Debunking Multiculturalism and Secularism – A Rejoinder

I have been honored to receive two replies to my article “Multiculturalism – How Can it be Wrong?�? published in the STAR (25/08/2006), which was in fact a response to an an earlier article “Debunking Multiculturalism” written by Md Asham Ahmad from IKIM (STAR 22/08/06).

Due to the constraint of time, I shall presently only give a brief response to a few issues raised by Md Asham Ahmad and Marzuki Mohamad in their responses to my article.

Debunking Multiculturalism and Secularism – A Rejoinder
By Ng Kam Weng

I have been honored to receive two replies to my article “Multiculturalism – How Can it be Wrong?” published in the STAR (25/08/2006), which was in fact a response to an an earlier article “Debunking Multiculturalism” written by Md Asham Ahmad from IKIM (STAR 22/08/06).

Due to the constraint of time, I shall presently only give a brief response to a few issues raised by Md Asham Ahmad and Marzuki Mohamad in their responses to my article. However, in the long term I think it is more fruitful to offer in-depth reflections of the issues related to multiculturalism and politics of recognition. Hence, I shall in due time, post papers such as: Imagined communities and invention of politics in Malaysia; Islamic institutions in British Malaya; Modern social contract theories and consent in politics; Myths and realities of secularization and Christianity; multi-cultural citizenship; the social-legal contract of 1957 and 1963 with excerpts from original documents, etc.

Let me now address some of the issues raised by Mazuki Mohamad and Md Asham Ahmad respectively.

Response to “Nothing Wrong with Multiculturalism?” by Marzuki Mohamad. The article was also published in Malaysiakini as “Mutliculturalism: There is something wrong.”

Marzuki’s article has the virtue of trying to set the discussion in a larger historical context. I appreciate his avoidance of polemical rhetoric. However, I respectfully disagree with him on how we should receive the National Cultural Policy.

1) The much criticised National Cultural Policy introduced in 1971, while giving prominence to the indigenous culture, seemed to be accommodative to the cultures of distinct ethnic communities as well. The National Cultural Congress which formulated the policy recognised the centrality of the Malay culture and Islam as defining elements of the national culture, but also accepted as part of the national culture the elements of Chinese, Indian, Arab, western and other cultures, as long as they are consistent with the Federal Constitution, the Rukunegara, national interests, universal moral values and spiritual values of Islam as the state religion. In this sense, the National Cultural Policy was not a full-fledge[sic] monocultural policy aimed at assimilating ethnic minorities into the indigenous majority.

Response: The National Cultural Congress can hardly be said to be ‘national’ in its scope. The fact is, only three out of fifty-two of the papers presented were written by non-Malay. This gives rise to the perception that a handful of people who are not seen to be genuine representatives of the other communities were being co-opted to lend legitimacy to a policy that is then imposed on other communities. It is regrettable the whole exercise of framing a national policy disregarded the need for legitimacy that comes only when a policy has been debated and passed by Parliament.

Since the Congress went ahead without regard for meaningful input from the other cultural communities, there is no reason why the declared National Cultural Policy should be binding on the other communities. In the absence of proper dialogue and input, there is no reason why the other cultural communities should dutifully submit to a unilateral declaration.

Marzuki assures us that the National Cultural Policy is not a full-fledged monocultural policy. Nevertheless, implementation of the policy has resulted in the marginalization of non-Malay cultures, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. One wonders if the marginalization is not a preliminary step towards eventual assimilation. The situation can only worsen when religion is also thrown in.

2) To the mainstream sections within the Muslim community, however, the promotion of absolute right to religious freedom, which includes Muslims’ right to religious conversion, is said to impinge on the sanctity of the Muslim faith and the constitutional protection that the religion enjoys. . . It [multiculturalism] can be wrong, like monoculturalism as well, if it is pushed too far. At worst, it can be a highly divisive issue. In the present debate, questioning the very fundamental aspects of the Islamic faith, which the Muslims hold very dearly, in the name of promoting multiculturalism, is way off limits.

Response: Marzuki perceives the call for multiculturalism as promoting “the absolute right to religious freedom which includes Muslims’ right to religious conversion” – a position he regards as unacceptable.

As far as the issue of religious freedom is concerned, I will not compromise in exercising my religious freedom (to profess, to practice and to propagate my faith). However, with regard to issue of religious freedom for Muslims, meaning the freedom to practise Islam in the way they choose rather than in accordance with state-sanctioned precepts and doctrines, I think it is up to the Muslim community to initiate discussions and settle the matter for itself. Of course, some human rights activists may disagree with me here.

The point, however, is that once a person has made a personal choice to embrace a religion where he had none before, or leave his former religion in order to profess an practice another religion, it goes against reason to demand that the person be bound to continue to profess and practice the religion he no longer believes in, in the name of the sanctity of that religion. It is not surprising for a dominant religion to claim such authority to hold on to its former adherents, all the more so where it claims to have constitutionally entrenched protection. However, such a claim is open to dispute.

I note that some local Muslim scholars have taken the commendable step of initiating a debate on the meaning and scope of civil liberties, and sincerely hope for the day when we can affirm commonality in our approach to religious freedom.

On the other hand, it would be naïve to assume that debates on social policy can be pursued by communities hermetically sealed from one another. It is unavoidable that comparisons will be made and in the spirit of good will, some interlocutors may even suggest that other communities adopt what they deem to be good policies that promote religious freedom. It surprises me that some leaders from the Malay community, despite the unchallenged political position of the Malay community, should be so defensive when they overhear debates in matters of religious freedom.

Lastly, I want to stress that talk on multiculturalism is not about contending for the right of Muslims to leave their original religion. Multiculturalism is concerned about granting equal recognition and validity to diverse communities in the country.

Marzuki tries to be even handed in pointing out that both multiculturalism and monoculturalism can be wrong if pushed too far. The question here is what kind of multiculturalism is acceptable to him?

Nevertheless, I want to register my appreciation for his call for moderation when he writes,

It is wise therefore for the actors in the current debate to deal with the issue in the most delicate way possible. No one can gainsay that living in a deeply plural society entails high level of tolerance and moderation on the part of its constituents. In such a society, understanding each other’s culture and religion, and respecting the differences, are key factors to maintaining peaceful co-existence between the distinct ethnic, religious and cultural communities.


Response to “Debunking Secularism” by Md. Asham bin Ahmad.

The article was also published in Malay in Utusan Malaysia (22 Sept 2006) as “Menyanggah sekularisme sebagai pandangan hidup.”

1) Kam Weng’s disagreement rests upon his refusal to accept the dominance of Islam in this country. Hence, instead of Islam, he proposes secularism, which is an alien ideology altogether.

Response: I applaud Md Asham for his forthrightness –his writing is clearly premised on the need for non-Muslims to accept the dominance of Islam. At least this statement confirms that I read him correctly when I rejected his earlier call for a common religious worldview centered around a religion.

But, there is no evidence that the Federal Constitution assigned dominance to Islam when it was first framed by the Founding Fathers of this nation. Indeed, such a proposal would have been rejected as out of place, given the presumption of democracy as the framework for the new nation at the time of its inception. It is contrary to the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation demonstrated by the Founding Fathers that convinced the British that the various cultural communities were mature enough to live together in an independent nation. Moreover, I would like to ask Md Asham, when, if ever, did the non-Muslim community accept the dominance of Islam, and if it did not, is he now suggesting that Islam should be made dominant in national polity in the future?

2) It is a gross injustice for Kam Weng to point out 1957 as the first day of Malaysian history, and for him to give the idea that on that very first day all Malaysians would have embraced secularism!

Response: The historical and historic documents (The Reid Commission, the White Paper on constitutional amendments and the Cobbold Commission) show that the Founding Fathers – both in 1957 and 1963—regarded the establishment of Malaya (in 1957) as a sovereign independent nation, and later Malaysia (in 1963) as a secular polity founded upon a Constitution which is secular in intent. For a start it needs to be pointed out that Article 3 of the Constitution which provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation was included in response to the Memorandum of the Alliance Party to the Reid Commission. An extract of the Memorandum provides useful legislative historical context as well as the underlying meaning of the Article. The extract states that “the observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religions and shall not imply that the state is not a secular State”. The double negatives make a positive assertion that the independent Malaya to be formed was at its inception to be a secular state founded upon a secular constitution. If this is denied by nay-sayers then they should at least give due regard a pertinent statement in the White Paper on the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (Legislative Council Paper No. 41 of 1957) tabled in the Legislative Council. This Paper reaffirmed the continuance of the secular basis of the Federation notwithstanding the provision that Islam is the religion of the Federation, in the following terms: “There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State…”

The next defining moment in the history of our nation was the formation of Malaysia in 1963. This event was preceded by deliberations of the Cobbold Commission (1963). The Cobbold Commission noted the reservations, and even outright opposition, of the non-Muslim Communities of the two territories, Sarawak and Sabah, to a provision which makes Islam the religion of the Federation. Referring to the opposition to the name “Malaysia” the Cobbold Commission noted that such “opposition stems from the same cause as the anxieties about Religion, Language and the Head of Federation, . . .They all reflect the fears held by the non-Malays and non-Muslims that the effect of Malaysia will be to put them in a position inferior to that of the Malays and Muslims.”

Contrary to the views of the Chairman and two other non-Malayan members of the Commission, the two Malayan members of the Commission were of the opinion that taking into account the concerns expressed, Islam should nevertheless be the national religion for the Federation. They carefully made the point, however, “the proposal in no way jeopardizes freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect would be secular.” The position proposed by the Malayan members prevailed when the IGC (Inter-Governmental Committee, 1962) met, but the point is, the legislative historical context of the deliberations leading to the adoption of Article 11 (on religious liberty) must surely confirm the idea and proposition that the Federal Constitution was secular from the very first day of the formation of Malaya/Malaysia.

It must be noted, however, that having stressed its primary intent, that the same Constitution retains the phrase “Islam is the Religion of the Federation” (this was, later to mean giving Islam an official role in public ceremonies).

In this regard, it is incorrect to make a dichotomy between the secular and religious in the Constitution. I think the term modified-secular’ (but not modified-religious’) accurately describes the nature of the Constitution, since the first word used to describe the Constitution is that it is secular and then, secondarily concessions be given to the role of religion.

3) In Kam Weng’s case he boldly asserts that a secular worldview be the basis of national unity, instead of (my proposal) a common religious worldview, because the latter, according to him, suggests an imposition by a dominant religion (namely Islam).

Response: Md Asham fails to distinguish the difference between acknowledging an indisputable historical fact that the Constitution is secular in regulating inter-religious affairs and accepting secularism as a worldview or ideology. The adoption of a modified-secular’ framework for the Constitution to manage harmony between various religions is based on a political concept of fairness. In the words of John Rawls, “A political conception of justice is justified by reference to political values and should not be pressed as part of a more ‘comprehensive’ moral, religious, or philosophical doctrine.” Based on this distinction, Md Asham is mistaken in suggesting that I am pushing for secularism as a comprehensive ideology/worldview. It would help if Md Asham understands that one can uphold a secular framework for the Constitution without having to commit oneself to the ideology of secularism.

I have heard some Muslims argue that they cannot adopt such an approach towards framing political policy since Islam, unlike other religions, is a comprehensive way of life. In this matter I can only say – give credit where credit is due. The fact is that all religions (especially the major religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism) are complete ways of life. The difference is that leaders from the various religions, at least in the case of Malaya/Malaysia, have taken the way of overlapping consensus that requires one to refrain from insisting that public life must cater for one’s own comprehensive religious demands.

Perhaps it is precisely because Md Asham fails to make the distinction between political conception of justice and comprehensive worldview that he is unwilling or unable to consider working towards political compromise. Not surprisingly, he requires others to accept the dominance of Islam.

4) And it is not at all surprising for a Christian Theologian today to defend secularism. It only reminds us of some familiar names like Harvey Cox, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and many others.

Response: Md Asham is plainly wrong about my worldview. I am a religious person. Specifically, I am an orthodox, Evangelical theologian. I can’t decide whether to be dismayed or amused to find Md Asham lumping me with theologians like Harvey Cox (whose discussion is passé) and Paul Tillich. For that matter, anyone with a basic knowledge of the history of theology would be puzzled why Md Asham has put Tillich and Barth together since the two theologians were considered as polar opposites in the 1970s.

It might interest Md Asham to know that Harvey Cox has long abandoned his talk about the secular city, admitting in a recent interview that he wrote a book whose “argument is nothing if not sweeping.” He also admitted that looking back, “he wondered how he could have been so hyperbolic.” His later book Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality possibly gives a more accurate indication of the vibrant future of Christianity in shaping religion in the 21st century.

In any case, Md Asham seems to operate with an either-or approach, i.e., either religion (Islam) or secularism. In contrast, I am calling for an approach that recognizes that there are various meanings to secularism, that a polity that is modified-secular need not be construed as hostile to religion. Indeed, the concept of a secular state was historically understood to mean a state that adopts neutrality in matters of religion. The precise lesson one must learn from the Peace of Westphalia and subsequent historical developments is that peace will only reign when we recognize that the state must be neutral for religious pluralism to exist (again as a political reality rather than a comprehensive theological framework, ala John Hicks and others). This is an alternative to Md Asham’s dilemma. Hopefully, recognition that there is a third alternative would caution critics who suggest that supporters of our (modified) secular Constitution are not necessarily anti-religious.
5) I think he is clearly wrong because our history, to me, goes back hundreds of years before 1957.

Response: Of course, discussion on public issues needs to take into account our local history. The question is whether Md Asham’s reading of and appeal to history is correct. Then again, his selective appeal to history plainly ignores the fact that national history must be responsive to new social developments. Like it or not, our nation, like most nations in the globalized world, have become multicultural (a reality that cannot be dismissed nonchalantly or wished away) and this was affirmed as such in 1957 and in 1963. It is telling that Md Asham ignores the formation of Malaysia that includes Sarawak and Sabah, which are indisputably multicultural.

Is Md Asham saying that Islam should be dominant now because it was once dominant? It is true that Islam was dominant in the early history of Malacca. It should be pointed out that Malacca was a cosmopolitan port city that practiced an open and accommodating form of Islam which is a salutary contrast to current calls for a Shariah Islamic State. Later, the British colonial government accepted the Sultans as the head of Islam in their respective states. But it was never the case that anybody accepted (or even imagined) that Islam in principle be applied to regulate the affairs of the non-Muslim communities.

Most important of all, the Malay states remained as discrete entities under a colonial regime. Malaya only became an independent nation-state – and a multi-cultural nation at that – in 1957 and 1963. In other words, whatever the past, the priority and prominence should be given to what was universally agreed at the decisive moment of the birthing of our nation.

Admittedly, the project of nation-building includes continuities and discontinuities. That is why the Federal Constitution includes the clause that “Islam is the religion of the Federation” (understood to mean for the purpose of official ceremonies), and that Sultans be heads of Islam in the states. Still, the claim that Islamic law was the basic law in historical Malaya is itself contestable. Regardless, it is a matter of historical integrity to acknowledge that the Social-Legal Contract embodied in the Constitution never envisaged the dominance of Islam, much less the application of Islamic law on non-Muslims.

Appealing to some allegedly long and contestable history just won’t do. Just for the sake of argument, if I were to apply Md Asham’s premise at random, it would logically lead to dubious conclusions like – Java should be restructured to reestablish Hindu dominance and Muslims in India should accept the dominance of the Hindutva ideology of the BJP since undeniably Hinduism was dominant for millennia before the Hindus were subjugated and partially colonized by Islam. I am sure the Md Asham would reject these suggestions. But that would only expose the fallacy of his strategy of selective appeal to history.

Given the ambiguity and contestability facing any historical interpretation, I suggest that historical arguments must be grounded on a deeper theory of justice. The two criteria of history and justice must work together, but prioritizing justice would mean citizens may appeal to history only to rectify disadvantage and not to demand dominance.

6) The church, though not totally obliterated, was gradually loosing [sic] control over public affairs.

There is widespread recognition by the theologians that their major task now is to justify Christianity in this world since the central axis of religious concern has shifted from matters of ultimate salvation (heaven and hell) to questions of the meaning, necessity, or usefulness of religion relative to this life.

Response: Md Asham’s view on the history of secularization and Christianity represents a stereotype that is typical of Muslim writers – that secularism dealt a fatal blow to Christianity. I reject his caricature of Christianity capitulating to secularization as a desperate expedient to remain relevant to the worldly concerns of an unbelieving world. Md Asham’s claim that Christianity is declining because of secularization is inaccurate. On the contrary, the media and some secular theologians have increasingly voiced alarm that the Religious Right and Evangelicals have hijacked political power in the USA. Likewise, the growth of Christianity in the Third World has been dramatic. If I may borrow Mark Twain, “The report on my death [in the present discussion, Christianity] was an exaggeration.”

Maybe Md Asham would be less condescending with his remarks on Christianity if he goes beyond indulging in Schadenfreude and takes a closer look at how Islam is also threatened by the same destructive forces today.

In fact, secularization is merely a surface symptom of more important forces of Modernity. That is to say, one needs to go beyond labeling social processes like secularization and include sociological analysis (exemplified by Peter Berger, Steve Bruce, Bryan Wilson, Robert Wuthnow and Rodney Stark) to make a nuanced (my emphasis) judgment of the same forces that are rupturing all modern societies. I will post more in-depth articles on Modernity and Religion later.

7) On the historic Peace of Westphalia
To me that is plain eurocentrism; a skewed reading of contemporary events from someone who believes that Western society is the most developed and refined of all human societies. The rest of the world, being left behind in the predetermined evolutionary process, cannot avoid experiencing what the West had experienced before. Hence, their conclusion is always instructive for them!

The thrust of my argument lies in what I consider a historical fact, that “secularism” as an ideology and “secularization” as a process is a phenomenon which is relevant only to Western culture and civilization; with Christianity being one of the key elements. This time around let the readers themselves judge whether my reading of Christian history is “skewed”, as Kam Weng accuses.

Response: Md Asham declares that historical examples from the West have no relevance. Does this mean that he also rejects democracy as an imposition of an alien ideology? By the same token, would not acceptance of a religion and ideology that originated from the Middle East amount equally to the acceptance of an alien ideology?

To Md Asham, the suggestion that we can learn something from Western history “is plain eurocentrism; a skewed reading of contemporary events from someone who believes that Western society is the most developed and refined of all human societies. The rest of the world, being left behind in the predetermined evolutionary process, cannot avoid experiencing what the West had experienced before”.

It seems to me all world history is relevant because we all share a common humanity; the virtue of self-critique is possibly helped when we take note of concrete historical examples that provide similarities and contrasts in social analysis. I don’t know why such a self-critique is seen as accepting the dubious suggestion of an evolutionary view of social development that must necessarily follow the path trod by Western society. At best, I take Md Asham’s rhetoric to be a red herring or a diversion that avoids serious argument. At worse, it is a ploy of argumentum ad hominem to tar and feather people who disagree with him with loaded words like Eurocentricism and colonized mentality. I can imagine people returning his compliments with words like Arabo-centric and hegemonic advocate, but I think such a reaction is equally unhelpful.

8) My idea of a common religious worldview which rests upon common moral and ethical principles, I believe, is not only very pluralistic and tolerant, but also practical.

I just can’t make sense of this assertion. How can one come up with a common religious worldview (read, under the hegemony/dominance of Islam) that is very pluralistic and tolerant?

In any case, I don’t want my religion to be tolerated. Dhimmis were tolerated and were subjected to all kinds of unfair policies, including having to pay Jizyah and being banned or restricted from practicing religion in public. No, in a democratic society, we should go beyond talk of tolerance and practice nothing less that equal respect and recognition of all citizens, as indeed what is in fact provided for in our Federal Constitution.


Readers interested to follow-up with more documentation on the Constitution can read the article found in the Resource Materials section of Kairos Research Centre Website “Does the Federal Constitution Support an Islamic or Secular State?” [PDF 222KB]

8 thoughts on “Debunking Multiculturalism and Secularism – A Rejoinder”

  1. Great stuffs.. Will link up to your article.

    I had a laugh when the fella mistakenly associate you with a paul tillich, harvey cox etc.

    “Eurocentricism and colonized mentality” eh? 🙂 Like your rejoinder “all world history is relevant because we all share a common humanity” (which is certainly applicable in theological arena as well)

    But disturbing to see such ethnocentrism in public discourse in multicultural Malaysia.

  2. Kam Weng,

    Jolly good, well reasoned responses to Mazuki Mohamad and Md Asham Ahmad\’s comments.

    BTW are your responses published anyway or disseminated to the members of the Malaysian church in general?

    What are your views on transculturalism?


  3. Excellent clarifications and rebuttal of the 2 Muslims’ rejoinders and views, which were sadly narrow and extremely limited in scope.

    This Krisis and Praxis blog never ceases to enlighten the open mind and teachable spirit, may others learn and benefit from emulating your example.

    I thoroughly understood, enjoyed and fully support the logic and reasonableness of your rebuttal to Asham’s feeble reply, keep up the good work!


  4. To ‘accept Islamic dominance’ by non-Muslims is simply to become Dhimmis and exhibit the dhimmitude that they would like to demand from non-Muslims!

    In this day and age, enlightened peoples should all reject and exert their energies to repudiating this chauvinistic and even imperialistic ‘world-view’ and never acqueisce to such a stone-age mentality propogated by Islam…

    It is clearly and simply another form of colonialism that radical fundamentlistic muslims want to enforce over non-muslim peoples, this time with self-claimed ‘divine sanction’. This is very dangerous and must be exposed and engaged with vigorously at all levels indeed.

    Regards and excellent work, KrisisPraxis.

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