At a recent public lecture in Sydney, Australia, Anwar Ibrahim said he avoids answering which he aspires to: a secular state or an Islamic state. He reasoned that the issue is contentious and unproductive to engage in. He believes what exists instead is a quasi-secular state, and a hypocritical one at that. He went on to state that the problem revolves around hypocrisy. I left the lecture dissatisfied with the message. Immediately after he ended his speech, I began to wonder about the kind of consistency he was looking for.
He argued that part of the reason why the issue is contentious is that both mean different things to different person. For instance, there are opponents of secularism who believe that secularism is anti-religion. That illiberal brand of secularism stifles religions in the public sphere, like what happened in Turkey before. And then there are proponents of secularism who assert that secularism is neutral of religion. Backed by liberal principles, a liberal secular state will treat all religions equally as long as those religions do not infringe on individual liberties. I myself subscribe to this idea.
Being the glue that holds Pakatan Rakyat together, it is completely understandable why he avoids the question. If anybody needs a reminder, DAP and the Islamist PAS are both the main component parties of Pakatan Rakyat. Both have rattled sabers over the matter within the Malaysian context. In Sydney, he stressed the need to build consensus. Fair enough.
The avoidance, however, is problematic when he is critical of the double standards in the implementation of Islamic law in Malaysia, where the rich and influential get away with what Islam frowns at while others get punished. That criticism relies on the idea of equality before the law. Such equality itself is a sound concept. Yet, not all equality ranks equally in terms of preference.
While the application of unequal weight of the law is distasteful, I shudder to think of a situation of equal implementation of Islamic law, especially in its current form in Malaysia. This is because it violates individual liberties — especially for those whom the state considers as Muslims — such as freedom of conscience. That translates into law that states whom a person can marry, what he or she can eat or drink, what a person can believe in, etc. It excessively dictates one’s personal life. An Islamic state that runs on Islamic law necessarily does that.
Religion has always been a personal, private matter for liberals. When religion is a private matter then the state has no say, freedom has more opportunities to flourish. This is why liberals prefer a secular state with respect to any religious state, while holding all other concerns constant. The opportunity for liberty to flourish doubles when there are guarantees for individual liberties within a liberal democratic framework, which addresses the problem of tyranny of the majority.
Criticism of hypocrisy and the existence of preferences in different kinds of equality essentially introduce back the question of secularism and Islamic state. The question does not need to be framed in such a stark contrast. Forget the labels. Ask instead, will religion, specifically Islam, be used to dictate a person’s lifestyle? More specifically, will it be used to dictate a Malay’s lifestyle?
First published in The Malaysian Insider on November 18 2010.