Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Of Allah, Anwar and False Consciousness - Part II

In my previous posting, I argued that the brand of politics that Anwar is espousing now can only survive on three main pretexts, i.e. : (i) promoting unbridled human rights and freedom; (ii) sheer disregard of ethnicity and religion as the main marker of group identity and solidarity; and (iii) full acceptance of western secularism.

These three main pretexts underpin Anwar’s new political “ideology” that is supposed to drive his political ambition. Anwar portrays himself and the conglomeration of opposition political parties that he leads – i.e. Pakatan Rakyat - as defender of democracy and human rights; that the PR heralds a new vision of non-racial, free and united Malaysia; and that it respects individual rights to freedom of religion, conscience and belief.

Against the backdrop of this ideological construct, Anwar stepped up his attack on the “old” religious and race-based political ideology. First, he ridicules the concept of “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay Supremacy) in favour of “Ketuanan Rakyat” (People’s Supremacy). It is unclear what Anwar really means by “Ketuanan Rakyat”. Does he mean “Kedaulatan Rakyat” (People’s Sovereignty or Popular Sovereignty) – i.e. definitive decision making power rests in the hands of the people - or total rejection of the special position of the Malays, which may not necessarily be contradictory with the concept of people’s sovereignty? However, as Anwar uses “Ketuanan Rakyat” as an antithesis to “Ketuanan Melayu”, the answer to this question must be total rejection of “Ketuanan Melayu” and, impliedly, any view that relates the Malays with any kind of special position they may enjoy as the sons of the soil.

Second, to solidify his new ideological construct, Anwar finds a new brand of Islam that fits neatly into the brand of new politics that he is espousing. This new brand of Islam is essentially different from the canons of religion that he used to propagate when he was the President of ABIM. That “old” brand of Islam, which stresses the supremacy of Islam over and above anything else, can no longer serve as the main catalyst of political change that Anwar expects to materialize.

So, what is the brand of Islam that Anwar is espousing now?

I believe that the brand of Islam espoused by Anwar now is akin to what American anthropologist Professor Robert Hefner identifies as “Civil Islam”. This brand of Islam promotes the privatization of religion – i.e. religion must be confined to the realm of one’s private life and never to enter the public sphere – as the main condition for the nurturing of democratic culture in Muslim societies.

Under this brand of Islam, the Muslims must regard Islam as just one of the many religions that co-exist in the material world, without any claim to its supremacy whether in private or public life. Gone were the days when Islam is regarded as the most supreme religion and no other religion is more supreme than Islam (Islam ya’lu wa la yu’la ‘alaih). Simply put, if Muslims expect liberal democracy to flourish in their society, they must accept the fundamentals of western secularism without exception. Anything less than this is unacceptable.

I believe that Anwar’s recent views on Islam are identical with this brand of Islam. One of them is his criticism against the Federal Court decision in Lina Joy’s case. In an interview with foreign media some time ago, Anwar said that the Federal Court was wrong in not allowing Lina Joy’s application to change her religion without first obtaining a certificate from the Shari’ah court. This, Anwar maintained, is as a blatant encroachment of her right to freedom of religion and conscience. The interview is available on the Youtube.

This criticism runs counter with the view held by a majority of Muslims, including Anwar’s young brothers in ABIM who spearheaded the campaign against Lina Joy’s application. To these Muslims, Lina Joy’s action is tantamount to apostasy, nothing more and nothing less. This is certainly not a Right but a grave sin in Islam.

Furthermore, in a speech he delivered in Perth last year, Anwar even interpreted preservation of religion, which is one of the main objectives of religion (Maqasid Al-Shari’ah) developed by Imam Al-Shatibi, as freedom of religion. Understood in its western liberal context, freedom of religion also entails freedom to change one’s religion and freedom not to practice any religion at all. Anything less than this is undemocratic and uncivilized.

Then came the Allah controversy. This is an explosive issue that warrants Anwar’s response as the leader of the opposition coalition. His stand is the policy of the coalition on the matter of religion. Again, as the leader of the opposition coalition, he must respond to this issue in such a way that it fits neatly not only into the brand of Islam he is promoting, but also the brand of politics that the opposition is espousing.

Naturally, it is beyond comprehension to expect Anwar to say that Muslims have exclusive right to use the word Allah. Saying this is tantamount to deconstructing the pillars of the “new ideology” that he is constructing.

First, it negates the notion of unbridled human rights and freedoms that form the basis of his ideological construct. Confining the right to use the word Allah to Muslims only encroaches upon the right of non-Muslims to use the same word, regardless of whether the usage is theologically correct or incorrect. After all, as Civil Islam entails, religion is a matter of one’s private life.

Second, promoting the exclusivity of Muslims in using the word Allah confirms religion and to certain extent ethnicity as the main marker of group identity and solidarity. In this regard, maintaining that the word Allah can only be used by Muslims, a vast majority of them are Malays, emboldens Muslim’s identification with race and religion, which negates the notion of non-racial politics that Anwar himself is trying very hard to promote.

Third, if Anwar is to say that only Muslims can use the word Allah, he will eventually have to concede that the government has the authority to restrict the right of the Herald’s editor to use the word Allah in the weekly publication. This certainly militates against the notion of privatization of religion - the banning of religion from the public sphere and its retreat into the realm of individual’s privacy – that forms the third pillar of Anwar’s ideological construct.

This is something that Anwar must avoid at all cost if he wishes to drive his political ambition on the strength of the new brand of politics. However, already there are ruptures in the opposition coalition regarding this new brand of politics. Although Anwar is successful in enlisting the support of the more secular-liberal section of the opposition politicians to push his political agenda further, the Islamically inclined started to question his personal credentials. Zulkifli Nordin’s recent outburst is just a tip of the ice-berg that reflects internal resentment against Anwar’s new brand of politics.

The question is, given the political context within which Anwar attempts to build his political platform to drive his personal ambition, is this new brand of politics sustainable or self-destructing?