[mk] Safeguarding pluralism
- From: pluto <pluto@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 08 Sep 2005 19:11:48 +0800
Sep 8, 05 4:23pm
SALBIAH AHMAD is a lawyer and an independent researcher. MALAYA! as the
name for this column was inspired by the meaning of 'Malaya' in Tagalog
which means freedom. The events at the end of 1998 in KL offer a new
inspiration. MALAYA! takes on the process of reclaiming the many facets of
Faith-based communities and partners to any inter-religious dialogue
support religious pluralism.The challenge is how to ensure that religious
pluralism accommodate differences in peace and justice.
The idea of separation of state and religion evolved out of this challenge.
Far from being ?anti-religious?, this prescription suggests that religious
toleration can only be achieved through the institutionalization of freedom
of conscience. This means the right to worship freely, to propagate one?s
religion, to change one?s religion and even to renounce religion.
Toleration is equated with freedom of conscience. This scheme limits the
role of conscience to the domain of private faith. Whereas one has the
freedom to choose between competing doctrines and pursue one?s belief in
private religious institutions, one is linked in common citizenry in public
The public order is deemed ?secular? in that all considerations drawn from
belief in God or a sacred authority in one?s private life are excluded from
the administration of public life. This separation was promoted as
historical experience has shown that religious exclusivity tends to
undermine solidarity and peaceful co-existence among different communities.
Secularism as separation of religion and state evolved as a means to
While we may need to rethink secularism as separation of religion and
state, the fact that secularism may have the ability to safeguard religious
and political pluralism has to be noted.
Among the Abrahamic traditions, the ideal of justice arises out of the
belief in an ethical God who insists on justice and equality in
interpersonal relations as part of the believer?s spiritual perfection.
This idea then promotes the indispensable connection between the religious
and ethical dimensions of personal life and introduces religious precepts
into the public arena. This implies that religion is not separate from
It can be said that a fair segment of Muslim community worldwide present
secularism as an anti-religious concept designed to alienate Muslims from
their religion. The ?West? seen as the purveyor of the separation of state
and religion, is also perceived as bent on dominating and exploiting
Muslims through this scheme. Muslim fears were also grounded on the
coercive secularization imposed by authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Iran
after the First World War and in many parts of the Muslim world after the
Second World War. Muslims regard secularism as a European, Christian
concept imposed by colonial and neocolonial forces.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na?im maintains that there are serious conceptual
confusions in the Muslim discourse on separation of religion and state.
Religion is not separate from politics, even in the ?secular West?.
He offers a working definition of secularism as ?a principle of public
policy, applied variously in distinct contexts, for organizing the
relationship between religion and state?. There is a continuum of
?secularisms? from the extreme fusion to that of absolute separation
between religion and state.
Secularism is dynamic and deeply contextual. The minimum requirement for a
positive relationship between religion and state is neutrality. That is,
people are neither advantaged or disadvantaged by their adherence to their
secular or faith-based tradition.
The state should neither favour nor disfavour one particular religious
tradition over another. Secularism?s minimum requirement must be the
safeguarding of political and religious pluralism in heterogeneous
This minimum requirement runs aground as no public policy is completely
neutral: citizens are always believers in something. The question is how
people can exercise free democratic choice in accordance with their beliefs
(including religion) while the neutrality of the state is maintained.
An-Na?im makes the conclusions that (a) the above possibility exists only
if belief systems are internally transformed and that (b) belief systems
will be transformed only where the interdependence of religion, secularism
(as per An Na?im?s working definition) and human rights is well
Secularism in this framework requires a transformation. It should serve as
an inter-religious and cross-cultural foundation for human rights as a
universal norm. Religious believers for example will fail to be inspired by
human rights if founded solely on secular grounds.
For example, discrimination against women is often justified on religious
grounds in many societies. These violations cannot be eliminated without
addressing their allegedly religious rationale. A purely secular discourse
can be respectful of religion but its rebuttal of one religion?s
justifications for discrimination against women is unlikely to convince
that religion?s adherents.
Secularism alone is insufficient if it does not address the need of
religious believers to express the moral implications of their faith in the
Religion, secularism and human rights
An-Na?im summarises the relationship among religion, secularism and human
rights as follows:
Human rights need religion to validate their moral foundation and to
mobilize religious adherents in support of universal rights.
Religion needs human rights not only to protect the human dignity and
rights of religious adherents within any political system, but human rights
also ensure freedom of belief and practice within each religion itself and
thus ensure the evolution and continuing relevance of each religion to its
Human rights need secularism to provide the political stability and peace
among communities of believers and non- believers that are necessary for
the protection of these rights.
Secular governments need human rights for normative guidance in the daily
protection of people against the abuse of state power.
Secularism needs religion to provide a widely accepted source of moral
guidance for political community, as well as to help satisfy and discipline
the nonpolitical needs of believers within that community.
Religion needs secularism to mediate relations between different
communities within (non-religious, religious or anti-religious) that share
the same political space.
Some Muslims may think that these propositions undermine belief in the
divine source of Islam.
They fail to appreciate, however, that the Quran and Sunna are not
manifestations of divinity in the abstract; they are directed at human
beings living human lives.
The Quran and Sunna cannot be understood except as applied by human beings
temporally and in particular contexts.
An-Na?im further maintains that Islamic life today is not guided solely by
Muslim principles. Religious views within the Islamic world are and always
have been very diverse. It is in this light of these two recognitions that
Islamic communities need to consider the relationship between Islam (under
its various interpretations) and the global doctrines of secular government
and human rights.
I find Khaled Abou el-Fadl?s writings on Islam and democracy useful for
heterogeneous societies as well. We have our own particular experiences of
Islamic law in Malaysia (as regulated by the government in power) in the
In our conversations on Islam as religion of the federation, Muslims, both
professional and the laity have asserted the supremacy of the Syariah.
El Fadl notes that assertions of the supremacy of the Syariah (and the rule
of law is often equated with the rule of the Syariah) are often limited to
the carrying out of criminal punishments in Islamic law.
?But a government that declares its intention to abide by all positive
commandments of Syariah may nevertheless manipulate the rules in order to
obtain the desired results.?
Thus, under the guise of protecting individuals from slander, it could
suppress many forms of political and social criticism. A government could
imprison or execute political dissenters, claiming they are sowing fitna
(discord and social turmoil). Under pretense of guarding public modesty it
could pass arbitrary laws forbidding many forms of public assembly.
Arguably, all these governmental actions can be perceived to be
Syariah-compliant unless there is a clear sense of the limits imposed on
the ability of the government to service and promote even the Syariah.
The rule of law need not be taken to mean that government is bound by a
codebook of specific regulations. Instead it might be interpreted as
requiring a government bound by processes of making and interpreting laws.
More importantly, the rule of law requires that those processes themselves
be bound by fundamental moral commitments in particular to human dignity
El Fadl reiterates the concerns about the reach of state power, something
which has antecedents in Muslim history but now forgotten. Todate, new
constitutions are being forged which have endowed the state with
legislative power over divine law. In so doing, the state has acquired
formidable power that has further ingrained the practice of
authoritarianism in various countries.
In the Quranic discourse, mercy is not simply forgiveness, nor the
willingness to ignore the faults and sins of people, but a state in which
the individual is able to be just with him or herself and others.
Accordingly, it is not possible to achieve justice unless every possessor
of a right (haqq) is granted his or her right.
El Fadl, like An-Na?im and scores of Muslim scholars today emphasise the
need to protect human rights as a fulfillment of mercy, peace and justice.
The Quran addresses the inherent dignity of the human person in 17:70 ? We
have honoured (karammna) the Children of Adam [with karam, that is, ?noble
nature?] and carried them on land and sea, and provided them with good
things, and preferred them greatly over many of those We created?.
This noble nature (karam) makes someone human, autonomous and individually
responsible. It is a special endowment (takrim) and honour that no one else
among God?s creatures posses.
A society that fails to ensure the protection of human rights, no matter
how many rules it applies, is neither merciful nor just.
This is the third and final article arising out of the writer?s
presentation in a regional inter-faith conference on violence and
peace-building in Cipayung, Bogor, Indonesia, Aug 16-19.
Abdullahi Ahmed An Naim, The Future of the Sharia Project (a work in
progress for publication in 2005). The work will be published
simultaneously in English, Urdu and Bahasa Indonesia.
Khaled Abou el Fadl , Islam and the Challenge of Democracy.
[pluto note: the above is a verbatim copy and paste message without any comment from me. If i have any comment, it is in square brackets thus [pn...]
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