Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Islamic Country, Islamic State?

Written by johnleemk on 2:25:51 pm Aug 9, 2007.
Categories: ,

There has been a lot of controversy as of late regarding Deputy Prime Minister Najib "bathe the keris with Chinese blood" Razak's statement that Malaysia is an Islamic state. (Of course, the ban on public debate of the issue is another matter altogether.)

What I find interesting is the lack of clarity concerning this issue. To my knowledge, terms like "Islamic state" and "secular state" are thrown around all the time, but never have they been precisely defined.

As anyone who has participated in a debate knows, the very first thing you must do is attempt to define what it is you are debating. Otherwise, the debate cannot go on.

Without clear and adequate definitions of these terms, where do we go from here? For all you know, Islamists and secularists are closer than they think — it is their different definitions of the same words that drives a wedge between them.

The term "Islamic state" is not exactly clear. To some people, it means a country where a plurality or majority of the population is Muslim. To others, it is a country where Islam is the official religion of the state. To others, it is a Muslim theocracy.

Likewise, what is a "secular state"? To some, it is a country where the laws are man-made, not God-authored. To others, it is a country which does not discriminate because of religion. To some, it might be a country with no official religion.

These definitions might seem all quite similar to you. However, they all carry quite different connotations and implications; carelessly throwing around these terms without stating what you mean by them is like lobbing something without checking whether it is a grenade, first-aid kit, or white flag.

This is why I am try to be careful in my terminology; my main objection is to an Islamic theocracy, not necessarily to a country with Islam as the official religion or even a country which implements Islamic law as a subsidiary of civil law under the Constitution.

Of course, we have not even looked at the minefield known as the language barrier yet. A lot of statements on this issue are made in Malay, but they use the vague term "negara Islam". This can be translated as either Islamic country or Islamic state.

The term "Islamic country" is even more vague than "Islamic state"; I would say that if you define an Islamic country as one where most of the people are Muslim, then Malaysia is an Islamic country but not necessarily an Islamic state.

The most frustrating thing is that the debate continues to be muddied by everyone assuming that we are all unanimous on what the definitions of these terms are. PAS speaks of a "negara Islam", as does UMNO. But do PAS and UMNO have the same thing in mind when they use this phrase? What about the DAP or PKR?

We must draw up clear and firm definitions before the debate on Islamism and secularism can proceed. Without such a footing for our discussions and dialogue, we will continue going in circles and ending up nowhere.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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