Ali Eteraz mused recently that the key to making Islam compatible with Mosque/State separation in Muslim countries is to declare Islam as the official religion, while retaining a lawmaking process that is not subject to theological review.
Great idea! That’s precisely the arrangement that exists in Malaysia. The government is predicated on a secular platform – there is no formal institutional method for vetting a law to ensure it’s compliance with Islam – but establishes Islam as the religion of the country, and backs this with funding of Mosques and so on. This has generally worked, although not without controversy since, among other things, Malaysia doesn’t have an overwhelming muslim majority (about 60% and growing). It’s a hot issue at the moment as the Malay-muslim dominated ruling coalition (UMNO-BN) continues to feel pressure from the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) to “Islamize” the country further. Our respected Deputy Prime Minister set off some debate a little while ago by declaring that Malaysia is and always has been an Islamic State. The contentious issue as I see it is not so much with calling Malaysia an “Islamic State” but with deciding what that means exactly and how that differs from what is meant by calling Malaysia a “Muslim Country”.
The point turns on what exactly is meant by “Islamic”. Prof. Sherman Jackson points out in his phenomenal book Islam and the Blackamerican that the term “Islamic”, a modern English-language designation that has no meaningful equivalent in the muslim world historically, does not mean “earning the pleasure of Allah” or even “fulfilling all the rules of sharia” but merely “a product of a traditionally muslim land”. Under that definition, our respected Deputy Prime Minister was perfectly correct. Malaysia is an Islamic state without the need to do anything at all. As a country full of muslims, who are choosing their national direction with Allah and His Messenger foremost in their hearts and minds, whatever the outcome may be can honestly be called an Islamic State, using that definition .
Perhaps that’s a bit jesuitical, but as Chandra Muzaffar points out in A Secular State or an Islamic State?, exemplifying the pragmatism that I would credit as Malaysia’s single most sustaining virtue, it is meaningless to argue over abstract titles the practical implications of which are not well understood by anyone, while ignoring the founding principles of the country that are clearly put forward in the constitution, are still in effect, and are still acceptable to just about every citizen around, namely:
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.
Under this framework, the details that remain to be worked out, and of course these are innumerable, will need to be worked out by the totality of the citizenry regardless of what title like “Islamic” or “secular” is placed on it. Impressed by how far the nation has come in it’s first 50 years, I hope I’m around to see the next 50.
Photo Credit: Malaysia’s Flag, by Eric Teoh.