NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

A climate of fear and tension appears to be gripping the Muslim world today – not only in the ever-conflicted Middle East, but even here in Malaysia. In recent months we have seen an increasing zeal on the part of the authorities, certain politicians and right-wing groups. The gross overreaction in the handling of issues such as the surau in Johor, the “dog lady” video incident, the use of the word “Allah”, and the growing persecution of minorities such as the Chinese, the Christians and the Shias, have revealed uncharacteristic fanaticism. Since when have we become such an intolerant society?

The worst part is that most of these sentiments do not assume any rationality. Take the virulent stance against the Shias for example. During one of the terawih prayers that I attended in the recent holy month of Ramadan, a popular cleric had been invited to deliver a tazkirah or sermon. In his sermon, the cleric nonchalantly informed us all that the Shias were not really Muslims, and that they worshipped a different religion altogether. I thought this extreme view was perhaps an isolated one, until I read that the Kedah state government is planning to gazette a fatwa that will effectively treat Shias as deviants.

Now, if Shias are deviants and regarded as non-Muslims, why do we invite them every year to participate in our annual Tilawah Al-Quran competition at the Putra World Trade Centre? In fact, since 1961, nine Iranians (read: Shias) have won the men’s recital competition. Furthermore, why is Iran accepted as a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)? What about the thousands of Iranian students that we are willing to accept as students in our universities every year?

Obviously, there is more to it than meets the eye. I believe that this sudden surge of bigotry and hawkish posturing has more to do with local political manoeuvrings than cultural fault-lines. It is no coincidence that certain political leaders have adopted extremely hard-line stances just as their internal party elections loom around the corner. From now until October, I suspect we will see a proliferation of instant Malay-Muslim heroes. The only question is whether a keris will be brandished this time around.

In the same vein, a lot of what is interpreted as “sectarian tension” between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East could also very well be a manifestation of geo-politics and the competition for power and influence, in particular between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

After all, as Duke University professor and Iranian exile Mohsen Kadivar astutely commented during his recent visit to Malaysia, the Sunni-Shia divide is 14 centuries old. After 1,400 years, no amount of fighting can change what happened. What happened, happened. Whether it was right or wrong, it happened. That is no longer the issue. Therefore, the conflict manifesting in the Middle East today is not really a quarrel over a historical event, but rather a struggle over influence and power in the region. Seen in this light, the couching of the conflict in sectarian or religious terms is merely a convenient label to justify the actions of the power-hungry. After all, who can argue with God?

Secularism as a safeguard against abuse by the state?

It is relevant to be aware of how popular opinion and perspectives can be shaped by political agendas, not only in interpreting the dynamics of conflict but also in discussing social and political philosophies such as secularism. This term has become highly contentious in our country, mainly because different communities understand it differently. For the minority non-Muslims, secularism is what they believe to be the foundation of our state – a guarantee of their freedom to express themselves and practise their beliefs without undue interference by the state.

However, the majority Malay-Muslims have an altogether different view. They are inherently suspicious of the term and believe it to be antithetical to the Islamic deen, or way of life. This is mainly due to the fact that their understanding of secularism is largely shaped by the Turkish experience of Kemalism and the Iranian experience under the Pahlavi Dynasty. This influence is pervasive because most religious knowledge in Malaysia is derived from post-Islamic Revolution scholars and literature. As such, the thought of secularism brings to mind the trauma of statist governments that suppress religious expression.

Now, while the regimes of Atatürk and the Shah can be considered harsh forms of secularism, it must be noted that they were both authoritarian regimes. In contrast, democratic models of secularism are far more moderate, such as that exists in India, Europe and the United States. In effect, secularism is not a definite concept and can take on various manifestations, ranging from the extreme to the liberal, depending on the nature of its implementers.

Broadly speaking, secularism in the political context is meant to denote a separation of religion and state. It is not to be confused with the secularisation of society. In fact, far from suppressing or casting aside religion, secularism as a concept of state can arguably provide greater respect for religion.

For example, an ideal secular state would respect freedom of religion and ensure that all religions can be practised without state interference and control, and instead be accorded assistance and support from the government. In India, for example, the government has for decades been subsidising the airfare of Muslims going on the Haj pilgrimage.[1] And we are talking about a secular country with a majority Hindu population!

Implemented well, a democratic secular state would also protect and allow greater space for discourse on cultural matters. This will allow civil society to flourish and contribute to the enlightenment of the populace. At the same time, cultural decentralisation will also be allowed to take its natural course – something that is relevant to our country. As we know, Malaysia is a federation of states in which Islam, alongside land and local government, is designated as a state matter. As a result, states may and do differ in opinion on various matters in the religion, thus allowing localised context and idiosyncrasies to exist.

For example, different states have differing opinions on the legality of practising yoga, the poco-poco dance, smoking and even investing in Amanah Saham unit trusts. Now, whether right or wrong is a matter of opinion, and should ideally be debated by a mature civil society. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in Malaysia. Not only do we have very little room for discourse, we are now seeing things start to go wrong when overzealous officials attempt to implement opinions as laws set in stone and then go on to persecute those who question them as criminals.

In short, state capture of sociological identities rarely results in positive outcomes. As we have seen in Malaysia and elsewhere in the world, race and religion are too easily hijacked and abused as tools for political gain and convenience.

To avoid this, we need to entrench certain “secular” safeguards in governance, provided they conform to democratic norms, in order to not only protect against state abuse of race and religion, but also to facilitate healthier discourse and development via civil society. The absence of such safeguards will allow room for those in power to impose their will in an arbitrary and self-serving manner.

After all, if history has proven anything, it is that whatever the ideological nature of the conflict, be it over race, religion or even class, the underlying pattern of power politics always remains the same.

[1] This practice is currently being phased out and will be replaced by a new model of imposing premiums on well-to-do pilgrims in order to cross-subsidise the poorer ones.