December 31st, 2008 by Hafiz Noor Shams
It is common for advocates of a greater role for Islam in the public sphere in Malaysia to hold the position that any such expansion concerns only Muslims and no one else. Since it concerns only Muslims and hence internal matters, others identified as outsiders need not be concerned or participate in any discussion about the expansion.
While it is an attractive take on the issue — especially in a country like Malaysia where racial and religious issues are a powder keg — because it minimizes the potential for inter-communal exchange, it insidiously threatens individual liberty.
When the religious edicts on tomboys and yoga were issued, ABIM expressed its dissatisfaction against adherents of other beliefs criticizing the rulings. In the matter of implementation of hudud, PAS tried to coax the non-Muslims from opposing the party by stating only Muslims would come under the jurisdiction of such a law. Others who share a religious conservative outlook but have little or no association with ABIM or PAS have aired similar views.
The underlying rationale that outsiders need not worry is the idea that a community is presumed to be homogenous and specific rules apply to the community. Those outside of the community have no locus standi in expressing their opinion on the internal matters of the community.
In the case of those sympathizing with the argument of ABIM and PAS, the homogeneity is based on being Muslims. Or rather, more accurately, the prerequisite for membership into the community is for one to be recorded as a Muslim by the state. Actual personal belief itself is mostly irrelevant since the Constitution of Malaysia establishes Malays as automatically Muslims. Sincere conscience is only a childish concern belonging to the Wonderland where Alice lives.
Upon the clear demarcation of this imaginary boundary, it sets the stage for them to impose religious rules over the community. What the limitation does is that it shuts out considerable opposition to the agenda of expansion from participating in the debate on the roles of religion in the public sphere. In doing so, it weakens the group of individuals deemed as insiders opposing the expansion, which erodes individual liberty through legitimization of coercion to create uniformity. It separates the liberty-conscious individuals from their allies, forcing those who guard their liberty jealously to stand alone against tyranny. After all, the best way to transgress individual rights is to use majority power to bully the minority.
The creation of an insider-outsider dichotomy and exclusion of outsiders from participating in the supposedly internal discussion is also a sign of intolerance of criticism. Rather than deal with the criticism through frank discussion, voices other than theirs are suppressed.
This division is a classic case of divide and rule. It was applied by the colonial administrators of the 19th- and 20th-century Malaya in order to keep the locals easier to manage. Barisan Nasional with its racial-based political parties continued to practice the same policy to much success until recently. Now, here we are witnessing yet another group trying to do the same thing all over again.
It is through divide and rule that those pushing for greater roles of religion in public space insist that a community — the Muslim community in Malaysia — has a right to manage its own affairs without intervention from outsiders. Following the same track, these advocates would like to have the community be regulated by a standard which they would like to see imposed on all individuals unlucky enough to be deemed by them as members of the community.
These advocates may seem to fight for their community’s interest. There is nothing wrong in promoting the interest of a community in itself however but the danger here is when that interest flagrantly infringes on individual rights. It is worse when the promoters claim to fight for the community when a significant fraction within the community itself vehemently disagrees with the agenda of the promoters.
When the interest of any group seeks to submit individuals to the group’s desire, the interest has just turned into a form of oppression.
Oppression is not an exclusive concern of those labeled as Muslims and it certainly is not a concept exclusive to this issue. It could happen anywhere and anytime. It could happen in any community.
There are various diverse communities in this country but when there is threat against individual liberty in any community, then there is only one big community and that community is Malaysian society. Niemöller’s “First They Came…” poem succinctly describes why that is true.
Besides, those recognized as Muslims by the state undoubtedly make up the majority of the population. How is it possible for anybody to honestly believe that the minority groups would be left unaffected when something happens to the majority? Have we forgotten the controversy revolving around religious conversion or morals?
Most disappointingly, the argument set forth by the advocates is trapped in a communal worldview. Everything must be viewed in terms of community. This narrow worldview generalizes the individuals as drones, incapable of individuality. This is perhaps the legacy of years of the implementation of the divide and rule policy either by the British colonialist or Barisan Nasional.
The greatest victims are the individuals, and individuals must transcend the self-limiting communal thinking. The so-called internal matter ceases to be internal when it threatens individual liberty.
The transcendence, if it has not begun yet, begins by rejecting the rationale that outsiders have no standing to comment on the supposedly internally matters of the local Muslim community. It is imperative for the argument be rejected for its naive flaws, thrown out of the window for its frightening implications and into the fire for its insidious intents, especially when it adversely affects individual liberty.
And here is where the irony sets in. While the advocates seek to shut what they consider as outsiders out from discussions, they themselves are busy trying to regulate the moral and beliefs of private individuals. These advocates need to take a hard look into the mirror before labeling others as outsiders. The reason is that the only insider is the individual and everything else is the outsider, especially the busybody.
This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on December 29 2009.