Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Separating personal and public life

Written by johnleemk on 9:09:04 am Aug 22, 2006.

Some people, mostly Muslim conservatives in Malaysia, have this irritating tendency to confuse personal and public views. To them, there can be no separation between one's personal beliefs and the beliefs one would like to impose others - public beliefs (even though this terminology is somewhat confusing, I can't really think of anything better).

The opinion piece being discussed here fails terribly in this respect. But first, let's examine its other major failing.

Religious pluralism is the outcome of an attempt to provide a basis in Christian theology for tolerance of non-Christian religions; as such, it is an element in a kind of religious modernism or liberalism.
The author implicates multiculturalism and religious pluralism as unsuited for our society (for the world, indeed) because of their alleged origins in Christian theology. Even assuming that this is true, ought we then to reject, say, genetics, on the ground that Gregor Mendel was a Catholic monk? Should we ignore the mathematics of Sri Ramanujan because he was a devout Hindu who almost didn't further his education in England as he thought it would make him unclean? Why are we using the Gregorian calendar when it has pagan, Roman and other such influences?

The author has not carefully thought out his argument, and is in effect attempting to "debunk" multiculturalism not by attacking it on its merits (or lack of them), but its origins. A philosophy should be accepted or rejected on what it has to offer, and not who is its backer. Nazism is rejected by most (if not all) thinking people today not because Hitler was a madman but because Nazism has clear problems and disadvantages, namely the unnecesary extermination of non-Aryan peoples (to cite one example - and yes, I know I've proved Godwin's Law).

Another fallacy can be seen quite clearly here:
Liberalism in religion and in politics is historically and theoretically related to one another. Liberalism as a political ideology that emerged in the same period and locale alongside liberal Protestantism. Both took place in the aftermath of the Reformation.
If something emerges in the same period and locale as something else, why, they must clearly be related! After all, Columbus sailed across the ocean a couple of decades before Martin Luther's theses, so clearly the discovery of America triggered the Reformation! (There are some Christian fundamentalists who have drawn such connections, by the way.) The basic laws of physics were discovered by Isaac Newton around the same time (within the span of a few decades, again) as the Commonwealth of England and the abolition of the monarchy, so clearly there is a connection!

And lest we forget, it is because of these tenuous connections that "liberalism" is insinuated to be evil - because of its apparent association with the West and Protestantism. Another fallacy, coming up:
Being an outgrowth of liberal Protestantism, religious pluralism rejects orthodox interpretations of Christian scripture and dogma to make salvation attainable via routes other than Christianity.
Being a pluralist myself, this is surprising to me. I'm going to take flak for this, but I do believe that John 14:6 ("I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.") is true. That doesn't mean I can't be a religious pluralist. There is no immutable law of human society stating that two people of different and mutually exclusive religions cannot live together in harmony or be friends.

It is also made clear by the previous paragraph that the author is discussing the theology of pluralism - when there are no real theological grounds for it (at least in the West). Pluralism only really came into its own when Protestants grew tired of persecution and formed their own community (today known as the United States of America) where there would be no religious discrimination. They did this not because of their religion, but because they were decent human beings with a dollop of good sense. That's it. There's nothing more to religious tolerance, really.

The liberal separation of religion from social order is founded on the assumption that this separation is consistent with the tenets of all religions and sects, whereas it is in direct conflict with the very nature of the worldview of Islam.
Well, actually, some Christian fundamentalists make the same mistake here. They attempt to force their religious beliefs on others. I'm not going to pretend I'm a Muslim (let alone a Muslim theologian), but since I know millions of Muslims who would disagree with this assertion (most Muslims in America and the UK definitely would see things differently), I won't need any pretence. I'll just point out that this is a difference of opinion, which can't really be cited as overwhelming proof that multiculturalism has been "debunked".

Multiculturalism, as understood and propagated by its proponents in this country is not based on diversity, but rather it strives to debunk Islam as a socio-political order.
Well, yes, when you are burying non-Muslims as Muslims, and non-Muslims can't inherit what is rightfully theirs simply because their parent converted, you can imagine that they'd get pretty touchy about all this. In any case, there seems to be more of an issue with the multiculturalism of its Malaysian proponents, and not multiculturalism itself. So what is being debunked here?

The ideological components of Malaysian multiculturalism can be summarised as a cultural relativism which finds the prominence of Islam in this country intolerable.
Since I'm sure you'd find the prominence of Christianity in America or the UK irritating, this seems rather hypocritical. Or do we hold Muslims to a different standard than Christians? After all, Christianity (specifically Anglicanism) is the state religion of the UK. Most Americans profess to be Christian - certainly more than the proportion of Malaysians who profess to be Muslim (which is about more than half; the rest of the Bumiputra are predominantly animist or Christian indigenous natives of East Malaysia). One can hardly blame the non-Muslims for looking at the more tolerant outlook of these states - states where you don't have to follow one specific denomination of the state religion (if there is one), states where non-Christians' taxes don't pay for the establishment of Christian houses of worship. Why, they ask, can't we do the same here? Why indeed? Because religious pluralism is a philosophy that arose in the same time and locale as Protestantism and must thus be rejected?

The Malaysian multiculturalism’s hostility towards Islam and its repudiation of an identifiable Malaysian culture based upon Islam is augmented by a radically new definition of community, one that deviates from the traditional, religious emphasis on family, neighbourhood, house of worship and school, towards an emphasis on race, gender, occupation and sexual preference.
What? Most multiculturalists I know emphasise our shared similarities and celebrate our diversity. Examples would be nice to have. It would also be good if we could know how Malaysian culture is based on Islam. Certainly, it has Muslim elements - note how even some non-Muslims these days bring their hands to their hearts after shaking hands, reminiscent of the Muslim salam. It's a far stretch to describe this culture as "based upon Islam".

The multiculturalists assert that Malaysia is an idea rather than a nation possessing a distinctive but encompassing identity. Hence, after almost 50 years of independence we still hear people talking about the search for a “Malaysian identity”.
Huh? I've always argued that we do have a common identity - just that we've never realised it. Blanket strawman arguments don't apply. In the first place, many believe that we're still hung up on superficial differences to realise that we do share a common identity and culture, as I've argued before.

Current manifestations of multiculturalism extend far beyond the kind of pluralism that seeks a richer common culture to multicultural particularism which denies that a common culture is possible or desirable.
Then why is your piece entitled "Debunking multiculturalism" if you're going to focus on a small segment of it?
Multiculturalism’s subordination of facts and knowledge to unguided “critical thinking” demonstrates its intellectual bankruptcy, since any critical opinion worthy of consideration must evolve out of knowledge and be grounded in objective facts.
Grandstanding. Sounds to me like you have no facts, since you don't have any examples to back up what you're saying.

To those who live on the assumption that Malaysia is a secular country, it is the secular worldview that is supposed to be the prism through which we understand who we are and how to go about living our lives. That is the fallacy my piece is out to address. A Malay Muslim friend of mine has penned his own writings on this topic, but unfortunately as his blog is down, I can't provide direct links to them currently. (Update: __earth's blog is up now. Have a look at his posts entitled Countering far-right groups, Moral, religion and secularism, and Ensuring a liberal society.)

Basically, secularism is not meant to intrude on your private life. It does not affect you if there is no snoop squad to ensure that other people have paid their tithes. It does affect you if you can't rely on government funds to build your religious establishments, but hey, it affects other people personally, so it's only fair, isn't it? (If a major premise of your argument is that Muslims should fundamentally be treated differently than others, please be upfront about it.)

Secularists are not arguing for any major intervention in how we view the world or how we approach our lives. What they are arguing for is non-intervention in people's private lives. If it is your religious view that you can only be faithful to God by intruding in other people's private business, well, sorry then. We wouldn't accept the practice of a theoretical faith demanding that its followers murder one person a day (or at least the practice of this particular tenet), and the same applies here. (In case you think this is an inappropriate comparison, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights - which is the law of about 40 European states - protects the right to life. Article 8 protects the right to privacy, and Article 14 guarantees that there will be no discrimination in the granting of rights. All of these rights are guaranteed equally by the Convention. Then again, perhaps European law doesn't count since it was developed by Western Christians, eh?)

That is surely not acceptable to Muslims, who are aware that secularism is antithetical not only to Islam but to all religious worldviews.
Last time I checked, Christians don't advocate forcing people to adhere to their mindset, or even forcing fellow Christians to adhere to the tenets of their own faith. Hindus don't seem to care that much if I don't worship their Gods (or as some less politically correct people might say, idols). Buddhists don't seem very bothered that I don't believe in reincarnation or follow the 8-fold path. They don't plan on intervening in my personal choice, as long as I don't in theirs, and that's the essence of secularism. How is this antithetical to anyone but those with a coercive approach to religion?

Leaving the ignorant and confused Muslims aside, there is no way to make conscious Muslims accept a secular interpretation of life and existence as espoused by Western culture and civilisation.
Because life is incomplete without coercion? Nobody is asking you to abandon your belief that the rest of us will burn in hell because we're kafir. (Or at least, I, an avowed secularist who likewise believes - with all due respect - you will burn in hell, heathen, am not asking you to do so.) All we're asking you to do is respect our privacy and freedom to do as we wish without infringing on your privacy and freedom to do as you wish.

It is through Malaysia, as an Islamic state, that other religions would thrive, and that we have better chance of fostering national unity based on a common religious worldview.
How? Your article has done nothing to convince us that this is so. If anything, looking at the success of some countries in fostering religious harmony *cough* the United States *cough* one might think that secularism has a better chance of fostering religious harmony. In the first place, aren't an Islamic state and a "common religious worldview" incompatible?

A secular Malaysia would be an enemy not only to Islam but a common enemy to all religions.
Sure. An atheist Malaysia, probably. But secular? I don't think so.
To apply their solution to our problem is to admit that we are now experiencing the same problem they used to have; which is historically baseless and logically absurd.
To apply the Gregorian Calendar to our timezone and culture is to admit that we are now experiencing the same problem they used to have. Perhaps I'd find this more convincing if the article didn't stop here and instead explained how we don't have the same problems of a diverse religious population they used to have and do have.

Addendum: I'd like to express my appreciation to my classmate, Albert Wong, who first highlighted this opinion piece to me yesterday.

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One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.
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