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Do secular laws benefit Muslims?

“IN order for me to embrace, fully and publicly, my African-American, feminist lesbian identity, I didn’t believe I could simultaneously embrace, fully and publicly, my Muslim identity,” Aishah Shahidah Simmons tells The Nut Graph. “But given all the repression I’ve faced as an African-American, feminist lesbian, I have so many privileges in the world as a US citizen,” she continues in a 5 Aug 2009 interview in Petaling Jaya while on a visit to Malaysia for a conference.

In other words, coming to terms with being a lesbian in the largely conservative African-American Muslim community was not easy. But Aishah still appreciates the spaces she had in the US to explore her religious beliefs and sexual identity as a matter of personal conscience.


Aishah
In fact, the 40-year-old filmmaker went on to make NO! — a much-acclaimed account of rape and other forms of sexual assault in the African American community. Thus, despite the multiple oppressions she could potentially have faced, the secular US state allowed her the freedom to explore Islam, feminism, and her African heritage. Could Aishah have gone on the same journey if she had been born Muslim in, say, Malaysia, whose secular foundations are increasingly being contested by Muslim politicians and groups?

In the spotlight

Islam, as it is enforced through syariah laws in Muslim-majority countries, has been in the spotlight in recent weeks. On 4 Aug 2009 in Sudan, police fired teargas to disperse supporters of Lubna Hussein, a former United Nations worker charged under the country’s Islamic laws with “indecent dressing” for wearing trousers.

Malaysia has not been spared, either. On 20 July, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor was sentenced to six cane lashes and a fine of RM5,000 by the Kuantan Syariah Court for drinking beer in public.

Secularists and anti-Islam quarters might use these examples to point out that Islamic laws discriminate against women, and that secular laws protect them better. But then, how would we explain the 2 July killing of Marwa el-Sherbini, a hijab-wearing Egyptian national living in Dresden, Germany? Sherbini was caught up in an argument with her non-Muslim neighbour, who called her a “terrorist” and an “Islamist whore”. The case was brought to court, and during Sherbini’s testimony, the defendant got up and stabbed her 18 times. When Sherbini’s husband rushed to her aid, police mistook him for the attacker and shot him.

Real achievements, real challenges

Indeed, Muslims face very different scenarios depending on whether they reside in Muslim-majority or Muslim-minority countries, and whether the state is Islamic or secular.

Nevertheless, the Islamophobia in secular contexts is sadly reinforced by the fundamentalism and conservatism displayed by many Muslim communities themselves. Aishah’s mother, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, who was also in Malaysia, says that many imams in the US are sponsored from the Middle East, and they often bring patriarchal, conservative interpretations of Islam along with them.

The Turkish German writer Canan Topçu also adds that children of Muslim migrants to Germany often express their Islamic identity more stridently than their parents. “That some daughters of immigrant families do develop rigid ideas of Islam, probably says more about German society, which is still frequently felt to be hostile [towards Muslims], than about the family’s original culture,” she writes.

But in real terms, this devotion to Islam in no way hinders the achievements of Turkish Muslims in secular Germany’s public sphere.

For example, Topçu writes that the number of female Turkish students studying at German universities increased tenfold from 1980 to 1996, while the number of male students increased 2.5 times.


Rabia (Courtesy of Rabia Harris)
Rabia Harris, founder of the pioneering Islamic non-violence organisation Muslim Peace Fellowship, tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview that there are also many US citizens who are committed to social equality, religious freedom, and freedom of speech as the country’s moral foundation. A Muslim herself, Harris says they may not know very much about Islam and Muslims, or even care, but they know that minorities must be protected.

In addition, she says there are also a number of good-intentioned liberal Christians, and even Jews and people of other religions, who would like to learn more about Islam and to make friends with Muslims.

“Secular” vs “Islamic”

The question, then, is whether “secularism” is necessarily anti-Islam, as is often spouted by politicians and some Muslim groups in Malaysia in their quest to turn the country into an Islamic state. And just as importantly, whether an “Islamic state” necessarily provides justice for Muslims.

“First of all, we have to realise that a secular state is not equivalent to an atheist state,” says Gwendolyn. “It just means that the state does not support any one religion more than the others. All are equal, and all are allowed to flourish, and I realise that in many Muslim-majority states this is probably not going to happen.”

Furthermore, there is the added complication that when a state ties its very identity to a particular religion, the government of the day tends to exploit religious sentiments for its own self-interest.

“And so in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where governments do not allow a political opposition to flourish, opposition fundamentalists resort to using religion to advance their own political ambitions,” she says. These opposition quarters then cast themselves as the “real” upholders of Islam, and designate those in power as “kufur” (infidels).

“They will say, ‘When we are in power we will uphold the true Islam’,” Gwendolyn says, and gives the example of Iran‘s Islamic revolution, which created a theocratic regime quite intolerant to dissent.

Paradoxically, this inability to have intra-Muslim discussions also exists in countries like the US. Harris says, “Muslims are multiply-fractured in my country. Indigenous African-American Muslims mix little with immigrant Muslims. Immigrant Muslims of different ethnicities mix little with each other. Sunnis and Shias rarely speak to each other, and almost nobody speaks to the Ismailis.

That said, Harris believes the very character of the US state will force all these different factions to start engaging with one another. “Since none of us is in a position to exercise power over the others, we will all have to learn how to coordinate with the others, and this may be very productive,” she adds.


Gwendolyn Simmons
Gwendolyn, however, is more cautious. “I want to be proven wrong, I want to be shown that there can be a big-tent Islam. But right now I really worry for people who are progressive, who are gay or lesbian — why would they go to the mosque?”

The short answer: either because of personal choice in a secular state where the government has no business regulating on religion, or because the religious legislation in an Islamic state forces them to.

Muslim minorities living in secular states such as in the US and Germany have enjoyed freedom of religion and economic development, while Islamic states have demonstrated clear violations of rights against Muslims themselves. Which course, then, should Malaysia take?

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11 Responses to “Do secular laws benefit Muslims?”

  1. soondar says:

    The prayer direction for Islam is Mecca. Similarly, [if] you want to know about Islam, you go to Mecca. If you cannot go to Mecca, then read what comes out of Mecca and Madinah and people who have learnt their religion from Mecca and Madinah.

  2. Wan Adli says:

    I think, to analyse and compare practical aspect of any system would not give us a satisfactory answer, since it depends on the imperfect nature of [human beings] who run it, especially those in power, the politicians. On the contrary, we may get a better picture if we analyse the theoretical aspect. This approach for some, may seem unrealistic because whatever flawless system we have, it still needs the imperfect [human] to execute. However, I think choosing a system by its theoretical aspect would enable us to study the overall framework, not just some mistakes in the execution.

    Moreover, the theoretical realm gives us an advantage when we want to fight back those corrupted politicians, who I believe never hold on fast to their ideology. Anyway, for secularists, the sociological approach may be more attractive, because secularism does not have one absolute fundamental source. On the other hand, the theoretical approach for Muslim, because we can determine the Islamness of something such as those so called ‘Shariah’ laws, can be referred to the absolute fundamental source of Islam namely the Quran and the Hadith.

  3. walski69 says:

    The gist of the article lies in the final sentence: “Which course, then, should Malaysia take?”

    There are two possible responses – the logical and the emotional ones.

    Time and time again, when “true Islamic state” status is achieved, what suffers is the universal standard of human rights, which is usually justified by claiming that Islam doesn’t concur with universal human rights. Iran is a good example, where a cruel secular regime was replaced by an equally cruel Islamic regime.

    Knowing the track record, why anyone would wish for an environment where one’s rights as an individual is severely curtailed remains a mystery. But the reality is that those who champion the cause for Malaysia to be an Islamic state relish the thought of having individual rights curtailed.

    Perhaps it is the dogmatic belief that Islamic statehood is a pre-requisite for “true” Islam, a belief that doesn’t really have any scriptural basis, but one that is very prevalent.

    On the flip side of the coin, Islam thrives quite well in secular environments. One doesn’t have to look very far, either, because the best example I can think of is Indonesia. Granted, there are splinter movements who are fighting towards Islamic statehood there, too, but for the most part, I’d expect Indonesia to remain secular for a long time to come, perhaps to their advantage in the long run. Sure, our neighbor has its own share of economic and social problems, but to blame all that on their secular mode of governance would be naive, at best.

    Personally, I’d opt for the rational and logical path – a secular state. Sadly, I also have to accept the reality that this point of view is fast becoming extinct in Malaysia, with many opting for the less than ideal emotional path, and with politicians agreeing to the emotional less than ideal for the sake of power and expediency.

    It has also been proven time and again, that religion, even in peaceful times, is something that divides, rather than unites. We’ve seen this many a time in the past, and we’re witnessing the same here and now.

    Not heeding the lessons of history (and current events) only makes us repeat the same mistakes.

  4. Ibnu Zaini says:

    Those who claim themselves as progressive Muslims with homosexual, transsexual, weird libidoism, free-willy-sex way of life aren’t true Muslims. They don’t have the right of talking about their right in ISLAM or Muslim communities for they have abandoned the Quran and as-Sunnah.

    Not saying that they’re infidels, just clearly stating their way of life is way way off from ISLAMIC teaching. As for secularism vs Muslim state, it has its pros and cons depending on who is holding the throne of the country. ISLAM is about practice and the whole life commitment, its teaching is universal…it includes everything and every matter. And if Malaysian Muslims realize that to hold an ISLAMIC state is to apply the total foundation of the Quran and Sunnah then it wouldn’t be any problem plus the leader needs to be a pious one. But when one is to hold up any ideology upon his STATE with greed, craze for power, materialism etc. [...] surely the country will be doomed.

  5. Farouq Omaro says:

    A prominent Pakistani politician once said in an interview that the Muslim world needs another Ataturk! The New Straits Times which published the interview (somewhere in 1999-2000) was criticised by PAS. The last Shah of Iran tried to be another Ataturk but was deposed. I wonder what people say about an Ataturk for Malaysia!

  6. alek says:

    There are extremists in every extreme, even among the so-called liberals.

    Taliban is Taliban because they are the children of war for 30 years of full conflict and destruction, all they can do is hold on to the very basics that they have, know, and understand. They are not representative of any other Muslims except themselves.

    Can we imagine a person who has been bombarded with negative information by the media about Islam for all his/her 30 years of life. The words that will come out of his/her mouth when [they] talk about Islam is Taliban, Taliban, Taliban, terrorist, terrorist, terrorist, suicide bomber, suicide bomber, suicide bomber, etc, etc, etc. We all can see that in a lot of comment sections in any blog that Islam is the subject of discussion. Same goes to the case of the killer of Marwa el-Sherbini mentioned in the article. What these people and the Taliban have in common is, what they did was shrouded with prejudice, hatred, and misinformation.

    There [are not many things] in this world [which are] black and white, a lot of them is in the grey area that needs more effort to be understood and resolved.

  7. uncle husim says:

    A 40-year-old Muslim lesbian preaching about liberal Islam aint gonna work in Malaysia..it’s just too much to take…good article though..

  8. Kamal says:

    I find this rather simplistic; secular state vs. islamic state. And that the secular states trump over Islamic states. The secular states you mention are the US and Germany (I am not sure how to read the story of the Muslim woman who got stabbed in court and her husband coming to her aid was shot by police) and the Islamic states are Saudi and Iran. As for the Shah of Iran and the revolution, the people must have been pretty fed-up with him to support a theologian.

    Are contemporary Islamic inspired states Islamic states? What is an Islamic state? The practice of Syariah according to the Quran and Sunnah? Is it perfection?

    And are Western secularism the answer? In the last century that same system of governance saw two world wars and many proxy wars. Millions died, property, livestocks and cultivation gone. The atomic bomb dropped over Japan saw contamination for many decades. The lifestyle we all love (me at the front row!) is now recognized as causing potentially irreversible damages to the environment. What does this mean? The projection that sea levels are rising would mean somewhere in the future some poor third world island families will be displaced. And perhaps a warmer world may mean the difference for farmers living on the periphery. But what can we see today? Poverty is far from being relegated to the history books. Poor countries pay for our support of totalitarian regimes in return for oil, timber, etc. Who exactly are the consumers that are happy to pay for natural resources that keep violent regimes in power? Us. Not the US, not just the Western world, but all of us who happily indulge in the world we live in today. It is more complicated of course. It is complicated. Are Islamic societies intolerant? Yes, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Who are their playmates? As for Iran, at least they are striving to translate the ideals of their understanding of Islam into practice. Have they got it right? Has anyone got it right?

    Have we quickly forgotten the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, or the recent alleged military strike against two oil tankers by German forces under the NATO command in Afghanistan that saw up to 70 civilians killed? Similar stories of civilians attending weddings being blown to bits (maybe a tad exaggerated), that have come perhaps too frequently that we shrug them off as collateral damage; military language to explain away non-combatant casualties. Iraq had a terrible dictator but today we still hear of civilian casualties from seemingly random roadside bombs and suicide bombs that one wonders, are there MANY tyrants today in Iraq and is this necessarily better?
    My point here is that I don’t see one system as necessarily better or worse rather they are about striving to improve. To argue as you do of a dichotomy; both the Islamic and secular model of governance afford space for public participation in both the legitimizing process and practice of governance. I feel that is what we need to develop. Iran, all said and done recognizes the centrality of public participation more than most ‘Islamic’ nations.

    Malaysia however is a different story – we are not a theocratic state. We are a state with a constitutional monarch where our traditions are British in origins. The debate over syariah here is very different from the one in the Middle-East or Iran. Here, we do not even have a system of participation, rather only the bureaucracy of an Islamic system inspired more from colonial rule. Let’s start with that first. Do we want a judicial instrument that obscures and makes exclusive its lawmaking processes? How are Malaysian Islamic laws made? Why are there differences between different states? Who or what agencies determine the legitimacy of Islamic interpretations? Is there avenue in the Malaysian model for free public participation (e.g. elections)?

    Having said this, I have to admit I am not an expert on syariah law in Malaysia (or anywhere else) just a layperson who feels it is about time we make the distinction with syariah; Malaysian syariah is unique to the colonial history and the bureaucracy that has shaped it. Malaysian syariah or any syariah is not automatically referring to a universal legal system (that the term syariah inspires in popular imagination) just because it is called syariah. Of course I could be wrong in my interpretation of your article, of syariah in general and the happenings in Malaysian syariah legal system. But I would be more the wiser if someone could help clarify my misconceptions.

  9. Imad says:

    I have to say that I am interested in the discussion of the comparison of secularism to Islamism, as opposed to saying “versus” which imples confrontation. I admit that I tire of the secular state vs Islamic state comparison. Why not have both? What am I talking about? Try reading this PDF article from Minaret of Freedom Institute:

    http://www.minaret.org/Secular%20Government.pdf

    Now to reply to some commentators here.

    Soondar, telling us to go to Mecca/Medina sounds too simplistic and borderline controversial to me. By telling me this, you are indicating that Islam is not the universal religion that I believe it to be. Does that mean that I don’t need to read the Qur’an ul Karim to know Islam? At least the Qur’an can be read in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Russia, Brazil or even Antarctica. Hopefully you’ll see what I’m trying to imply here.

    Ibnu Zaini, you seem to be a tragic person to me. What right do you have to tell anyone how true a Muslim they are? While I have to admit that from my reading of the Qur’an, you can’t reconcile homosexuality with Islamic theology, I would like to hear more about how they view Islam and their lifestyle, and they have as much right to speak about Isam and the Muslim communities as YOU do.

    Farouq, I personally don’t care at all to have some leader emulate Ataturk. I do think that he does fit in the category of secular fundamentalist. I just really hate these two polar extremities.

  10. Karcy says:

    I also think the arguments (in both the comments and the article) are simplistic and border on sweeping generalisations, though that may just be because the article is brief.

    The kind of secularism demanded of migrants in Europe and that which eventually killed Marwa is related to how Europeans relate to culture. Europeans are more rigid on the issue of national culture — this is the region of nation states, after all — and the expected behaviour of the migrant is to assimilate, i.e. to become European. Islamophobia in Europe is linked to the inability of the Muslim migrant population to assimilate and the ‘threat’ that their population will outnumber Europeans; a little similar to how Jews were viewed before.

    American Islamophobia is more drawn along the lines of religious perspectives than it is in Europe, so issues like Israel, terrorism, Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations etc., are more relevant to them.

  11. Anonymous Coward says:

    I’m mostly in favor of a secular state, simply because I do not want a nanny state. I’ve had serious discussions with people wanting the government to regulate the dress code of Muslims living in Malaysia. Instead of focusing on things like catching thieves or stopping actual crimes, these people would like our police to waste time and resources telling people what to wear.

    This is the sort of thing we have to contend with if Malaysia goes ever deeper into, for lack of a better word, Islamization. The concepts of privacy or personal choice do not exist to these people. It’s really hard to explain why letting the state dictate what you wear or how you worship is a bad idea.


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