Freedom of faith and religious agency
by Dr Farish A.Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site
If this is going to be a national politics predicated on the concept of universal citizenship where racial, ethnic and religious identities are secondary to our national identity, then the debates on freedom of religion have to be set in a Malaysian context that prioritises Malaysian civil law above all else
Malaysia today is facing a huge dilemma, as the country’s public domain is being torn apart by competing demands and interests. On the one hand, a small minority of Malaysian citizens are demanding the right to choose the religion they wish to believe in and by doing so opting to leave the religion of their birth. On the other, a number of Malaysian Muslims who have taken on the role of defending Islam and Muslim concerns are claiming that there are plots to destroy Islam and weaken the faith of Muslims in the country. Malaysia’s public domain is rife with rumours about plots against Islam and attempts to convert Muslims in secret.
Among the more spectacular developments of 2006 were the demonstrations and protests that took place earlier this year. The photographs taken then resonate with the emotional temper that was released: “Do not insult the laws of God”, “Do not offend Islam and Muslims”, “Stop the Zionist conspiracy against Islam”, the banners warned. Conceding to the demands of the vocal protesters, a blanket ban was imposed by the government on public discussion of freedom of religion in Malaysia. The questions raised by these events all point to the issue of the Malaysian constitution and whether Malaysian citizens universally enjoy the freedom of religion and belief. Or are there really two laws and guidelines for Malaysians, with one set of rules for Muslims and another for non-Muslims? These questions are as politically loaded as they are complex, and they can only lead to anxiety for many — though they need to be raised honestly and openly once and for all. At stake here are the fundamental liberties of all Malaysians, as well as the future of the country itself.
To be sure, many a Muslim would admit that the question of freedom of religion and religious choice stands beyond the horizon of possibility for them. So deep is this anxiety that the modes of addressing them elsewhere have often been out of the ordinary. In the few celebrated cases abroad, Muslims who have chosen to convert to another faith have been summarily dubbed ‘insane’ or ‘unstable’ in places like Egypt and Afghanistan. Many ordinary Muslims still cannot understand how anyone who has chosen Islam can reconsider such a decision, and opt to leave it instead.
But here lies the crux of the matter, for this conundrum is based on the premise that all Muslims are free to be Muslims in the first place. Yet how many Muslims in Malaysia have chosen to become Muslims, and how many are Muslims by the contingent fact of being born into Muslim families? (For that matter how many Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs have chosen to be what they are? And how many of us have had our religious identities hoisted on us simply due to the variable factors of birth?)
Muslims, along with adherents of all other faiths today, will have to finally address the reality of living in plural complex societies where religious difference comes with religious alternatives as well. Living with those of other faiths means not only accepting and respecting these differences but also recognising the fact that others hold their faiths to be equally true and important. In the process of such daily cross-cultural interaction, the overstepping and crossing of frontiers (cultural, ethnic and religious) also takes place time to time. Yet few religious systems have accommodated themselves to this reality of individual choice in the face of real alternatives.
The failure to take into account the realities of multicultural life is what is painfully evident today in present-day Malaysia. Hence the knee-jerk reaction among the religious communities whenever one of them decides to leave the flock and join another. The refrain “Islam in danger” is not unique, and the public domain of Malaysia is now a cacophony of similar laments: “Hinduism in danger”, cry the Hindus, “Christianity under threat”, bemoan the Christians. Having accepted that religious difference exists, we have failed to accept that religious choice is also a reality.
Malaysians of all walks of life and religious backgrounds will therefore have to deal with the question of freedom of religion sooner or later. The recourse to the rhetoric of conspiracy theories and the nefarious plots of the so-called ‘evil Zionist enemy’ does little more than mobilise a mob; but will not ease the process of religious choice and agency. For too long we have been entertaining the mistaken notion that the multicultural fabric of Malaysian society can be propped up by tourist posters and ads.
Ultimately these thorny questions bring us back to the original question of who, and what, is a Malaysian? If this is going to be a national politics predicated on the concept of universal citizenship where racial, ethnic and religious identities are secondary to our national identity, then the debates on freedom of religion have to be set in a Malaysian context that prioritises Malaysian civil law above all else. This is the legal system that guarantees the right to anyone converting to Islam, and should likewise guarantee the right for someone to leave Islam: Not because Islam is secondary, but because a Malaysian should have the right to make Islam his or her religion and primary in his or her life. But this rule has to be a universal one that does not discriminate.
Source: Daily Times
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