Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sacralising the Secular? Secularising the Sacred?

Within the short termed objective of the election, members of Pakatan had indicated preparedness to compromise their generally known stand on religion and secular politics. PAS had ‘shed’ its long standing cause to champion an Islamic state, much to the disquiet of significant portion of its traditional supporters, who see it as ‘betrayal’. PKR had tried its best to project an open attitude to the question of religion, as indicated in its support of ‘Allah’ in Bible issue. Yet it is well known that internally its leader Anwar Ibrahim still leverages heavily on his supporters of the ‘ABIM’ mould, whose worldview and intellectual makeup are still essentially of their youthful Islamic ‘dakwah’ days.

After all Anwar still carries with him the appellate ' firebrand of Islamic youth movement' , among others like ‘reformist’, ‘champion of democracy’ and ' defender of human rights' . Indeed if we examine clearly the utterances and thinking of his Malay Muslim supporters within PKR, they reflect strong deeply rooted continuities with ABIM. In fact this is true of Anwar Ibrahim himself.

What of the other segment of party supporters? We all know PKR has strong symbiosis with Hindraf, which of course bases its identity and cause with Hinduism. One of its central motif of political agitation had been the demolition of Hindu temples and the alleged discrimination against Hindus by the present regime.

As for the DAP, there is growing disquiet on the growing influence of Evangelist thinking within the party. In fact Helen Ang would argue that evangelists had ‘taken over’ the party. Leaving this aside, there seems to be now a joining of issues between the DAP and the Church, of course to their denial. For example there was the issue of ‘Allah’ in the Bible, the printing of the Bible in Malay, and more recently the issue of Article 152 of the Constitution and the innuendos of ‘ bullying’ on the part BN against non-Malays and non-Muslims.

Recently there were some issues over the handling of religion in the state of Selangor, culminating in the sacking of the state councilor in charge of Islamic Affairs, Hasan Ali, both from the state portfolio and PAS. After much vacillation, the portfolio had been taken over by Chief Minister Khalid.

Much heat had been generated in this episode and it is most instructive for Malaysians. Hasan Ali saw it as PAS abdication of its proper mission, that of championing Islam. We can deduce from this that he defined his task of state councilor as theological and not secular or administrative,  charged with managing religious sensitivities within the pluralistic and secular realities of the state. The secular and political interpretation of the counselor’s portfolio  is represented by the assumption of the duties by the Chief Minister. At the bottom of this conflict is the raging tension between religion and secularism, which is of the greatest threat to Pakatan unity.

The tension between religion and secularism is reflected in the objection or opposition leveled at Khalid. Many PAS hardliners had expressed serious doubt whether Khalid can lead the Friday prayer or recite the Quran competently. In short his theological credentials or general ‘piety’ had been called into question. Some elements in PAS had already denounced him as not of ‘the ulamak’ category, which within the epistemology of PAS mean many things, including unfit for leadership!

The significance of the issue is by no means confined to this single episode. It touches on the raw nerves of Pakatan in general . Contrary to their public stance of compromising on issues of religion,  for the sake of the coalition and the ballot box, they all know otherwise. All of them know that religion is still a potent force to be tapped politically.

PAS knows only too well that ‘Islam’ and ‘agama’ is its political lifeline. Its leader Nik Aziz continues to campaign on that theme. Persistent motifs include ‘PAS is Islam’, ‘Pas is religion (agama)’ and ‘UMNO rejects Islam ’. Anwar Ibrahim continues to project the image of the theologian, the authority on Islam and its champion. This is of course before selective audience. On the side he would of course encourage Hindraf to be more militant in its agitation against BN for its alleged discrimination against Hindus and their rights (even accusing BN of genocide). Judging by the heat generated over Church related issues, it is reasonable to infer that the DAP is developing some taste for ‘religious’ based issues and sees its political punch in whipping emotion. Lim Guan Eng and some DAP leaders had  even learned to tap Islamic anecdotes and historical lessons for their politics, albeit artificially and rather unconvincingly.

Over such development, it is interesting to ponder and reflect. Will the Pakatan be able to manage the tension and delicate balance between theology and secularism in the long run? Will it be able to invoke religion  to pitch level, then rein it in with its secularism and pragmatism? Can it temper religious fanaticism to appease its secular support base without domesticating it too much, taking out the political sting ? Can PAS risk its traditional support based on Islam for the sake of pleasing its coalition partners?

In the meantime, the BN is hitting back, not ‘theology for theology’, but by denting the pious  images of opposition leaders. This is done basically by dousing their ideallic representations with counter images of decadence, in fact very sensate life style. It is BN's way of  subjecting the opposition to the scrutiny of their own standards, values and pronouncements

There is a more fundamental questions before Malaysians. Given present development, will future conflicts in Malaysia be along religious lines? Between Islam, Christianity, Hinduism in various allignments and configurations?