Do secular laws benefit Muslims?
8 Sep 09 : 8.00AM
By Shanon Shah
"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
AishahIn 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
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.
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
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
"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"
"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
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 SimmonsGwendolyn, 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?
The Nut Graph needs your support
8 Sep 09 : 10.56AM
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.
Wan Adli Posted:
8 Sep 09 : 1.29PM
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.
Posted: 8 Sep 09 : 2.22PM
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.
Posted: 8 Sep 09 : 3.38PM
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.
Farouq Omaro Posted:
8 Sep 09 : 9.32PM
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!
9 Sep 09 : 11.19AM
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,
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.
uncle husim Posted:
9 Sep 09 : 4.50PM
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..
9 Sep 09 : 8.13PM
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
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.