Thursday, March 3, 2011

Religion in the Public Space: The Case of Malaysia

The main purpose of this presentation is to provide an overview of the Malaysian experience in dealing with issues of religion in the public space. But the presentation has been tailored to suit the specific requirement of today’s event, which is to make the Malaysian experience a special case study for comparison with the European experience in dealing with the same issues. In my view, the Malaysian experience is much richer and far more illustrative for the comparative purpose at hand than that of most other Asian or Muslim countries.

There are at least three main reasons that may be cited in support of this view. First, Malaysia is rather unique in its identity as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Second, Malaysian ethnic and religious pluralism has been managed since independence by a national leadership that is largely Muslim. And third, post-independence Malaysia inherited three different traditions in dealing with religion in the public space: the pre-colonial Malay-Islamic tradition that survived colonial rule; the modern Western tradition that came with colonial rule; and the non-Islamic Asian traditions brought by the immigrant communities.

Decades of dynamic interactions between these different traditions have largely shaped the evolving national discourse and debates on the place and role of religion in the public space. But, without doubt, Islam stands out as the most influential force in helping to broaden the role of religion in the public space and also to elevate the public profile of religion. The Islam policies of successive Administrations from that of Tunku Abdul Rahman to Dato Sri Najib have helped to elevate Islam’s public profile to new heights. As in Europe, the issue of the place and role of religion in the public space has assumed new importance in Malaysia that calls for an enlightened treatment by all citizens.

Religion in the public space: The case of Europe
Prof dr Maurits S. Berger

A long history of religious conflicts in Europe ended with a delicate balance of state and religion, based on a solid framework of legal rights. Islam, a very recent religious newcomer on the European scene, now stands accused of disrupting this balance and rejecting the legal framework. In this lecture we will dissect and discuss the arguments used for these allegations.

Since most of the so-called ‘problems’ related to Islam take place in the public space, it will be argued by the speaker that Europeans often confuse several different discourses when discussing Islam. The political-legal discourse refers to the rule of law and the clash of freedoms that may occur within that framework. For instance, the freedom of religion allows for wearing a headscarf and building of mosques, or from quoting passages from the holy texts that may offend people. The social-cultural discourse represents the traditions and social behaviour of European societies that are not enshrined in laws, but are strongly present in everyday life. For instance, orthodox Muslims and Jews may not want to shake hands, but social custom demands such ways of greeting even if no law obliges to do so. Finally, there is the religious discourse, which has nearly disappeared in Europe (as opposed to America, for instance), and hence explains the negative reactions that religious people receive who do use that kind of discourse in the public domain.

Based on this differentiation of discourses the speaker will argue that Islam is not necessarily the cause of all current turmoil in the European public space, but rather a catalyser that shows the contradictions of the European public space when it comes to religion.

Osman Bakar, PhD.

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