolition of sacral legitimisation of political power and authority, and transferring the religious (ecclesiastical) control of power to a secular authority.

How do these propositions posit on the Malaysian milieu? Before the British colonisation of Tanah Melayu, the Malay states ruled by the Sultans and Rajas followed an Islamic system of governance based on the Quran, Hadiths, and the Syariah Islamic laws with some mixture of animistic residual of pre-Islamic legacy.

When the British colonised Tanah Melayu, they supplanted the traditional Islamic governance with Western norms and values, and a Westminster administration based on civil laws, and entrenched these social and cultural values through the education and administrative systems that ran counter to the traditional Islamic norms.

However, there were no restrictions on religious worship, and Islam was given prominence, in accordance, and in deference to the traditional faith of the indigenous people, led by the Sultans and the Rajas.

Christianity was introduced through the mission schools and the proselytising fervour of the missionaries, especially among the tribes in Sabah and Sarawak.

With independence, these imperatives were crafted into the constitution to serve a multiracial and multicultural society with the proviso to safeguard the needs and interests of the indigenous people. Thus, Islam was made the official religion of the country with freedom of worship for all other religions.

How does one see Malaysia from this perspective; is it a religious or a secular nation?

A secular state observes religious neutrality and the government does not endorse any specific religion. Based on this extreme secular tenet, Malaysia is not a secular state. For it endorses Islam, and the administration takes cognisance of Islamic principles and practices. All official ceremonies and rituals are dictated by Islamic imperatives.

Then, there is the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department, which supervises all official Islamic matters and serves as a reference for religious issues. It is a powerful overriding agency on Islamic matters. It also authorises halal certification.

Also, there is the Fatwa Council that issues edicts on Islamic practices. Imams and Bilals of state-registered mosques are salaried by the respective state Islamic departments. There is a Mufti for every state who oversees the administration of Islamic governance. In addition, religious obligatory taxes, such as zakat and fitrah, as well as the voluntary wakaf contributions, are collected by the federal and state governments to be used for the benefit of deserving Muslims.

More important is the existence of the Syariah courts alongside the superior civil courts that deal with disputes on inheritance, marriage, apostasy, and other Islamic matters.

Besides these, there are political parties and coalitions that have been implementing dubious Islamic initiatives to serve their political agenda to garner Malay/Muslim support.

With these Islamic tenets and principles suffusing governance and restrictions on social life, such as banning gambling, the sale of alcohol, closing of massage parlours, imposing dress codes, and gender segregation in certain states, one would not be wrong to conclude that Malaysia is not a secular nation but an Islamic state.

But it is not an Islamic state in the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Afghanistan, where Islamic covenants, tenets, and restrictions are taken to the extreme, to the extent of infringing on basic human rights.

Neither is it like Indonesia, which is touted to be the largest Muslim country, where Islamic practice is moderate and accommodative of the interactive engagement of Muslims and non-Muslims.

Malaysia has never been a secular country, for it has strong Islamic overtones in governance and social life. It is a modern and moderate Islamic country that respects and accommodates the social, cultural, and religious imperatives of the nation’s non-Muslim population.

However, there are forces trying to derail this moderation, not out of religious zeal, but more to serve their political ideology, to the extent that they are not only willing to undermine, but also destroy this accommodative social fabric that is the essence of Islamic practice, and replace it with a draconian racial religious (political Islam) societal configuration to serve their political agenda.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.

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