Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

What is Secular, What is Islamic?

Written by johnleemk on 1:10:34 pm Aug 16, 2007.

Today, as part of my work (and for the love of God, please don't ask what I/we do — we get that question far too often, and we struggle insanely to provide a proper answer), I was trawling local blogs for discussions of the Islamic state issue.

One thing I kept stumbling across was the very apparent different definitions being utilised by different sides in the debate. As I have pointed out before, agreeing on what definitions to use for each term is crucial before any real dialogue can commence.

Normally, the issue is thought to be that of the "Islamic state". A lot of people (but far from enough, if you ask me) have pointed out that an Islamic state may mean different things to different parties in the discussion.

After all, to some people, an Islamic state is a country where Islam is the official religion. To others, it is a country where Islam has some influence in the political sphere. To yet more, an Islamic state is a theocratic state.

To rebutt the assertion that Malaysia is an Islamic state, the secularists often point out that we are far from a theocracy — in this country the federal Constitution, not the Quran or Hadith, is the supreme legal document.

However, it seems to me that to those who believe Malaysia is already an Islamic state, their definition of the phrase is more in line with either of the first two definitions I provided.

After all, Islam is the official religion of the country. That politics and Islam mix on a regular basis is undeniable by anyone who hasn't been under a rock for the past five or six centuries. The very fact that we have established a separate legal system for Muslims indicates that we are in, some sense, Islamic.

What I think poses an obvious problem for those who make this assertion is that following precisely these same definitions, Singapore is an Islamic state! After all, Singapore also has Syariah courts; the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura was established by an act of Parliament; the President of Singapore appoints the members of this council; and the government even funds the construction of mosques!

This thorny problem aside, one argument secularists are fond of using is the argument to authority — Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn both insisted that we are a secular state, so there!

Of course this argument is perfectly valid — I will not bother going into the details, but suffice it to say that those who have attempted to rebutt this argument have not provided a satisfactory chain of reasoning, if you ask me.

The appropriate line of attack for Islamists, which I have not yet seen used to address the latter argument, is to point out that we have not settled on a definition of a secular state — what definition were these men using?

After all, if you define a secular state as one where there is complete separation of mosque and state, these men were plainly in the wrong, as they cannot supersede the Constitution, which clearly states that not only is Islam the official religion, but makes special provision for Muslims (e.g. non-Muslims may not propagate their religion amongst Muslims).

But what if you just define a secular state as one where the official religion (if any) derives its status not from God, but from man? Where the highest law of the land is not God's law but man's law? Then clearly Malaysia is a secular state.

The debate about whether Malaysia is an Islamic or secular state will continue to go on, without ever reaching a resolution, until we can agree on what definition to go by. The trouble is, getting everybody to agree on one definition is hopeless, because it would force one side to admit that they are in the wrong. No wonder then, that the ruling regime has proclaimed that we are neither an Islamic nor a secular state. They may actually even be closer to the truth than they think.

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