BY SURENDRA ANANTH
The forum entitled “Human Rights and Religion: Are the two Compatible?”, held on 23 May 2015 , could not have been organized at a more timely moment. At a time where extremism was insidiously sweeping in the Malaysian society and where the supreme law of our land was being challenged in various forefronts, intellectual discourse on such a topic was very much welcomed. The speakers consist of well-known academicians, Professor Emeritus Shad Faruqi (“Prof Shad”) and Dr. Dian Diana Abdul Hamed (“Dr Dian”). The two commentators who were invited to further enrich the discussion were Mr Phillip Koh and Dato’ Malik Imtiaz Sarwar. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Azmi Sharom.
Professor Emeritus Shad Faruqi
Prof Shad drew first blood with a presentation concentrated on the concept of moderation. Essentially, Prof Shad’s presentation was geared towards the proposition that human rights and religion are compatible concepts, but unfortunately made to seem conflicting due to misinterpretation by certain quarters. He went on to state that every religion preaches human rights in itself. He also adds that every religion promotes hatred and extremism to an extent but he stresses that the choice is ours. The question to ask is which aspect of the religion we choose to mirror our faith.
Taking Islam as an example, he cited various Quranic verses and Hadith’s which sets out the foundation for human rights. From a human rights perspective, he says that it is ever-expanding and currently is at a stage where personal autonomy rights are gaining popularity, i,e, lgbt, pornography and blasphemy as part of free speech. Prof Shad, in using pornography as an example, takes the view that if it’s done in a personal space, there is no issue. However the moment it is uploaded on the internet, then it becomes an issue for the State on grounds of public interest. Ultimately, he formed the view that human rights and religion form overlapping circles as far as rights, duties and expectations are concerned. As an example, he cited grave atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion, i.e. conquest of Iraq and the regime changes in Arabic countries. Similarly, human rights extremism gives rise to incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France. He touched on the fact that he personally do not believe in absolute freedom of speech, that one should not insult another religion or blasphme God and not expect any consequences. On this note, he submitted that there is tremendous concentration on personal autonomy. He concluded by saying that in some aspects both human rights and religion might result in conflicts. However, such conflicts can be nullified by adopting a moderate and holistic approach towards the interpretation of religion.
One of the solution he offers is, for Muslims, to unlock the doors of ijtihad i.e. independent thinking. The conclusion he makes is religion and human rights are not incompatible and it is for us to harness from the two great sources.
Dr. Dian Diana Abdul Hamed Shah
Dr. Dian took the stage next with a presentation that provided a different dimension to the topic, or rather a more international approach. She started with saying that the Constitution of each country should be made the starting point for the understanding of human rights. Dr. Dian looked at two other jurisdictions besides Malaysia in her presentation. First she looked at the constitutional courts in Indonesia and the anti-blasphemy laws. Secondly, she looked at the noise pollution case in Sri Lanka, where azan prayers recited by the mosques were held by the courts to be impermissible it held the blaring of sacred words disturbing a calm environment is against Buddhist teachings it was against Buddhist teachings. In Malaysia, she cited the “Allah” case as an example where minority rights were undermined.
Ultimately, Dr. Dian said it was a problem of competing visions on what religious freedom amounts to, which gives rise to a tension between human rights and religion. Politics and a weak rule of law simply amplifies the existing tension. She went on to state that there was a lack of political will on part of the ruling government to protect the rights of the minorities. This is simply because there is a lack of political incentive, as the ruling political parties realise that they can maintain their hold on power by appealing to the majority, without the votes of the minority. This has resulted in the ruling government abandoning support for the rights of the minorities. Examples can be seen in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and even in Malaysia after the 13th general election. Dr. Dian concluded that there is a need for
Phillip Koh stepped up as the first commentator. He started on the footing that Malaysia was a secular country governed by a secular constitution. As an example, he cited the example of the infamous 1988 judicial crisis. One of the charges mounted against Tun Salleh Abas was that he gave a speech in the University of Malaya, where he expressed his opinion as a Muslim that Shariah Law should be the supreme law. However, Tun Salleh Abas also said that as a judge it is his responsibility to uphold the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. It is puzzling on how far we have moved from secular ideals to a point now where Shariah law is openly championed to triumph civil law without even a flinch. Philip Koh also cited other examples such as the “Allah” case, where the Court of Appeal had essentially concluded that Article 3 of the Federal Constitution amounts to a suppression of civil law. Ultimately, the courts have completely missed out on a very important aspect of Article 3, which is sub-article (4) of the same. Article 3(4) provides, “(4) Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution.” As such, he says that the courts cannot apply Article 3 in such a manner as to undermine the freedom of other religions and races.
Phillip Koh vehemently pleaded to the government to not use religion to shield and defend their misuse of power. He went on to state that the government’s stance in using religion to stir hatred amongst the Muslim communities is very dangerous, and would eventually lead to the death of Malaysia as we know it. He concluded by preaching the concept of principle pluralism, where everyone has to be respectful of the differences between differing races and religions. Ultimately, if someone does something within a private circle which does not cause harm to others, his right to do the same should be respected. His call was religion and some pervasive or discriminatory religious provisions should not be used to make abuse of powers easier.
Dato’ Malik Imtiaz Sarwar
The last presenter for the morning was Malik Imtiaz. Having upheld the constitution in numerous public law cases, Imtiaz started off with the concept of constitutional supremacy. He went on to explain that Islamic law in this country was created by the State legislature. That power given to the State legislature was derived from the constitution itself, with a very limited framework. Therefore it can’t be gainsaid that Shariah law triumphs the Constitution when it draws its existence from the Constitution itself. Imtiaz said that it was perfectly fine if certain people wanted Shariah law to be the supreme law, but these people must accept the fact that the Constitution as it stands, simply does not allow for such a proposition. What is happening now is that many quarters are reinterpreting the Constitution as a matter of convenience to the effect of perverting its nature or its intended application that was put in place back in 1957. He went on to state that such a believe that the Constitution could be re-interpreted as a matter of convenience, would also entail that it could be shifted to a different position the very next day or at some other future time.
Imtiaz took the stand that religion and human rights are compatible, but ultimately it was the role of the government to act as “honest brokers” and as mediators. Using the 1988 judicial crisis as a background setting, Imtiaz noted that religious tension did not exist back in the 1960’s to 80’s. He used the Tun Salleh Abas example, where the mere expression of opinion on upholding Shariah law was deemed as a threat to national harmony. However now, when such statements are made on a common basis, mostly by the ruling party, it is seen to be or taken to be the correct position. Imtiaz posed the question as to what has changed from 1998 up until now? Has the Constitution been amended to reflect a change of position? Essentially, he concluded by saying that race and religion had become useful tools for politics, which has resulted in the discussion sphere in Malaysia to become one that is divisive instead of inclusive. What is most important is the role of the State. The State acts as a mediator, it should not take sides. Law and religion cannot be used as a political currency.
Q & A Session and Concluding Notes
After the presentations, the floor was opened for questions from the audience. The questions were what role could any one play in view of the tensions in the country, a seeming contempt for any intellectual discourse, and in the face of failed institutions, for example the judicial crisis had brought about a weakened judiciary and there is distrust on whether minorities are able to get any recourse in matter dealing with sensitive issues like freedom of religion.. Prof Shad noted that everyone has a role to play to ease the tension. He pointed out that the press and media has a very big role to play. He noted that the media tends to always publish the extremist acts of religious fanatics, but not the daily acts of the common Malaysians. He cited an example where a community consisting of 80% Muslims, organized a Chinese New Year dinner in a hall underneath a Surau, where there were activities such as lion dance and firecrackers. Imtiaz said that the public should ask more questions and be more vocal. He noted that the public space for discussion and daily practices has been truncated. The public should keep asking questions so as to prevent a total annihilation of public space.
One participant took exception to the point on Charlie Hebbo, and stated that as far as he is concerned, the murders cannot be justified. It is not right to blame the victims of the crime. He also noted that LGBT rights must be held as human rights.
A question was directed to Prof Shad about MARA scholarships and the definition of Malays. Prof Shad answered that the Constitution should have been better worded to provide special privileges to only “needy” bumiputeras. He went on to provide an anthropological background on what constitutes a Malay person.
At the end, Prof Shad concluded by saying that although things are not looking good, we should still count our blessings as many other countries are doing worse. Dato’ Ambiga in reply did raise a point that such a stance could lead to complacency. We should not be comparing our country to those doing worse like Zimbabwe but instead we should be looking to move forward. Dr. Dian said that we should speak up, instead of being too comfortable with the middle class lifestyle of going to Starbucks, etc. Imtiaz concluded by pointing at the direction of respect, and how it should be two ways, and that there is still hope for this country as long as the youth stands up to fight for what is right. Philip Koh shares similar sentiments, and stressed on how we have come to a stage where the majority race in Malaysia, the Malays, are the only race without the freedom of religion. He also made a memorable note on how everything starts from family upbringing and to how he, unbeknownst to himself, also subconsciously inculcated racial stereotypes only to be pointed out by his children.
This forum, held at the Tun Suffian Auditorium in University Malaya’s Law Faculty, was attended by more than 200 participants.
– Report dated 31 May 2015
Media Coverage of Event
- Trying to shoehorn Shariah law into Constitution will backfire, lawyer warns [23 May 2015]
- Using religion to shroud power abuse will ‘cause Malaysia’s death,’ Putrajaya told [24 May 2015]
- The right to religion and religion of rights – Shad Faruqi [11 Jun 2015]
Backgrounders & Related Articles
- Are we falling into religious fundamentalism? – Shafiqah Othman Hamzah
- Afghan clerics uneasy as civil rights movement gains momentum
- WWJD?: Questioning Genocide and Slavery in the Bible
- When people of Muslim heritage challenge fundamentalism
- Lose your ego, find your compassion
- Awkward, but necessary, bedfellows
- A different voice on religion
To view more on this event as well as the pre-and-during-event blog interactions, please visit our post @ FORUM: Human Rights & Religion: Are the two compatible?
This Forum is part of the 2014/2016 Special Project – Human Rights & Religion series