Faith and Public Discourse in a Secular Democracy. Part 1
Dr. Kamarul Zaman Yusoff, a lecturer in political science has accused Ms. Hannah Yeoh, the Speaker of the Selangor Assembly of hypocrisy because she acknowledges her support from Christians when she entered politics. She also encourages young people to join politics with the goal of returning integrity, justice and fairness to governance in Malaysia. Kamarul further finds DAP guilty of prejudice against Islam since it readily participates in religious festivals like Wesak and Deepavali and Thaipusam while it champions a view of secular democracy which ‘excludes’ Islam. “Kamarul claims that for DAP, “separation of politics from religion should only be done if it is about Islamic matters. But if it involves other religions such as Christianity then they (DAP) are okay.” [See, Hannah Yeoh’s book more about personal than political growth – The MalaysianInsight 16/05/2017]
It is evident that Kamarul has maligned Hannah Yeoh and misunderstood DAP given that their political commitment is to a form of secular democracy that is enshrined in the National Constitution. More significantly, Kamarul’s accusation is surprising as we would have expected a lecturer in political science to display a nuanced understanding of the relationship between of religion and politics in a secular democracy like Malaysia. While Kamarul personally has no problem going beyond his duty as an academician to initiate political action against Hannah Yeoh, nevertheless he demands that politicians like Hannah Yeoh dichotomize their faith and personal convictions from social-political engagement.
Kamarul’s action is puzzling since as an academician he must understand that commitment to secular democracy does not necessitate erecting an impenetrable wall dividing religious faith from political commitment; nor is it possible to dichotomize these inseparable aspects of human thought and action. Rather, what is envisaged in secular democracy is that the state limits its jurisdiction to human affairs in the saeculum or temporal real. As such,
(1) “The state is independent of institutional religion or ecclesiastical control and, in turn, institutional religion is independent of state or political control. It is a state that is without jurisdiction over religious affairs, not because religious affairs are beneath the concerns of the state, but rather because religious concerns are viewed as being too high and too holy to be subject to the prevailing fallible will of civil authorities or to popular sovereignty.” [James E. Wood, “Apologia for Religious Human Rights” in Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective, vol. 1 ed. John Witte and Joan D van der Vyver (Martinus Nijhoff, 1996), 470.]
(2) The state in a secular democracy adopts religious neutrality that respects the integrity and equality of diverse religions of the nation, and where civil servants remain impartial as they implement public for the welfare of all citizens regardless of their religious identity.
Notice that neutrality for a state in secular democracy is a far cry from hostility towards religion. Indeed, a secular state should maintain benevolent neutrality towards all religions.
More fundamentally, secular democracy is premised on public reason where social-political discourse frames issues using terms that are intelligible and open to deliberation by any reasonable citizen, regardless of his or her religious or secular perspective. Furthermore, public policy is acceptable when it is justified on grounds of shared criteria of rationality. A public discourse that is rational and nondiscriminatory would encourage citizens of diverse religious beliefs and political convictions to engage in democratic deliberation to forge social consensus.
Secular democracy, as such, does not preclude citizens from bringing their distinctive religious perspective to public discourse. First, it is both unrealistic and unreasonable to require religious citizens to split the vital components of their personalities, precisely because the social-political engagement of these citizens springs from a mind-set that integrates their religious-social existence. Fundamental to secular democracy is the recognition of equal rights of persons regardless of their religious affiliation, and their unrestricted participation in public discourse. Second, the challenge and responsibility for religious citizens is to demonstrate how their religious faith goes beyond narrow sectarian interests to work for the welfare of all citizens. Third, Kamarul’s stricture is politically counter-productive as politicians would end up becoming surreptitious when they veil their religious beliefs. In contrast, a secular democracy and open society would encourage concerned citizens, public intellectuals and politicians to be transparent about their religious beliefs, so long as they are honest and respectful in the free exchange of ideas in public discourse.
However, realism would acknowledge that reaching consensus is not easy nor always possible. Participants in public discourse should accept the fact that their form of religious argument and reason may not be received as equally compelling to everyone. Nevertheless, a secular democracy that extends equal regard for all citizens requires that we listen respectfully even when we disagree with one another. That is to say, while participants may not compromise their intellectual integrity by pretending that there is equality of reasons in public discourse, nevertheless upholding equality of persons requires that they engage critically with the political reasoning offered by the people with whom they disagree with. Conversely, while proper respect must be accorded to one another in public discourse and political debate, nevertheless, participants in public discourse must be prepared to accept any challenge to their views precisely because genuine disagreements do arise when we take each other’s views seriously.
A healthy and robust public discourse in secular democracy would accept and critically consider the reasoning and argument from diverse religious traditions. We should cherish and not ignore epistemic and religious diversity. As Stephen Carter rightly reminds us that in public discourse, “What is needed, then, is a willingness to listen, not because the speaker has the right voice but because the speaker has the right to speak. Moreover, the willingness to listen must hold out the possibility that the speaker is saying something worth listening to; to do less is to trivialize the forces that shape the moral conviction…” [Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (Basic Books, 1993), p. 230-231.]
Perhaps, Kamarul as a fellow academic would do well to listen to the voice of reason exemplified by Stephen Carter. Rather than maligning Hannah Yeoh when she is transparent about her Christian belief contributes to the nurturing of good will among fellow citizens, Kamarul should cease and desist from intimidating Christians, and take up the challenge of demonstrating how his Islamic faith encourages Muslims to overcome narrow sectarian interests and work with fellow citizens of other faiths in the quest of building a peaceful and just Malaysia.
Faith and Public Discourse in a Secular Democracy. Part 2: “Common Life and Secular Reality”.