Multi-Culturalism – How Can it be Wrong?

These must be worrying times for Malaysian citizens if an official from IKIM, a government think-tank dedicated to the task of disseminating Islam as a tolerant religion, can come out with an article entitled “Debunking Multiculturalism�? that appeared in the STAR (22/08/06).

This article is written in response to an article published in the STAR on Tuesday 22 August 2006. See “Debunking Multiculturalism” by Md Asham Ahmad from IKIM (Institute of Islamic Understanding). The article is also available in the official website of IKIM


These must be worrying times for Malaysian citizens if an official from IKIM, a government think-tank dedicated to the task of disseminating Islam as a tolerant religion, can come out with an article entitled “Debunking Multiculturalism” that appeared in the STAR (22/08/06).

Credit must be given to the writer, Md Asham Ahmad, for his forthrightness in arguing that Islam – rather than multiculturalism – be the framework for social policy in Malaysia. Nevertheless, it is evident that the writer’s forthrightness is not accompanied by accurate facts, given his skewed reading of Christian history.

Md Asham suggests that religious pluralism and multiculturalism is the outcome of a weak religion (Christianity) that does not stand comparison with Islam, given Islam’s strong relation with the State. I am always suspicious of mono-causal interpretations of history that purport to explain how the existing condition of a society arose from a particular ‘ism’. A more nuanced reading of the history of the rise of liberalism and religious liberty would take into account the multiplicity of factors including the new discoveries of Oriental civilizations in the European age of exploration, the power struggle between hegemonic states (Spain and France) and new nation-states in Germany and the Netherlands, the rise of the merchant class and independent trading cities (like Geneva) and the conflict between tradition and critique of the Enlightenment thinkers. Above all, multiculturalism, exemplified by toleration was the outcome of ‘religious’ wars that led to the treaty of The Peace of Westphalia (1648). Notably, the provisions for religious freedom were called articles of peace.

It should be of interest to note that the challenge of managing religious plurality (a fact rather than an ideology) is not a unique problem of Western Christianity. We see ongoing conflicts in Asia and Africa – such as in Sudan, India and Iraq – that cry out for equivalents of the historic Peace of Westphalia. It would do well for Md Asham to adopt a modest attitude of willingness to learn from the past rather than judge it with sarcasm, when it is evident that we Asians/Africans continue to be plagued by religious and cultural conflicts.

Md Asham suggests that non-Muslims are motivated by ideology when they commend multiculturalism as a valuable framework to promote social harmony. He writes, “Multiculturalism, as understood and propagated by its proponents in this country is not based on diversity, but rather it strives to debunk Islam as a socio-political order.” By using words like ‘hostility’ and ‘subversion’ he also suggests that non-Muslims are imbued with an adversarial attitude

The problem is, Md Asham has inverted the dynamics of rational debate in this country by suggesting that the non-Muslims’ call for multiculturalism is driven by an ideology inherently hostile to Islam. The reality is that our nation was a plural society at its inception in 1957 and more so in 1963 when Malaysia incorporated the many tribal communities living in East Malaysia. One plainly cannot deny the existing social condition (plurality) that needs to be addressed. Hence, the stress on multiculturalism as the best modus vivendi for developing a national identity that expresses unity in diversity and equality for all peoples regardless of their culture and religion.

Since concepts have different meanings in different contexts, it is the onus is on writers to define their terms in a fair and accurate manner. For example, Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) castigates western multiculturalism that leads to relativism and results in the demise of “solidarity in defense of the truth”. On the other hand, Malaysians and other Asians tend to describe multiculturalism as “the view that various cultures in a society merit equal respect and scholarly interests” cf. Dictionary of Cultural Literacy 1994). Such sensitivity to contextual meanings would have cautioned Md Asham against making the suggestion that supporters of multiculturalism are merely motivated by hostility towards Islam based on family, neighborhood and school.

Perhaps, Md Asham wrongly equates liberalism with libertarianism. Libertarianism is the view that individuals should be free to do whatever they wish so long as they do not infringe on other people’s freedom or property. However, Md Asham would be remiss if he tars political liberalism with a form of libertarianism that undermines social relationships; bearing in mind that liberalism has a range of meanings.

It should be noted that classical liberalism as expounded by John Locke describes the essential theses of liberalism in the following terms: that the people are the source of all political power, that government cannot be justified unless it possesses their free consent, that all governmental measures are to be judged by an active citizen body, that men of government is to help them when they require it, but not to run their lives for them, and finally the State must be resisted if it steps beyond its political authority.

More importantly, political liberalism and multiculturalism in the Malaysian context envision the flourishing of citizens based on the preservation of fundamental liberties from encroaching State authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism. Md Asham may find the theses objectionable, but a robust set of philosophical propositions demands careful and rational response rather than a debunking couched in loaded and emotive words.

Md Asham ends his article with a call for a polity that must be rooted in local history. But taking local history seriously must surely mean honoring the consensus on the specific form of secularism engraved in our Malaysian Constitution in 1957 and 1963. Unlike some places in the West secularism in Malaysia does not reject religion. It was the social consensus back in 1957 and 1963 that there should be no establishing of one religion above others in a multicultural, multireligious society like Malaysia. Secularism in Malaysian history as such commends a benign neutrality and benevolent support for religious plurality.

I find unacceptable Md Asham’s suggestion that, “It is through Malaysia, as an Islamic state, that other religions would thrive, and that we have better chance of fostering national unity based on a common religious worldview.”

Firstly, it is undeniable that religions are presently flourishing in Malaysia under the existing Constitutional arrangement. Secondly, national unity remains strong so long as State polity is based on overlapping consensus of diversity of religious worldviews (John Rawls). I write this to contrast Md Asham’s call for unity under a common religious worldview which suggests imposition of by a dominant religion. In short, Md Asham’s suggestion is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

In conclusion, even though Md Asham’s article in debunking multiculturalism may be a legitimate academic exercise, I reject his suggestion that multiculturalism as historically understood and practiced in Malaysia is incongruent with our local cultural aspiration.

Indeed, I wish to stress that open debate on public philosophy is itself testament to the robustness of our national Constitution that envisions the task of nation building to be inclusive and open to positive contribution from all citizens regardless of race, culture and religion. It is an affirmation of the politics of recognition, mutual respect and reciprocity.

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