Archive for February, 2008

Does the Election Commission Really Want Us to Vote?

February 16, 2008

Election Fever is well and truly in the air in Malaysia.

Malaysiakini has kindly published my letter on a closely related topic – our voting rights. As a Malaysian currently residing overseas the letter reflects my personal frustrations with the voting system and doubts about the General Elections. For the record my letter states that I had made enquiries ‘yesterday’ – that was the day before Parliament was dissolved.  There is one point in particular that I neglected to include in the letter; a point that is seemingly minor though it obscures an issue of great significance.

In the body of my letter I make three points. There is a fourth that I should have added which is: “Why was there a need to determine whether I am a student or not?” Following on from that: “Why was I directed to go through the Malaysian Students Department (MSD) when other Malaysians presumably deal with postal voting through the High Commission?”

One may say this is a minor point for it could be said that as there are so many Malaysian students in the UK that it would be impractical for the High Commission to deal with the voting needs of Malaysian students. My response to this is, if the High Commission can deal with the voting needs of the other Malaysians resident in the UK, why not Malaysian students as well?

The reason that I say this leads on to an issue of great significance is that most Malaysian students that I know here in the UK are already fearful of taking a public stance on contentious Malaysian issues. Reasons cited for this fear range from the Internal Security Act to the continuance of a scholarship to imperilled job prospects upon a return to Malaysia. Naturally, this creates the suspicion that the biggest reason they are fearful is because if they do take a stance it will not be one which is in line with the incumbent Government.

You may say I am barking up the wrong tree here. Perhaps the reasons for asking students to go through MSD are purely administrative. Yet such suggestions do not dampen the effect of this procedure on many students, which is to make them even more nervous and more fearful. This culture of fear is symptomatic of a larger problem in Malaysia – one linked to (i) our nation’s collective dislike of confrontation, (ii) a Hang Tuah complex (i.e. an unquestioning deference to authority) and (iii) the divisive spectre of 13 May 1969, so effectively used by the BN during every subsequent election.

What say you, dear reader?

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Shariah law in the UK? Part 2

February 11, 2008

I should begin with a clarification. Rather confusingly, the title of the Archbishop’s lecture was ‘Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective’ while ‘Islam in English Law’ is the title of a series of lectures of which the Archbishop’s lecture is one. I should further add that in Britain today religious courts for Orthodox Jews and Muslims do exist though they are entirely voluntary in nature and as they are not recognised under the law their decisions are not binding.

Criticism of the Archbishop has been widespread and has included senior members of his own Church. Some of the criticism has been legitimate, such as why should he, as the most senior priest in the Anglican Church, be advocating greater adoption of Muslim rather than only Christian law. However, much of the initial reaction in the press has, rather predictably been knee-jerk. These have ranged from a misunderstanding to a wilful ignorance of what the Archbishop said. For instance, there have been claims that the Archbishop advocated a parallel legal system, similar perhaps to the one found in Malaysia. However, the Archbishop clearly stated both during his lecture and during the Q&A session that he was advocating nothing of the sort. This point should be clear to anyone who bothered to read his lecture.

What struck me upon a close reading of the Archbishop’s lecture was that while it focused primarily on Shariah law, the main arguments he employs can be applied to any religious law. Two broad suggestions were made in his lecture. The first concerns why secular law should accommodate aspects of religious law and culture. The second relates to some preliminary thoughts on how religious law should be accommodated. I hope to address both in turn.

WHY SHOULD SECULAR LAW ACCOMMODATE RELIGIOUS LAW?

The Archbishop primarily puts forth a notion that each of our identities are a result of “multiple affiliations”; that on one level we are all equal citizens in the eyes of secular law but at the same time that many of us maintain other identities as religious believers and as adherents to vastly different cultures. He goes on to suggest that a universalist system of law which denies or marginalises this latter group of identities has failed in its purpose to fully give life to the values and aspirations of a society. He advocates a greater incorporation of religious law to prevent any further marginalisation of communities whose identities and values are not encompassed in Britain’s present universalist system of law. This would include Muslims, but also Orthodox Jews and Catholics. The purpose of a universalist system of law, he claims, is not to relegate these other components of identity (i.e. religious and cultural identity) to the private realm, but merely to monitor and regulate the public manifestation of these other forms of identity to ensure that they do not define human liberties in incompatible ways. Indeed, he refers throughout to a set of inalienable “liberties guaranteed by the wider society” that should not be encroached upon by any law, religious or otherwise.

Yet, following his argument to its logical conclusion, would not the imposition of an inalienable set of rights still detract from legitimate religious or cultural practices and beliefs where the two conflict? The suggestion of a core group of human liberties or rights that sit outside the ambit of our religious and cultural identities begs the question, from where do these rights spring? Moreover, who would decide on what these rights are?

These questions look suspiciously like the same ones already faced in today’s Britain with its overwhelmingly secular laws.

HOW SHOULD RELIGIOUS LAWS BE ACCOMMODATED?

The Archbishop suggests the introduction of religious courts through a process termed “transformative accommodation”, whereby individuals are at liberty to select the particular court through which they seek the resolution of certain matters or disputes. As mentioned above, he suggests that such courts should not be in a position to impede upon a set of “liberties guaranteed by the wider society”. He asserts that through such a free market mechanism religious courts/communities will have to balance the temptation to remain inflexible and committed to particular principles versus the risk of alienating its own adherents/people.

To his credit the Archbishop admits that the disadvantage to such a market-based approach is the likely competition for loyalty that will ensue. However, as pointed out to me by a friend that attended the talk, he does not follow through with this by commenting on how such a competition is likely to cause all religions/cultures that are involved in such a scheme to be so diluted in an attempt to seem appealing that very little of the original religions and cultures may be left. In the face of such a possibility, such a reductionist model for religions is rather perplexing coming from someone who is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

CONCLUSION

Without addressing the source of any inalienable rights the Archbishop’s arguments for why religious law should be incorporated are incomplete. Perhaps more problematically, the Archbishop’s suggestion of jurisdiction shopping appears to me to be a recipe for greater confusion, chaos and divisiveness.

Rather than allowing for what he refers to as “supplementary jurisdictions” why can’t Britain retain its current unified system of law but make provisions for a single body that can represent the spiritual and cultural values of the population? This body may then be consulted during the legislative process though its recommendations should not be binding but merely be intended to guide or inform legislators.

As a final point, in these two posts I’ve touched on the sensationalism with which the Archbishop’s comments have been treated. This reaction is something I hope to discuss in my next post.

Shariah law in the UK? Part 1

February 8, 2008

Sensationalism? Picture from The Sun newspaper, UK:

Archbishop1

Yesterday evening I attended a lecture given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, entitled ‘Islam in English Law’. My initial interest in his talk stemmed from the fact that I believed it to be historical in nature. I was wrong. The day before his lecture there was a report in the Times Online entitled “Does Islam fit with our law?”, which foreshadowed that the talk was likely to be focused on the incorporation of aspects of Islamic law into the English legal system.

Upon reading the Times Online report the immediate question that occurred to me was, just why should the common law of England and Wales incorporate aspects of any religious law? While it is true that the common law has its roots in Christian tradition it has, over a period of hundreds of years, been divorced of any allegiance to any religious doctrine or dogma. The result is that the common law of England and Wales today is very much a secular law, and all the better for it. As an example, in the England of olde, one would not be infringing the law when discriminating against or persecuting religious minorities, including Catholics, Jews and Muslims. Today, this could hardly be said to be the case.

Of course, the common law is not perfect. No one claims it to be so. Indeed, the greatest strength of the common law is its openness to change. The common law as it stands today is a testament to man’s powers of logic and reason. Religious law in contrast is characterised by an unswerving allegiance to tradition and dogma, with any modifications to suit the demands of modernity viewed as a cop out. This of course forms part of a wider struggle between tradition and modernity.

My primary objection to the application of religious law outside of the personal sphere (by which I mean imposing only on one’s self) does not stem per se from the fact that religious law is supposed to have been ordained by God. Instead it stems from the fact that religious law, in comparison to its common law cousin, is much more rigid and less amenable to change.

Would a law once again influenced by dogma and tradition be sufficiently dynamic and diverse to cater to the needs of a diverse population? Further, would chaos not ensue should all religious communities want their own laws in place?

These thoughts formed the basis of a question that I emailed to the organisers of the lecture in the hope that the Archbishop would answer it.

And answer it he did, for that was precisely what his lecture was centred on.

Today, the Archbishop has been overwhelmingly condemned by most quarters (including prominent Muslims) for the comments he made last night and he is featured in the headlines of many of the major British newspapers, not to mention all the tabloids – “Victory for Terrorism” says The Sun (not our theSun, but the British newspaper). He even made it to the pages of a Malaysian newspaper.

I will discuss my thoughts on his lecture in the second part of this post which will be up tomorrow.