November 6th, 2009 by Hafiz Noor Shams
An optimist may take the view that politics is unifying. A realist will understand that politics is divisive. It is possible that this realization is the reason why the Sultan of Selangor expressed his concern about the use of mosques for political purposes. For better or for worse, political activities in mosques are inevitable, if there is respect for freedom. Divisiveness is a symptom of difference in opinion and freedom of conscience. Any effort to eliminate such divide, in most cases, involves abolition of freedom. It is for this reason that I do not share his concern. Rather, I am more concerned with the roles of mosques in Malaysian society.
When I speak of mosques, I do not speak of them literally, buildings with calligraphy adorning minarets, walls or domes. I am referring to a more substantial issue that is relevant within the context of separation of mosque and state, or the separation of church and state, if you will. I am talking about the role of religion in state and, therefore, public space.
While this debate has been going on for a long time, the issue still suffers from misunderstanding of what the separation entails. For liberals, more than anything else, such separation exists to support freedom.
It is true that separation between religion and the state — call it secularism if you must — can exist on its own without the idea of liberty as a pillar, and subsequently, may be hostile to religion. This happened in the Soviet Union in the past, when the communist state was openly hostile to religion.
The Soviet Union perhaps went to the extreme by adopting an atheistic outlook for the state, creating a nightmare state for both liberal and religious individuals. But then again, Soviet Union was not secular state. It was not a state that was neutral of religion. It was a state that was anti-religion and that is not the definition of a secular state. Thus, perhaps Soviet Union is an inappropriate example of a secular state.
A more appropriate example is likely to be Turkey, where secularism is embedded with hostility to religion is observable. In the country, especially in the past and perhaps less so nowadays, the state regulated religions to cement its own influence in the society.
Those states were and still are jealous beings, as with any authoritarian state.
Such separation is abhorrent to the concept of liberty and it deserves no contemplation at all. Adoption of such illiberal separation here in Malaysia will only witness migration from one unacceptable tyranny where religions breathe down the neck of individuals to another woeful type of tyranny where religious freedom comes under relentless attacks. That should never be the purpose of a person upholding the principle of liberty.
The function of the state is the protection of individual rights. It is the protection of individuals from coercion and fraud. Any further function that the state adopts, in most cases and within our context with respect to freedom of conscience, is excessive. And, too much excessiveness lays down the path towards tyranny.
Just as the institution of separation of powers of the executive, the legislative and the judiciary arms exists as an effort to ward off tyranny, the separation between the state and religion should be instituted to ensure the two forces would have less success in conspiring against free individuals. To have the mosques function as moral police stations, as proposed by Hasan Ali in Selangor, is surely good enough proof to demonstrate how such conspiracy is more than a product of someone’s wild imagination.
The separation may begin by having the state to not wield power to enforce religions and its rules on individuals. Religious laws should only be applied on the willing. Given that the religious laws themselves do not contradict individual liberty, the state has no role in their enforcement.
An individual is a sovereign and he or she alone is the final determinant of his or her conscience within the constraint of the physical world. It is not the business of a state to determine the religious belief — or lack of it, or even any kind of belief — of a free individual. It is not the business of the state to sanction any lifestyle that any religion deems acceptable for an individual to adopt.
That separation also means that no religion should receive funding from the state. Or if it must, the state can provide only limited funding to religious institutions, as the state may provide to various advocacy groups or non-governmental organizations.
Truly, religious institutions should only survive through donations which individuals or the faithful are willing to provide. After all, religious belief is about sincere belief. It follows that any money or resources for religion should come from the heart, not through coercion.
This separation prevents religions from being manipulated by the state and prevents individuals from being subjected to laws of conscience without his or her consent.
In this environment, parallel to the spirit of freedom of conscience, individuals can practice and express their religious belief. The proviso is that they can do so only without forcing others to live by the same ideals. These religious individuals may persuade others of their alleged morally superior lifestyle in line with freedom of speech but coercion is simply out of the question.
If there is coercion in that respect, then the liberal state will be there to meet the illegitimate coercion with legitimate force.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on November 3 2009