Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Don't Place Religious and Civil Law on A Level Footing

Written by johnleemk on 1:03:56 pm Apr 12, 2007.

A topic which frequently comes up in debates about separation of church and state is the application of religious laws. This especially occurs where Islam is involved, as Islam is probably unique among all the major religions in its prescription of specific laws, and the edict (or at least, as fundamentalist Muslims understand it) to enforce these religious laws.

One novel argument that I recently heard used by a Muslim was that if the law is to be fair to all religions, it should apply the laws of all religions. If a Muslim gambles, he should be punished; if a Catholic does not observe Lent, she should be punished; and so forth.

The obvious flaw here is that if you place these religious laws on the same footing as civil law, you very quickly end up in the stickiest of situations. For instance, what religious laws ought to apply? Should the hudud, the Muslim criminal code, be applied? Are we to chop off the hands of thieves?

Or, to take an extreme example, should we recognise the right of Satanists or cultists to conduct perverse rituals such as human sacrifices? The obvious answer seems to be no — and yet the only way to justify banning such extreme behaviour is to hold that the civil law is superior to religious law, and that only religious laws consistent with the civil law can be applied. This effectively defeats the point of having separate religious legal systems.

Another argument posed is that if someone wants to submit themselves to a particular system of laws, they should be free to do so. All well and good — but should the public — that is, non-adherents of this religion — be paying taxes to fund the enforcement of the laws of a religion they don't believe in?

If someone wants to voluntarily submit themselves to an Islamic court or a Christian court or a Wiccan court, it's up to them. But that court should not be funded by non-Muslims/non-Christians/non-Wiccans, and should not be endorsed by the state, which exists to serve people of all religions.

Fundamentalist Muslims often throw up their hands when they have no other argument to use, and declare that it is their imperative as true Muslims to fight for the enforcement of Islamic law over other Muslims. Although it's difficult (if not impossible) to rebutt the logic of the fact that religion is a personal relationship between man and God, and is not something that anyone, including the state, has a right to interfere in, these Muslims say that their holy book tells them to defy logic, and thus that is what they will do.

It is hard to argue then, when there are not even logical premises in common. Nevertheless, I believe that at some point, this impasse will be resolved. After all, for centuries, the Christians believed that their religion was to be the state religion, and that therefore they would impose its laws. If you told them that the Bible says nothing about this, they would probably condemn you as a vile heretic and burn you at the stake.

Similarly, I have my doubts that the fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran can succeed in withstanding the test of time. It is not a question of if it will break down, but when. After all, many Muslims in the west have accepted that Islamic laws need not be applied by the state; many liberals can argue very well that there is no edict in the Quran to fight for state enforcement of Islamic law.

In Malaysia, perhaps, it is impractical to sever the bonds between mosque and state. It may even be infeasible to do away with the injustices that result from the parallel legal systems of Syariah and civil law. But it is simply logically impossible — speaking as an objective observer, and not as a Christian or Muslim or Taoist or what have you — to defend placing religious law on the same standing as the civil law.

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