Divorcing Ethno-Religion from Malaysian Democracy

Surely, we don’t always like rules. But we need them, for we need universal justice, safety, and civil harmony. Naturally, then, we also need “political authority”, to set and enforce laws whenever crimes occur. Celebrate that democracy allows us to choose our authority. We do so by comparing candidates and their social, environmental, and economic policies. We bravely trust someone to protect our rights, ideals, and welfare, via the rule of law.

However, our electoral choice isn’t perfectly free, or perhaps even unfree, because our political ideas are externally shaped, since birth. Despite uncountable commonalities between us as humans, we perceive ourselves differently. We have ‘identities’. We almost innately accept ‘social groups’, even when that’s not a natural mandate.

Eventually, who benefits from our socially constructed division? Demagogues do. Partisan demagogues across the world recognise this loophole. As if it were the best approach to winning elections, they cook frustrations and dramatise identity differences, largely in tandem with the news media. To their joy, ‘identity tactics’ often garner profitable attention.

In Malaysia, salient is such a democratic struggle between civilians and political elites. To secure an ethno-religious majority, politicians constitutionally compromise human rights: like it or not, once born, a specific demographic must instantly adopt a religious identity.

Therein lie two democratic problems for Malaysians. First, though supposedly a constitutional promise, religious freedom is absent, and everyone hurts. Second, as Malaysian politics remains heavily mixed with pseudo-disputes over ‘identity’, our democracy endures a worsening pain.


Religious Freedom as Human Rights

During an interview with Mariam Mokhtar, Islamologist Farouk A Peru hints that Malaysia hasn’t been a ‘moderate’ Islamic country. Having analysed recurring trends of state violence, he concludes that “the dominant form of Islam in Malaysia is Islamofascism”, which concept “refers to people who are oppressive, who block others from expressing themselves”. To verify whether one’s a fascist, he fires an ultimatum: “are you willing to allow people to deconvert from Islam?” In Malaysia, “the answer is actually NO.”

Atheism has promptly revived nationwide controversies over ‘freedom of religion’, online and offline. In August, Atheist Republic Consulate of Kuala Lumpur “held its annual gathering, [to share] stories and [form] new friendships” among members. A Canada-based non-profit organisation, Atheist Republic believes “that most people in the world, whether religious, atheist, agnostic, or just spiritual, are kind and peaceful by nature”, and “by coming together, rational people can create a powerful force that cannot be ignored.”


Discussing Game of Thrones, they harmed zero humans. Source: Atheist Republic


Nevertheless, religious authority responded that atheism will “jeopardise the creed of Muslims”. The atheist gathering also received vitriol on social media, mainly due to the attendance of Malays, who “are by default Muslims” in Malaysia. “Legal sanctions could be imposed on Muslims involved in such atheist activities”, warned deputy minister for Islamic Affairs, Datuk Dr. Asyraf Wajdi. He next highlighted the “educational (‘pendidikan’), rehabilitation (‘pemulihan’), and explanatory (‘penerangan’) programmes for misled Muslims.”

Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim, minister from the PM’s Department, pressed on. After an illogical claim that atheism “goes against the Constitution and human rights”, he urged the ruling government and the local public to “vehemently hunt down” atheists because “they actually don’t want to be atheists, but it happens because of the lack of religious education”.

Explicit is exactly an Islamo-fascism, as authoritative language radicalises:

  • Educational’, ‘rehabilitation’, and ‘explanatory’ generate an adjectival phrase, which predominantly relates to drug addicts, rapists, the mentally impaired, juvenile criminals, or whoever else need therapeutic assistance. Have Malaysian atheists joined their ranks?
  • Hunt’ describes how superior agents violently overpower vulnerable ones. Donald Trump refers “Witch Hunt” to how overwhelming reports on the Russian-Trump collusion oppress his son. President Duterte, who kills indiscriminately in the name of “war on drugs”, pledges to “hunt down” communist affiliates.

In Malaysia, religious authority reduces atheists into weak, mentally troubled creatures to be “vehemently captured and re-civilised. Let’s debunk the lame, elitist hypocrisy: are atheists, or those threatening and de-humanising atheists, “against the Constitution and human rights”?


Delving into Religious Conservatism

Implicit is an ancient, simplistic, binary idea about ‘religion.’ Either we love God, have wisdom and ethics; or we are anti-God atheists, stupid and rude. Thus, to ensure creed (‘aqidah’), intelligence, and civic-mindedness, religious institutions purportedly need to impose laws on civilians. These laws, in various manners, pervade textbook content, public policies, electoral manifestos, publications, cultural expressions, and even behaviours or thoughts in intellectual life.

In truth, the dichotomy overlooks myriad possibilities.

On the one hand, we’re religious not solely to learn moral values, but rather, we keep a private dimension, wherein God grants us peace and comfort. Moreover, rejecting institutional religion doesn’t imply the absence of love for, and knowledge about, God. Socrates, a paragon of intellectualism, proves that we can harshly question God and still be devout disciples: “I must attach the greatest importance to God’s oracle, so I must go to all those who had any reputation for knowledge to examine its meaning.”


Despite his loyalty, Socrates received a death sentence, because parochial Athens misunderstood his intellectual enquiry into God, during 399BC circa. Source: Ancient Recitations


On the other hand, we’re apostates (or non-believers) not because we hate or despise the Omniscient. Atheist Republic builds on a peace-making goal, after all. Neither does atheism entail ignorance and immorality: atheists – who are professional, wise, and respectful – surely exist, as our friends in Malaysia, or worldwide.

Having broadened our vision, we rethink ‘religious freedom’. Since religion is strictly private and diverse, since atheism is inherently harmless, since morality and wisdom don’t only come from scriptural doctrines, there’s no need for legislative efforts to mould personal philosophies. Unless electoral gains are the impetus.

Therefore, except for harmful misconducts, any politico-legal disruption of individual freedom is an unjustifiable violation of democratic principles. Levying religion, and condemning apostasy, are akin to monetising social welfare: they are undemocratic, because as powerful forces benefit, the rest of us lose. Further, any attempt to homogenise society will directly reflect a radical movement that has emerged to haunt the most established democracies.


Secular Politics

In response to denunciations of atheism, Islamic scholars have collectively voiced out. They agree that Malaysian politicians “over-react” to atheism because of two non-religious reasons. First, politicians want to prevent a long-term unity among Malaysians, and consequently, they can retain power.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reports that “religious identity is central to Malaysian politics”. Despite a constitutional assurance of religious freedom, “some within and outside government exploit politics and ethnicity to create divisions”. To “stave off perceived political threats”, the ruling forces “crack down on individuals who express dissent or criticism, accusing them of attacking Islam”. In reinforcement, surveillance and censorship serve as convenient insurance.

Professor of Political Science, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid further stated that if we “lack the opportunity to mingle with other races, and to gain greater understanding of one another”, we “will begin to conceptualise ‘the Other’ as antagonists or enemies who will attempt to subvert [our] beliefs.” More precisely, since we’re equally humans, the language of ‘us versus them’ has never been true, but deliberately invented and sustained by elite voices.


For Malaysian unity, religion and politics must part company. Source: thenewsminute


Second, politicians want to distract voters from urgent issues, such as the 1MDB scandal, especially when the GE14 is allegedly around the corner. Maszlee Malik, who studies Political Islam, aptly argued that recent “crackdowns” on atheism are a “red herring” that aims to derail public focus. “These kinds of activities were well-planned to be sensationalised before the elections. Barisan Nasional will stir religious and racial sentiments” for political purposes, and “it’s unfortunate that [many] couldn’t read the situation”.

At this point, Malaysians have to realise, that, politicians use religion not for sacred reasons. Our political system simply doesn’t need religion. Secularism, as a result, should be the basis of Malaysian politics. As Olly Lennard explains: “it’s not a total removal of religion from a society, it’s not the government changing religious doctrine, it’s not the same as atheism. It just means the total separation of religion and the State”.

Only when we’ve renounced sectarian narratives, can we begin to effectively tackle real problems in Malaysia: we face gender inequality and sexism, systemic racism, the lack of affordable healthcare, poverty and labour exploitation, struggles for human rights, rural underdevelopment, just to name a few.


‘Diversity’, not ‘Division’

Embracing our diversity is vital, because we learn how to appreciate each other. We need to know which delicacies come from which traditions; which festivities belong to which social groups; which heritage originates from which ethnic ancestries. The multiculturalism makes us proud children of Malaysia.

Yet, populists should never exploit our diversity as an effortless, divisive tool. When elections-driven propaganda pushes our uniqueness towards extremism and hostility, we must stay together, stronger as one. When we hear “Malay unity”, “Indian unity”, “Chinese unity”, “Muslim unity”, or the like, we reply: “Malaysian unity”.

Rejecting ethno-religious influence in democratic practice doesn’t – at all – indicate blasphemy and racism. Progressive Malaysians long for a secular, corruption-free politics, because money, race, or religion alike can curtail meaningful discourse on policy. At the same time, progressives do respect every religious belief. There’s simply no paradox between secular democracy and mutual respect – actually, they build on each other.


Written by Teoh Sing Fei

Featured image from theimaginativeconservative.org

Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of IGNITE. 

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." (George Orwell, in Animal Farm, 1945)

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