Viewpoint: A Reply To Ahmad Ibrahim Zakaria – By Ahmad Farouk Musa

What is obvious at first glance to Ahmad Ibrahim Zakaria’s response is that he doesn’t seem to understand why in the first place Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) issued such a statement.

The statement was in response to Pembela’s challenge to prove that the term "secular" was stated in the Constitution.

The sudden realisation that the word "secular" was not in the constitution was from the "revelation" by none other than Professor Shamrahayu Aziz during a seminar.

What we stated was obvious: that the word "secular" does not need to appear in the Federal Constitution since the interpretation is made by the contents of the Constitution. But we expanded the statement to touch on Article 3 that is pertinent to the topic being discussed. And it is obviously malicious to associate the statement for advocating a secular state to that of the Arab societies worshipping idols because their grandfathers did so centuries earlier, since the Constitution was already meant for a secular state. The issue at hand is that Pembela denied that the Constitution had laid the foundation for a secular state.

And that very fact triggered the whole debate. Ibrahim made the same mistake as many other Islamists in thinking that secularism was anti-religion. While secularism in the form of laicete is antagonistic towards religion, what IRF is promoting is a passive secularism, a secularism that is neutral towards religion. This is similar to what was said by Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Hizb en-Nahdah (The Renaissance Party) when he stressed that there is no inherent incompatibility between Islam and secularism. And he defended a degree of separation between political and religious affairs in what is known as as-siyasi (the political or profane) and ad-deeni (the religious or sacred).

A state should be secular in the sense that it is neutral to all the differing religious doctrines. It does not mean the exclusion of religion from the public life of a society. The misconception that it does is one of the reasons many Muslims tend to be hostile towards the concept. As Abdullahi An-Naim argued, state neutrality is necessary for true conviction to be the driving force of religious and social practice, without fear of those who control the state. And typical of any Islamist argument is to cite the history fourteen centuries ago where freedom of thought and belief was the foundation of the city–state of Madinah.

While nobody denies the fact that it was the main foundation laid by the Prophet, circumstances at large today are a far cry from such a situation. Unless Ibrahim is living in a vacuum, freedom of conscience and religion is gradually being eroded in the 21st century in this country called Malaysia and being felt by many; not only the non-Muslims but also Muslims of other denominations than that of the mainstream endorsed by Jakim and Jais.

I do not have to cite the numerous inexhaustible examples and the trend is very worrying so much so that some have even envisaged that very soon this country will become the next Taliban state, but of course with a Syafi’i flavour. And yes, no matter how absurd it might sound to Ibrahim and the like, we stand by our argument that only in a secular state can religions thrive. This argument does not arise from an antagonistic attitude against piety but from a true appreciation of what piety is all about: a sincere belief free from coercion.

Any regime that imposes piety because of the belief that it is part of the doctrine “commanding the good and preventing the wrong”, for instance, is basically creating a community of hypocrites instead of instilling genuine piety. Genuine piety only arises through personal choice. And that choice only becomes possible when there is freedom. In other words freedom to sin is a necessary medium to be sincerely pious.

The erudite Muhammad Asad made it very clear when making his commentary in his magnum opus The Message of the Quran regarding verse 25 of al-A’raf or Faculty of Discernment where he commented on the story about the temptation of Adam and Eve, saying: “The growth of his consciousness – symbolised by the wilful act of disobedience to God’s command – changed all this. It transformed him from a purely instinctive being into a full-fledged human entity as we know it – a human being capable of discerning between right and wrong and thus of choosing his way of life.

In this deeper sense, the allegory of the Fall does not describe a retrogressive happening but rather, a new stage of human development: an opening of doors to moral consideration. By forbidding him to 'approach the tree', God made it possible for man to act wrongly, and therefore, to act rightly as well. And so man became endowed with that moral free will which will distinguish him from all other sentinel beings.” And to us, the only way forward is to allow a space for intellectual discourse and to respect religious rights and freedom of conscience and expression, which is clearly wanting.

Islam and true religiosity could thrive better in a secular state that breaks down the monopoly of religious truth. It is a space needed for a Muslim to live a life based on his own free will and true conviction, not because of the state’s imposition. Secularism, as the separation of state from religion, is probably the minimum requirement for participation in the sphere of civic reason.

Secularism needs religion to provide moral guidance for the community and in turn, religion needs secularism to mediate the relations between the different communities that share the same political space and space of civic reason. Secularism is able to unite diverse communities of belief and practice into one political community simply because the moral claims it makes are minimal.

And secularism is able to tolerate differing view in a religiously diverse community while maintaining its political stability. Such a situation is probably just a dream in an autocratic Islamic state envisioned by many Islamists, including Ibrahim. And only in a secular democratic state will all citizens, believers no less than non-believers, and even believers from the various denominations, Sunni and Shiite alike, have the same basic reason to embrace the right to religious freedom. They will have total freedom from a government that wants to behave as an arbiter of religious truth or worse, a government that manifests its coercive power to impose religious authority and uniformity. – June 5, 2014.

* Ahmad Farouk Musa is the Director of Islamic Renaissance Front.

* The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.” See more at:


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