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Islamic Society ( 5 Apr 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Is Religious Freedom Out Of Reach?


By Ishmael Lim

April 2, 2015

The struggle for liberal democratic rights and religious freedom is seen as decadent and follows on the wings of a secular western way of thinking. This would be the religious conservative’s reaction to such freedoms expected in a fully functioning democracy. But what the devoutly religious person sees as liberal is just a state of normalcy to everyone else.

Freedom is a scarcity in any orthodox religious society. In this regard, all orthodox faiths are similar.

It is easier for a devout Muslim to live in a liberal westernised society than it would be for a liberal Muslim to live in a religiously conservative society. While the devoutly religious could expect to lead a life without interference in a liberal democracy, the liberal minded Muslim would have to tread cautiously in a conservative environment for fear of punishment.

Since time immemorial, blood has been spilled and all manner of atrocities committed in the name of religion. This is the justification. We see that it continues to this day because of the belief that the battle against evil takes place everywhere and will stop only at the end of time. It carried through much of the history of man. It is colliding on our shores in the here and now. In the verbal tradition of parables and verse, the ancient message is transmitting to the present from a time when storytellers were more prevalent than books.

The bows and arrows have been replaced by bullets and rifles. In place of horses and camels are now tanks and planes. The slaughter and torment in the name of all that is wholesome and good has become industrial in its efficiency. But the customary tool of choice still seems to be the blade. It’s a cultural thing.

With this moral certitude, the wielders of the sword of faith believe that the Hereafter is the real destination and the here and now merely a stepping stone to an eternal paradise. All logic and focus is turned to this end. There is a kinship in purpose if not in method when modern political parties quest on this ancient wave of history. The parallels are plain. This is the romance.

The end-game is still the same. However close one may believe it will ever get to being an Islamic Utopia, it is still merely wishful humans expressing the divine for the chance to carry the sword of authority in the land of the living. We really have no way of knowing what the Almighty has in store for each of us when we pass through the threshold to the afterlife. This is the mystery of faith.

Interpretation of divine will has been a source of conflict for millennia because human expression is so unreliable. Cultural context and other influences muddy and filter meanings and intent. The local clerical classes have made it too clear that only their views will apply and no one is to question. The non-Muslims who are neither in the Islamic equation in the here and now nor in the Hereafter would certainly seem to the religious right-wing to be impertinent to stick their noses in.

Pride vs Compassion

Even in the modern version played out in Malaysia, threats are used to back up the democratic process in the expression for an Islamic system. Like it or not, coercion has become synonymous with the rule of religious law. It brooks no challenges of any kind. It infers that authority is its right as an agency of the divine, making it beyond reproach. So it is little consolation that democratic processes are being used to supplant democracy with its own antithesis.

There is the belief that the transgression of an individual is the burden of the collective. This explains the overarching readiness to mete out harsh punitive measures for perceived sins while forgetting that mercy and forgiveness are a higher measure of spiritual advancement.

We have seen pride and ego being more pronounced than any sense of justice or compassion in recent cases where religious authorities have intervened to enforce their laws. They have only succeeded in making matters worse. Until compassion and mercy becomes second nature to them, there is the frightening possibility that more injustices are to come if their jurisdiction and power is expanded. If fear and loathing is what they wish to project, then they have succeeded admirably, but if it’s an even hand they had hoped to hold forth, then they have failed miserably.

Increasingly, the offer from Umno to support the Kelantan Syariah Amendments Bill looks to be a successful gambit to tempt PAS away from its Pakatan vows. PAS may end up paying the price for its roving eye. It might never get to collect from the Umno wink because there was never any substance to it. And the Pakatan spouses have their bags already packed and seem ready to leave. So PAS gave up a bird in hand for two in the bush.

Public discussion about Hudud is rare considering the nature of the subject. Pulpit preaching seems more in character as top PAS leaders would rather keep things in the dark with euphemisms like “don’t judge until you see it”. Party leaders are expected to push laws they haven’t yet seen for themselves and lieutenants are expected to sell the vehicle without knowing if the captain has a three or four wheeler in the garage. This is the incongruity of a clerical elite working within a democratic framework. This is not dark politics but simply being kept in the dark.

For the 12 million “Nons” in our midst, the fear is that the balancing act might just fail and they will fall through the trapdoor of further alienation in an already divided society. The belief that existing racial prejudice will be further inflamed with added religious prejudice makes their fear very understandable. As in Indonesia, the Nons in Malaysia can usually expect to be made the brunt of any verbal aggression or discontent when things don’t go right for the other 18 million.