Religion and Coercion
Note: The following was originally posted as part of a debate in malaysia-today.net's May 2005 debate corner; some minor alterations have been made.
To me, the crux of the religious question in Malaysia does not lie in whether or not to recognise Islam as Malaysia's official religion. That is a given. It cannot be changed, except through a constitutional amendment. To me, what is really central is freedom of religion.
I believe that God has given us a mind to think with. He has given us the right to self-determination; our destiny is always in our hands. You may have a gun pointed to your head and ordered to do something, but you always have the option to defy and choose death. God has made it impossible to deny ourselves the right to choose.
Therefore, I find it troubling that the right to choose your religion, if you are born a Muslim, is severely curtailed. To me, this is defying God's will that we should have the right to choose and partake of a decision with our own free will.
Of course, the counterargument is, "Then shouldn't we have the right to murder, then? After all, God did give us the option to kill, didn't He?" Ah, but the difference is, converting hurts nobody but yourself. Murder hurts the other fellow by removing any further chance of him to determine his own destiny. Conversion does not do that.
By extension, it sickens me even more that people use the constitution to say we should shut up about this issue as we are only non-Muslims. We are rakyat, too. Saying we should not discuss a matter handled by the government we elect and fund with our taxes is akin to saying the Blacks in 1960s America had no right to question the American government's policy of segregation.
The right to choose your religion is a fundamental human right. Likewise, the right to question is a fundamental human right. Questioning brings about transparency; it brings about answers; it brings about knowledge. And, as Mark Twain notes in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, if the public disagrees with the questioner, they just ignore him. No harm is done.
It is utterly unreasonable to force people to shut up and to deny them of a choice when this choice hurts nobody. Anyone who might be offended does not need to tell the annoying talker to shut up; he/she can just walk away.
Bear in mind that I do not speak this out of any hatred of Islam. Far from it. Several of my close friends are Muslims, and I know many good people who are devoted to Islam. It's the dogmatism that spoils things for me, like it spoils any other religion. I despise extremist Chistian dogmatism, as well, despite the fact that I myself am a Christian.
I dislike dogmatism because it is often all about talk and no action; or worser still, talk and violent action. Often it involves coercion and rigid control. For example, fundamentalist Christians spend a good deal of their lives in church, when they could be contributing more positively to society. To me, if you are a fanatic, it does not matter whether you're a Hindu, Christian or Muslim. I respect you and your rights, but I do not respect your holier-than-thou attitude nor your attempt to force your faith on others.
I believe rigid devotion to a set of beliefs without allowing for any questioning is wrong because coercion only creates a false veneer of religion: sure, he goes to church every Sunday, but what does he do the other six days of the week? If questioning is allowed, I believe it would only strengthen one's faith. Why? Because choosing to wonder why you believe in something and then finding out why and deciding to continue believing in it shores up the foundations of faith infinitely more than any Bible passages you memorise or how faithfully you cover your khalwat. And if you choose not to believe something anymore, good for you! Why religiously devote yourself to something you never really wholeheartedly trusted in in the first place?
And if people do become apostates, as some indeed will, so what? It is their loss, not yours. The government should not be forcing religion upon its people. Coercion can only lead to a very grudging acceptance of a religion one is not even faithful to. And that cannot be good for anyone.