Posted by: malaysianchristian | July 24, 2007

A Secular State or an Islamic State?

A Secular State or an Islamic State?

Written by Chandra Muzaffar
Monday, 23 July 2007

Malaysia is not a secular state within the conventional use of the term. Neither is it an Islamic state in the classical sense.

It is not a secular state since the Malaysian state formulates policies and organizes activities from the building of mosques and the administration of the Hajj, on the one hand, to the establishment of Islamic schools and the dissemination of Islamic awareness through public broadcasting channels, on the other, which demonstrate that it is actively involved in sustaining and strengthening the position of Islam in society.  Judicial pronouncements and political utterances from the past which suggest that Malaysia is a secular state do not in any way negate the fact that the state has functioned in a non-secular mode, especially in the last three decades.

Nonetheless, for the majority of contemporary Muslim jurists, Malaysia is not an Islamic state since its constitution does not state that governance is based upon the Qur’an and Sunnah (the way of the Prophet Muhammad). Neither is shari’ah the supreme law of the land.  Hudud (the Islamic criminal code) is not in force anywhere in Malaysia. These are legal and political attributes of state which are found in almost all those countries that are acknowledged as ‘Islamic’.

More than the actual situation prevalent in Malaysia, there are perceptions of what a ‘secular state’ is, and what an ‘Islamic state’ will be, which have shaped the outlooks of both Muslims and non-Muslims in the country.  For a lot of Muslims, the term ‘secular’ connotes antipathy towards, or worse, rejection of, religion in the life of the nation. Since Islam encompasses all aspects of life, including government and politics, the idea of a ‘secular state’ has become anathema to them. Similarly, for many non-Muslims, an ‘Islamic state’ conjures up a frightening vision of Malay dominance reinforced by religious dogmatism. These perceptions – even if they are misconceived – carry tremendous weight and impact directly upon inter-ethnic ties.

This is why it is unwise to insist that Malaysia is a secular state or an Islamic state. There is no need to do this. It will only widen the chasm between the communities. It will exacerbate ethnic tensions.

Why is it necessary to categorize Malaysia as a secular state or an Islamic state when the character of the Malaysian state, its guiding principles and goals, and its vision of the future, have already been spelt out with such lucidity and clarity in the three fundamental documents that were meant to be our signposts in the last 50 years? The most important of these — the Malaysian Constitution— embodies a dozen or so basic principles which tell us what this nation is. In a nutshell Malaysia means;-

  1. A parliamentary form of government based upon the concept of one person, one vote.
  2. A federal system of governance.
  3. A constitutional monarchy.
  4. The supremacy of the rule of law.
  5. An independent judiciary.
  6. Protection of fundamental liberties.
  7. Malay as the national and official language.
  8. The right to use and study other languages.
  9. Islam as the religion of the Federation.
  10. Recognition of the right of non-Muslims to practise their religions.
  11. The special position of the Malays and other indigenous peoples.
  12. The legitimate interests of the other communities.

These principles enunciated in 1957 when we achieved Merdeka were reiterated in one form or other in the Rukunegara, the nation’s charter, in August 1970. It is significant that the first of the five principles of the Rukunegara is Belief in God. Young Malaysians recite this and the other four principles in school every morning but what is not emphasized at all are the five goals of the Rukunegara— the goals of a united, just, democratic, liberal and progressive nation. Twenty-one years after the Rukunegara, its principles and goals were further elaborated in the nine strategic challenges of Vision 2020 which include the creation of a moral and ethical society.

If we reflected upon the Malaysian Constitution, the Rukunegara and Vision 2020, it would appear that they represent a trajectory in the evolution of the nation’s identity and character. It is as if the three documents embody the steady maturation of the Malaysian state and society.

It is important to emphasize at the same time that most of the principles and goals articulated by the three documents do not in any way contradict the universal values of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Indeed, in certain respects, they seek to give meaning to some of the eternal concerns of the religion about justice, accountability and ethical conduct. Likewise, those who subscribe to a secular vision of society which is not antagonistic to the Divine, would applaud the fact that the Constitution, the Rukunegara and Vision 2020 uphold such principles and goals. In other words, when we go beyond labels such as ‘secular’ and ‘Islamic’ and connect with the substance of our three principal documents we will discover that there is a degree of congruence between the two positions.

This is why as we observe the fiftieth year of our Merdeka, we should reiterate our trust and confidence in the three documents that speak to the spirit of the Malaysian people and their shared destiny. To embroil ourselves in the unending controversy about whether we are a secular state or an Islamic state is to forfeit our future.

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