SHAH ALAM, Oct 24 ― The debate over Malaysia’s Islamic nation status has been described as a “branding” quarrel by popular cleric Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who said a secular nation that is fair is better than an Islamic country that exploits religion.
The Federal Constitution is Malaysia’s supreme law but minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said this week that the country was never declared a secular nation; he stopped short, however, of calling it an Islamic state as declared by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“You can name the country as [an] Islamic country but you exploit Islam, for what? You name the country secular but give the people rights; that is better. The most important (thing) is the values carried. People like to exploit brands.
“However, I am not interested in terms; I am more interested with the content of a country,” the former Perlis mufti told The Malaysian Insider after the 15th Sinar Harian Wacana titled “Ulama’s Role, Advising Leaders (Peranan Ulama, Menasihati Pemimpin)” at the Karangkraf Complex yesterday.
“I ask from PAS especially, don’t fight about branding. We have to think whether social justice can be carried out in a multiracial country,” he said, talking about the Islamist party that has accused Umno of using a secular constitution inherited from the British colonial masters.
Repeated accusations from PAS led then-prime minister Dr Mahathir to announce in 2001 that Malaysia is an Islamic state, in his bid to regain support from the Malay community who had voted for the opposition in the 1999 general election.
Mohd Asri, who resumed teaching in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) after leaving his post as Perlis mufti, agreed that Malaysia was an Islamic state rather than secular.
“The definition of Islamic state is when the country is controlled by Muslims and at least part of the Islamic laws (Syariah laws) are implemented; that is enough.
“The strongest proof that Malaysia is an Islamic state (is) when we Muslims in Malaysia demand for Islam (to be) strengthened in the country,” said the scholar who ironically was arrested by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) in 2009 for allegedly being linked with spreading puritanical Wahabi teachings from Islam’s birthplace, Saudi Arabia.
Then-JAIS director Datuk Mohammed Khusrin Munawi said Mohd Asri’s arrest was for lecturing without approval and not for any other offence.
But Dr Mohd Asri pointed out that being Islamic did not mean forcing non-Muslims to comply with religious laws and practises.
“We cannot demand the non-Muslim to pray, we have to recognise he’s a Muslim first, then only we ask him to fast.
“When we ask our country to practise Islam, that means we recognise that it is basically Islamic,” he said.
Dr Mahathir claimed yesterday that Malaysia is “by definition” a Muslim country since it is acknowledged as such by the Muslim world.
“We don’t care about what these people say in order to make it a political issue,” he added, referring to the ongoing debate about whether Malaysia is a secular state.
The former PM also expressed his disappointment that the hudud issue was being politicised by those who are pushing for its implementation.
“(This kind of) hudud, which is used for politics, is not exactly hudud,” he stressed. “It is hudud used to give victory over one side.
“Pity the Muslim. If he steals, his hand will be chopped off. But his (non-Muslim) friend who steals together with him will only get two months in jail. Is that fair? That is not Islam.”
On Monday, Nazri said in Parliament that Malaysia was never declared or endorsed as a secular state, saying that the word “secular” was not found in the Federal Constitution.
Dr Mohd Asri said the issue of naming Malaysia as a secular or Islamic country frequently became polemic as general elections draw near.
“But we have to know countries don’t enter heaven or hell, (the ones) that enter heaven or hell are humans. So we have to correct not just the branding of the country only but what we have to correct is the contents of the country.
“A sign that a country is Islamic (is) when it truly fulfils the responsibilities of its rule to the rakyat.
“Leaders carry out their responsibilities, the people carry out their responsibilities. Where there’s justice, God’s syariat is there. No matter what you name the country.”
The debate over the country’s status continues as the 13th general election draw near, with the Barisan Nasional (BN) government’s mandate ending by April next year.
In Election 2008, BN lost its traditional two-thirds majority and the five states of Selangor, Perak, Pulau Pinang, Kedah dan Kelantan to federal opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR), a pact composed of PKR, DAP dan PAS.
Perak has since fallen back into BN’s fold after the defection of several lawmakers from PR.