Understanding liberalism and religious pluralism

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 05 Nov 2014

Let’s not forget that a liberal approach is the fourth goal of the Rukunegara, our National Charter.

THE fatwa issued by the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) and gazetted on July 31 declaring any person or group “professing liberalism or religious pluralism” as “deviants” raises some troubling questions. The group, Sisters in Islam, was specifically named in the fatwa.

Of course, a fatwa in Islamic jurisprudence is only an opinion and does not command mandatory force but when it is employed to castigate an individual or organisation as “deviant” it assumes a different connotation. The reckless use of the term “deviant” has created deep schisms and feuds and even caused bloodshed and violence in Muslim history. Only if a religious authority can provide incontrovertible proof that a person (or group) has veered from the fundamental teachings of Islam should it resort to such a description.

To establish that one has become a deviant through alleged adherence to “liberalism” or “religious pluralism”, the authority concerned has to show convincingly how these two ideas contravene the essence of Islam. To start with, MAIS must be aware that the term “liberal” appears in the fourth goal of the Rukunegara, our National Charter. It says that the goal is to ensure “a liberal approach to her (Malaysia’s) rich and diverse cultural traditions.” In its description of this goal, the Rukunegara speaks of a society that is “free to choose religion, custom and culture of their own in line with the interests of national unity.”

It is obvious that the Rukunegara regards “freedom” and the “right to choose” as essential to a liberal approach. Freedom and the right to choose as values are in line with Islam as long as their exercise does not contravene the essence of faith. Indeed, the Rukunegara as a whole, in both its goals and principles – as pointed by the late Islamic scholar, Ustaz Abu Bakar Hamzah – reflects the spirit of Islam.

There are other values associated with “liberalism” such as freedom of expression, free and fair elections and the right to private property which are also integral to Islam. True, extreme individualism and the untrammelled accumulation of wealth which are also sometimes defended in the name of liberalism has no place in Islamic Thought.

If these aspects of liberalism are the reasons for MAIS’ unhappiness with certain groups and individuals, it should say so and provide evidence to show that they have been propagating such ideas. MAIS should enter into a dialogue with them and convince such advocates of liberalism that their views create more harm than good to society. That is the solution, not branding them as “deviants” and banning their writings and activities.

Turning to religious pluralism, the concept has different meanings. Many Islamic scholars equate religious pluralism with religious diversity.

For them the harmonious co-existence of the followers of different religions within a specific setting would be an example of religious pluralism at work. They also recognise that while conceptions of the Transcendent or God differ from religion to religion and there are unique and distinctive practices associated with the various faith communities, there are also certain values and principles that they share in common.

Living in harmony with nature and the environment, protecting the integrity of the family as the basic unit of society, respecting one’s elders, ensuring that leadership is virtuous and adhering to moral precepts in economic activities, would be some of the values and principles that are embodied in all religious philosophies. Accepting similarities at one level while acknowledging differences in other spheres is what defines religious pluralism.

These notions of religious pluralism are more than compatible with Islamic teachings. That there are different religions and moral codes is a reality that the Quran accepts (109:6).

Knowing one another in the midst of this diversity is also a Quranic principle (49:13). Indeed, Allah had deliberately created such a diverse human family to see how we would treat one another, which the Quran regards as a test of our spirituality. (5:48).

Why then is MAIS uneasy about religious pluralism? Perhaps MAIS does not view religious pluralism through the same lens as many of us.

From past pronouncements, MAIS, like a number of other Islamic groups and individuals in Malaysia, tends to highlight a particular interpretation of religious pluralism that regards mutually exclusive ultimate truth claims in different religions as equally valid. Of course, for the overwhelming majority of Muslims this is not acceptable.

Tawhid (The Oneness of God) in Islam and the Trinity in Christianity cannot both be “equally valid”. Likewise, reward and punishment on the Day of Judgment in Christianity and Karma in Hinduism cannot both be equally valid.

If religious pluralism means accepting the exclusive truth claim contained in each and every religion as valid, most people would reject religious pluralism. There is no reason why MAIS should equate religious pluralism with an interpretation that has so little support among religious adherents of whatever hue. MAIS should not use this minority interpretation of religious pluralism to label any group or individual as “deviant.”

It is not just MAIS. Some of the highest office-holders in Malaysia have also been equating religious pluralism with this interpretation, forgetting that there are other more popularly accepted interpretations of religious pluralism compatible with Islam and all other religions. By rejecting religious pluralism because of this interpretation, they have unwittingly given the impression to people everywhere that Malaysia does not accept religious diversity.

This has tarnished our image and sullied our reputation as a nation, when in reality Malaysia celebrates religious diversity as few other nations do. This is why it is imperative that religious authorities and political personalities cease to interpret religious pluralism as the acceptance of the truth claim in every religion and instead view it as the acknowledgement of religious diversity – which is what Malaysia is all about.

> Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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