Ikram vice-president Zaid Kamaruddin and Cambridge’s Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics director Jonathan Chaplin came together to speak at a forum exploring how religions can work together to build a more harmonious Malaysia.
While Zaid pointed out that Islam is enshrined as the official religion of the federation in the constitution, he said that Islam also has the strictest regulations in Malaysia.
“Even though people say Islam has special privilege because they say Islam is the religion of the federation, but then again if you come to think of it, Islam or Muslims are the most regulated in the country, compared to other religions,” he said to a crowd of about 40 people at the forum held in Kuala Lumpur last night.
However, he said these regulations are appreciated because without the authority to control other factions or groups within the religion, it could threaten the harmony within the country.
Another issue, he said, is how the laws related to religion are worded.
While he agreed that people should not spread their religious beliefs to Muslims, the law on this was worded too vaguely, causing furore over translations of the Bible into the Malay language or using the word ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ interchangeably.
“We should read each other’s (holy) books,” he said, as this would promote more understanding between religions.
He also lamented the politicisation of religion, saying that politicians using religious sentiments to gain support among their constituencies is an “easy, cheap way out”.
“That is the easy way out, but it is going to be very destructive to the community (because) it divides us.
“They say to the Malays, the Muslims, that PAS is kowtowing to DAP... but if you read the Chinese papers, it is the other way around; that DAP is kowtowing to PAS.
“Both statements cannot be true... but probably because we read the (news)papers that we like, that is the problem,” he said.
Zaid, who is also the chairperson of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM), said that is why GBM is so unique, because it is not a coalition formed to campaign against something.
Instead, he said, it is a coalition formed to focus on what they can do to make Malaysia better and more harmonious.
Perspective of Christianity
Chaplin, meanwhile, spoke from the perspective of Christianity, mostly in the European context.
He said, one of the ways different faiths can coexist peacefully is principled pluralism, which is based on a renunciation of desire to lord their faiths over other people.
“It is fundamentally the rejection of the idea that my faith should exercise a hegemonic position that dominates other faiths,” he said.
There are six practices implied by principled pluralism, he explained.
First, is the robust protection of religious freedom and beliefs for all citizens, he said, which includes not only the freedom to believe within individuals but also the individual's freedom to express their beliefs in words and deeds.
“It is not just to think them (beliefs) but to manifest them,” he said.
Second, he said, is the state’s impartiality towards different religious communities by making space for diverse faiths and their communities.
While he admitted he does not know how that would work in Malaysia where there is an official religion of the federation, he said state impartiality means each faith should have the right to be represented in public settings.
“It is the right to have a public voice and to have that voice respected and not diminished or belittled,” he said.
Thirdly, there should be representative openness, where bodies that make public decisions for whole societies such as the parliament and local councils, should allow full access of all voices of faiths as long as they remain within the limits of the law.
This requires an active position from the state to embrace all stances and faiths, which Chaplin conceded is very difficult to do as most states do not like to do this.
Fourthly, he said, the state should support constructive partnerships between the government and religious communities.
This is in opposition to the principles of secular states like France and the US, where there is a separation of religion and state, he said.
“This view calls for the cooperation between (religions) and state,” he said.
Fifthly, there must be equal citizenship, he said, where the responsibility also falls on the citizens to be responsible for themselves in fostering civic spirit wherever they can.
“If we don’t do that, then we are putting pressure on the constitution that it can’t bear,” he said.
Lastly, he said, there must be a strong protection of freedom of expression within limit.
This is because, he said, freedom is never exercised in the abstract and as freedom of expression has a social dimension, it comes with social responsibility.
While there is a strong secular liberal belief that freedom of expression should have no limits, including the freedom to insult others, he said this is not acceptable from a Christian point of view.
“It is in fact another form of lording it over others,” he said.- Mkini