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Overriding the religious state

Multifaith prayer
Zalman Kastel leading a multi-faith prayer

A POPULAR former state mufti has just been arrested by the Islamic religious authorities. A Muslim woman who drank alcohol must be whipped. Those who question the sentence on her must be silenced. The proposed relocation of a Hindu temple was met by a Muslim-led protest threatening bloodshed. Christians must not use the word “Allah“. These are, sadly, the headlines that contemporary Malaysians would associate with discussions on religion. 

And so, it was a humbling experience listening to Malaysia’s regional neighbours sharing their experiences at the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue, organised by the Australian government and held in Perth from 28 to 30 Oct 2009. For example, a plenary session, “Faith and education: preventing the radicalisation of vulnerable youth”, was led by none other than Indonesia. And Indonesia brought no less than the top leaders of its two biggest Muslim movements — Dr Sudibyo Markus of Muhammadiyah and Dr Ahmad Hasyim Muzadi of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

Muzadi said, “NU has more than 10,000 pesantren (religious boarding schools) and 40 million members in Indonesia.” This might sound like bragging, but the point must be placed within context — Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, and NU is the planet’s biggest Muslim organisation. And just what is NU’s stand on issues such as the Islamic state?

No to Islamic state


“When we teach Islamic law in the pesantren, we make sure it is cohesive with social realities. We do not make the Islamic state part of our formula,” Muzadi explained. “The national state is an umbrella for Islam and all religions. The national state is not formulated as an Islamic state.”

At so many points during Muzadi’s presentation, it was jarring that such a respected, learned Muslim leader — looking like a sweet Malay pak cik — rejected the idea of an Islamic state. What was more astounding was what Muhammadiyah’s Markus said.

Muhammadiyah runs no less than 200 universities and has approximately 30 million members in Indonesia, according to Markus.


“And there is a Muhammadiyah university called Universitas Muhammadiyah Kupang, which people abbreviate to UMK. But some people now say that UMK should stand for Universitas Muhammadiyah Kristian, because 70% of its students are Christian,” he joked, as though this were a good thing. In fact, Markus said that Indonesia would never turn into an Islamic state “because the agreement between NU and Muhammadiyah on this matter is final”. And so, if there are Indonesian Muslims who insist upon an Islamic state, they are certainly not from NU or Muhammadiyah, which are the mainstream Muslim organisations there.

To appreciate the full import of this, just imagine the presidents of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) and Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM) both saying that their organisations would never endorse an Islamic state in Malaysia. The thought seems ludicrous. One cannot be blamed for concluding that although Malaysia and Indonesia are geographical neighbours, they are from different planets.

Parallel universe

Pansy Wong
Pansy Wong
New Zealand, strangely, seemed closer to Malaysia in its approach to diversity. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the dialogue, Ethnic Affairs Minister Pansy Wong said, “Our model is beyond tolerance — we celebrate faith and ethnic diversity.”

Wong said that Chinese New Year, Aidilfitri and Deepavali are celebrated within the halls of New Zealand’s Parliament. She proudly rattled off the diversity in the country’s legislature — Members of Parliament included a Sikh, a Muslim, a Hindu, two Chinese and one Korean New Zealander.

On the surface, this is not something alien to Malaysia. We can even boast of celebrating diverse religious festivals throughout the nation, not just in Parliament.

Yet, a closer look at Wong’s position as a government minister might make New Zealand appear to operate in a parallel universe.

“The government realises it cannot force people to respect each other, but the government can make efforts to include as many people as possible in shared spaces,” she said.

“For example, the government creates occasions where the mainstream media gets to interact with ethnic and religious minorities,” she said. It was important, she stressed, for the media to understand that each ethnic or religious community was diverse in itself, and that no one individual or organisation could represent the entire community.

Anwarul Ghani
Anwarul Ghani

And Wong was supported by none other than the president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, Dr Anwarul Ghani.

“With the Muslim community, different voices are not necessarily a bad thing. Different interpretations are actually a good thing among Muslims,” he said, adding that his federation coordinates Muslims who are originally from more than 40 countries.

“Sometimes there are tensions among us, but we always return to the fact that New Zealand is our home,” he said.

The underlying principle

To be sure, not everything about the interfaith dialogue was perfect. For one thing, indigenous people were absent in country delegations, with the exception of New Zealand. As far as media coverage was concerned, the absence of Australian journalists throughout the dialogue was perplexing. And with regards to Malaysia, it was astounding to learn that this was the first time in the dialogue’s five-year history that Malaysia had sent seven delegates — previous dialogues saw participation from only one or two Malaysians.

But setting aside these flaws, the question still remains: can the experiences of countries like New Zealand and Indonesia work in the Malaysian context? A context in which Malaysians are so used to being forbidden from questioning certain religious prerogatives. Or where the words “interfaith commission“, “liberal” and “secular” have become dirty words, tantamount to insulting Islam?

Zalman Kastel
It could be that the New Zealand and Indonesian models are not right for Malaysia, and so should not be hastily transplanted here. Instead, maybe religious understanding could be enhanced using a principle outlined by Zalman Kastel, a Hasidic Jewish rabbi from Sydney.

“Truth is important, but we should also be tolerant of the steps people take in their journey towards becoming truthful.” Kastel talked about how he was filled with fear and discomfort at the beginning of his journey, when he first visited a mosque. But the rabbi journeyed on, and is now fast friends and colleagues with Sheikh Haisam Farache, and they run several interfaith workshops together.

But where are Malaysians at, though? Can we overcome our fears and discomforts and rise above the clamour for an Islamic state? Will the state facilitate genuine dialogue that is respectful of diversity, including within Islam? Unfortunately, at the rate things are going, Malaysia has a long way to go before it can catch up with Indonesia or New Zealand. favicon

Shanon Shah was selected and sponsored by the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as part of its International Media Visits Program, to cover the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue. Four other journalists were also selected, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

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4 Responses to “Overriding the religious state”

  1. Azizi Khan says:

    Great article as always Shannon.

    In my opinion, the average politician is not ready for an interfaith dialogue. When you have the likes of Zulkifli Noordin, Hishammuddin [Hussein], and Syed Hamid Albar frothing at the mouth “defending” Islam, there can exist no rationalism.

    To evolve Malaysian politics to a state where mature discussion about religion can be held, we must first purge the Parliament of racists and religious extremists. Political parties must suspend and expel these types of people. Then we can talk rationally.

    Add to this the fear of “losing out”. Understandably, for the average [person] on the street, especially the Malay [Malaysians], they feel that they become less “Islamic” by accepting and understanding other religions. Can you blame them, since every ulamak out there is fanning the sentiment that “infidels” must not be tolerated?

    Are the Muslims the only one to blame? What about the Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] who fear loss of identity by integrating with national schools? On one hand, they want to unite with all races; but on the other, with the “over-Islamisation” of national-level schools, they reject unity. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.

    We should not forget the mastermind of all these policies — [Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad] and his gang, who, for more than two decades, lay the foundation for these policies. You reap what you sow after all. The effect? Malaysia in this point in time is not ready to talk unity. Maybe in 10 to 15 years’ time. The children who start school today will be in their twenties then, and hopefully the racists would be dead and gone — then we can talk interfaith dialogue.

    For the moment, most people fear [the likes of] Zulkifli Noordin roughing up people with his lynch mob when you talk about interfaith dialogue.

  2. Hang Jebat says:

    Malaysia HAD its own successful model for diversity in faith and cultures which was premised on the separation of state and mosque. It flourished for about two decades until the 1980s when Dr M made the monumental error of co-opting one religion into politics and the State. The challenge for right-thinking Malaysians is how to put that genie back in the bottle now that it is out there wreaking havoc in our communities…

  3. dbctan says:

    I enjoyed your report and commentary, and affirm your enthusiasm for more interfaith dialogue. However it was your last sentence that struck me: “Unfortunately, at the rate things are going, Malaysia has a long way to go before it can catch up with Indonesia or New Zealand.”

    I don’t think there is any intention on the part of the powers that be in Malaysia to catch up — not with Indonesia or NZ. This is the tragedy. Sad.

  4. Farouq Omaro says:

    Azizi Khan,

    And don’t forget Ahmad Zahid Hamidi too!

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