Religious liberty should be the real concern

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Whether a country moves progressively or regressively would depend very much on how a it supports and protects religious freedom, says Ronald Benjamin.

It has been quite an anxious past few months for the country.

On the one hand, various issues have been aired that could lead the country towards a progressive future in tackling substantial questions of reality. On the other, we have also witnessed idealism with good intentions but somehow lacking in practical substance that makes certain propositions unrealistic.

The fundamental issue here is directly or indirectly related to religious freedom. Chief among those issues is the debate in the media concerning the suggestion by eminent persons who intend to add the Rukun Negara as a constitutional preamble and the political antics by politicians linked to the imminent tabling of a private member’s bill to enhance Sharia punishments by amending the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 ( Act 355).

When looking at these issues, what is obvious is not so much the adding of the Rukun Negara as a preamble to the Constitution, or non-Muslims will not being subjected to the amendments to the Sharia courts. It is the real issue of religious liberty that is at stake.

There is nothing wrong with the Rukun Negara being a part of the constitutional preamble, but will it be able to protect religious liberty so that people will be able to practise their religion without coercion from the state?

Would Muslims who take a different stand concerning Act 355 be coerced into accepting a law that they believe is unjust? What about the religious rights of minority segments within Islam itself?

As for people of other faiths like Christians, can the belief in God that is portrayed in the Rukun Negara help them to use the word Allah in their religious publications? Is this not another example where ideals and actions do not match?

Over the years, under Umno hegemony, the Constitution has been amended to suit political actors who use religion as political capital. Before 1988, the courts seemed to derive their powers from the Constitution. But after that watershed year, judiciary has been made subservient to Parliament.

The significant amendment that took place in 1988 was clause (1A) inserted into Article 121 that stated: The courts referred to in clause (1) which are the civil courts shall have no jurisdiction in respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts.

This amendment shows how Parliament was used to erode civil liberties that have significant links to religious freedom. Religious freedom has been sacrificed due to political competition between Umno and Pas as to who champions the true Islam.

This political game, which has all the elements of deception, has basically turned religion into an exclusive realm than has resulted in the state playing a coercive role in affairs of religious followers. Religion is not seen as a source of authentic freedom but rather a political tool to restrict the affairs of the people.

This brings into question the fundamental and universal rights of freedom of religion from coercion by the State – which has been neglected over the years. This neglect makes the noble intention to add the Rukun Negara as a preamble to the Constitution a mere academic ideal rather than an instrument that would resolve fundamental questions of religious liberty.

The real solution lies not so much in adding the Rukun Negara as a preamble to the constitution but in going back to the intentions of the framers of our Constitution and then looking at how religious liberty has been eroded over the years by the involvement of the state into the religious affairs of its citizens.

Whether a country moves progressively or regressively would depend very much on how a it supports and protects religious freedom.

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