BY JAHABERDEEN MOHAMED YUNOOS
SEPT 19 — To me, and I repeat, to me, it is not about being obsessed with the label of “secular” or “Islamic” country though I do not have serious problems with people using the term. I try to understand what they are actually saying as the substance is more important than the label.
My position is clear: I do not support oppressive regimes or ideas whether they are labelled “secular” or “Islamic”. To be clear, I do not support a “secular system” that is anti religion as that is oppressive of a person’s faith. Likewise I do not support an “Islamic system” that takes away the professed Muslim’s inherent right to serve Allah as he understands it from the Quran as that is equally oppressive of faith.
In any case, I believe the practice of one’s faith or religion should not be allowed to affect national security, general public order, peace and harmony in the country or deny the basic fundamental rights and liberties of other citizens guaranteed under our Federal Constitution.
A theocratic state is often understood to be a political State which is founded on a particular religion. A theocracy may be defined as a form of government which defers not to civil development of law, but to an interpretation of the ‘will of a God’ as set out in religious scripture and authorities.
In realistic terms, therefore, it will be ruled by a few men who will interpret the religious scriptures in the name of God for the rest of the populace. The clergy and religious leaders will be dominant under such a political structure. Human political history suggests the earliest forms of government are theocratic probably because a reference to a “divine” source was necessary to impose law and order then.
Since theocrats believe they rule by divine sanction and are implementing the divine will, it is doubtful if they will brook any dissent to their views.
Hence, any criticism of the government may be construed as criticising the religion and going against God. A study of the State-Church relationship in Christian political history will bear out this point. In other words, theocracy would naturally be anti-thesis to democracy which is a political structure that allows for consideration of diverse views and for leadership opportunities by ordinary citizens. Criticism of government policies in a democracy is considered a fundamental right and duty of a concerned citizen. Democrats welcome criticism, theocrats do not.
In modern times, the two ‘pure’ theocractic political structures are probably the Vatican and Iran though there are “quasi theocratic” states such as Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Sudan and so on.
Secularism, as I understand it, is a political system that is neutral to organised religion and it makes a conscious separation of those mandated to run the state from religious dignitaries and religious institutions. A secular state is not anti religion as is often misunderstood in our country — probably confused with the political system known as ‘State atheism” which promotes atheism as a state policy. I do not support state atheism because of its obvious denial of the freedom of faith as theocracy is equally guilty of.
Just as there are various degrees of democracies and theocracies, there too are various degrees of secularist political systems. Unlike theocracies which are dictated by religious personalities, the degree of democratic and secularist practices are determined by the people. It may be tweaked to adapt as situations changes.
So, if we look at the substance beyond the labels, we see these are political systems and modes of governance with their own unique features, values and consequences on the governed. The real question that citizens ought to ask is: What degree of control and in what areas do they want the government to have on them? In other words, how much freedom are they willing or should give up for the greater good of the nation?
I believe our answer lies in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia and in the interpretation of its articles. Clearly, we are not a theocratic state as the country has never been governed by clerics. We are a parliamentary democracy with many features of a secular state as is generally understood. Due to the political reality that the majority of the citizens (voters) are Muslims, there are attempts by several religious leaders and their supporters to gradually turn Malaysia into an “Islamic theocratic” state as understood by them. I hope I am wrong but I detect this trend is increasing.
Even though Article 3(1) provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation it also states that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.
The Federation is obviously made up of 13 states and three federal territories. How we interpret the words “Islam is the religion of the Federation” will determine to what extent religious dignitaries will influence the governance of the Federation and hence on the liberty of the people.
I believe this point is very important to be remembered, especially by Judges when they are confronted with such an issue before them. To me, the wording of Article 3(1) is clear the constitution never intended for the country to evolve politically into an “Islamic theocratic State”.
The Constitution also accords various fundamental liberties which I would argue generally supersedes religious positions. It is the duty of the government and the courts to uphold these fundamental rights despite any personal inclinations, if any. I admit this is a tricky and sensitive area but has to be addressed with courage, knowledge and sincerity, nevertheless. I have said many times before in certain cases where Muslim judges may find themselves in a conflict of conscience situation, then they should honourably recuse themselves from hearing the matter.
With respect, I believe our courts have erred when they made an artificial distinction between faith and religion as if religion is completely independent of the requirement of faith. Such an artificial distinction is often made when Article 11(1) on the freedom to practise and profess a religion comes up for consideration. The other area which will determine the direction our political system of governance will be heading is on the interpretation of the word “precepts of Islam” as used in the Constitution. I hope to touch on this area in the future, God willing.
In the meantime I pray that our political leaders understand and are aware of these developments.
* Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at rapera.jay@gmail.