Mary Dejevsky: Can a secular society accommodate Islam?

The best that any secular state can hope for may be an uneasy coexistence
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The Independent Online

How does a modern state reconcile the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims? The question is hardly new. In Britain we confronted it with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 over The Satanic Verses. The Netherlands faced it with the killing of the film-maker Theo van Gogh. And now Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed have prompted protests around the globe.

Hopeful European liberals have long cited Turkey as proof that secularism and Islam can live more or less comfortably side by side. But there is another state where the two have coexisted with demonstrable success. Malaysia's 25 million-strong population is 60 per cent Malay, 25 per cent Chinese and 15 per cent Indian and other ethnic groups. Most Malays are Muslim; Islam is the official religion, but the state institutions are fiercely secular. At least they are for now.

In many ways, Malaysia, with its mix of races and religions, makes for a better test of the secular state's capacity to cope with Islam than does Turkey with its relative homogeneity. And Malaysia today offers one of the most colourful, energetic and harmonious models of coexistence in the world.

Ethnic tensions between Malays and the economically dominant Chinese that erupted in violence in the 1960s have largely been overcome. The landscape abounds in Buddhist shrines, Hindu temples, Christian churches and mosques. Malay women, in long robes, their heads covered, jostle for space on Kuala Lumpur's monorail with scantily clad Chinese girls in shorts and tight T-shirts. There is no overt social censure either way.

To the extent that Malaysia manages to protect the rights of its citizens to practise their different religions, its embrace of "live and let live" is an admirable achievement. So, too, is the separation of religion from professional life. And a dual court system allows Muslims to take day-to-day grievances to Islamic, Sharia courts, while the civil courts provide judicial recourse for everyone and everything else.

If one gauge of a state's success is its ability to protect citizens of all persuasions equally, however, another is surely its ability to prevent the dominant religion from imposing its precepts on non-adherents. And here the Malaysian "model" of religious tolerance is experiencing its first strains - strains that it may, in time, be unable to withstand.

The sad truth is that where Islam is concerned the separation of religion and state is becoming harder and harder to maintain. In two notorious recent cases, bodies remained unburied because Islamic court officials claimed that the deceased were Muslims and should be buried according to the Islamic rite. Relatives demurred and had to supply legal documents to prove their point.

Opposing views about the status of women provide fertile territory for conflict between the Islamic and civil courts, with matters of inheritance, the upbringing of children and, of course, divorce, batted endlessly between the two. In the past, this dual system allowed Muslims to have family and other disputes settled according to their religious principles, without imposing their system on others. Now it is proving harder to keep the systems distinct.

One reason is certainly the greater awareness of Muslim women of their rights. While professing Islam, many reject the conservative interpretation preferred by some clerics. Another may be that government efforts to promote the interests of Malays in the wake of the 1969 riots have fed through the system. Malays now have more contact professionally and personally with other ethnic groups, and disputes are increasingly pursued through different courts.

The result can be an acrimonious shuttling between courts - with rulings made in Islamic courts, appeals lodged and upheld in the civil courts, then simply not enforced. At best there is stalemate; at worst continuing friction that encourages people to find other, extra-judicial, methods of getting their way.

It was in an effort to resolve this judicial power struggle that the government two years ago tabled the Islamic family law bill. The idea was to incorporate limited elements of Sharia law into Malaysia's civil code, halt the endless appeals and buttress the supremacy of the state. In the end, the chequered passage of the bill merely illustrated the depth of the problem.

Not only were non-Muslims worried about the encroachment of Islam on state institutions, but also liberal Muslims, first and foremost professional women, were up in arms. They argued that women stood to lose rights they had taken for granted. And while the issue that made headlines was the limited legalisation of polygamy (up to four wives), what incensed women more was the prospect that their savings might be sequestered to support an idle husband's new wives.

The law was passed through both houses on a three-line whip at the end of last year, but has remained without signature and has not passed into law. It sits to this day marooned in legal no-man's land, a symbol of the tensions between Malaysia's ascendant Muslim establishment and its secular state.

In effect, what has happened is that a two-year effort to find a form of family law that will find acceptance among both Muslims and non-Muslims has failed. And the whole question has been pushed under the carpet, lest it inflame Malaysia's inter-ethnic relations. Nothing has been resolved.

That there is a conservative wind blowing through sections of Malaysia's Muslim establishment is clear. Less clear is whether it will be whipped up into a gale that bends the country's secular institutions to its will, or whether it will howl loudly for a while before blowing itself out. A positive sign is the opposition the proposed family law drew from within Malaysia's Muslim majority.

When pushed to take a stand, Malaysia's popular consensus still veers to the secular. But only just, and only when the chips are really down. If this is the best even Malaysia can do, with its hitherto benign religious climate, uneasy coexistence may be the best that any secular state can hope for when faced with a resurgent, but highly defensive, Islam.