By K. Sudhagaran Stanley

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--The recent remarks by Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Idris Ahmad calling on Muslims in the country not to attend the Bon Odori festival gives us Malaysians an opportunity to reflect on the principle of the separation of religion from the state and politics.

To be clear, I think it is not a problem when religious leaders and their followers have discussions and debates on such matters concerning their faith. This happens in every religion and is part of the process of discovering one’s faith and the values it promotes.

I remember that this sort of debate, on the acceptance of cultural celebration also takes place within the Catholic Church.

The Vatican has a very clear stand when it comes to this, that the Church accepts the diversity of culture and stresses for its followers to never forget their culture.

In the Catholic terminology, this is cultural enculturation, where the diversity of cultures is incorporated into the Church and their practices harmonised with the Gospel.

This was often emphasized by Pope John Paul II in his communications.

The Tamil Harvest festival “Ponggal, Chinese New Year and the Hari Gawai dan Kaamaatan which is widely celebrated in the Catholic Church locally is an example of cultural incorporation into the Catholic Church.

I am of the view that every religion is free to debate and decide what is right or wrong for them in accordance with their beliefs and practices.

Religious leaders of different faiths have the right to advise their followers on the do’s and don’ts pertaining to their religion.

The issue here is when these sorts of comments or instructions are made by a Minister. Now this becomes a problem for all Malaysians because such views are seen as the official stand of the country and her people.

But in actual fact, it does not represent the views or beliefs of the millions of Malaysians which consist of multi-ethnicity and multi-religious backgrounds.

The repercussion of such a statement or view is on the entire Malaysian population and not on a particular community or group.

If Japan for example decides to pull out investments from Malaysia because of that statement made by Idris, every Malaysian would be affected by this.

Such statements also cause disharmony between the followers of different cultures and religions in Malaysia when it is expressed and propagated by the government.

Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution states that Islam is the religion of the Federation and other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the federation.

The supreme court in a 1998 case decided by Lord President Tun Salleh Abbas had stated that we are a secular state and the civil court administers secular law.

Tunku Abdul Rahman during his 80th birthday celebration organised by the Barisan Nasional in 1983 said that:

"The Constitution must be respected and adhered to.  There have been attempts by some people who tried to introduce religious laws and morality laws. This cannot be allowed.”

It has been a contention for many years now on whether Malaysia is an Islamic or secular country. The latter is, in my opinion.

Perhaps it is now time for us to revisit the constitution and word out clearly the need to separate religion from the state.

The involvement of religion in shaping state policies has been an obstacle to Malaysia’s development and competitiveness on the global stage and in turn has affected every tax payer in this country.

Politicians have exploited religion for their own political survival and created disunity among the different cultures and religions in Malaysia.

How much longer must we tolerate these politicians tearing apart our country?

This emphasises the need for our country to be governed by secular values that takes into account the rights and freedoms of every Malaysian including the practice of all religions.

I am not advocating for the rights of Muslims to be curtailed in any way but merely seeking for the separation of religion from the state.

A secular government will have no business in meddling in the administration of faith related matters and secular values would be the cornerstone in deciding for policies, laws and even on approvals for festivals such as the Bon Odori.

All religions and cultures in Malaysia can continue to be practiced in peace and harmony.

The statement by the Sultan of Selangor, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah comes at the perfect moment as the Religious Affairs Minister has seemed to have overstepped his boundaries in instructing Muslims not to attend the Bon Odori festival.

Perhaps it now time for us to also define clearly the power and authority of the various State Sultan and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in the administration of Islam in this country.

The various state level constitution already provides for the Sultan as the head of the Islamic religion in their State, however in reality, it is the Federal Government that seems to have a say and control over the administration of Islam and this is where the interference of the state in religion occurs.

The recent statement by PAS Ulama Council and PAS Women Wing in calling for Muslims to stay away from the Bon Odori festival despite the earlier rebuke by the Sultan of Selangor towards the statement of the Religious Affairs Minister is a telling sign that the power of the Sultans on religion is being challenged by the government.

PAS is part of the federal government and they are challenging the views of the head of Islam in Selangor. People are confused on who is the ultimate leader here?

There is a need for us to clearly spell this out and hand the power back to the hands of the Sultan completely.

They must be in control of the religion and Islamic institutions in the country and the state should never get involved in the administration of the religion.

This will also make redundant the need for a Religious Affairs Minister.

All matters pertaining to Islam should come directly under the purview and responsibility of the respective state Sultans whom will be assisted by their personals and state committees without government or political interference.

There is also a need to stop political parties such as PAS which exploits religion for their own benefit and spreads extreme views.

PAS ideologies are a matter of great concern for Malaysians as they are now part of the federal government and can influence policies and laws.

From their opposition to the Beer Fest Carnival, Valentine’s Day, the Bon Odori festival, and PAS leader, Tan Sri Haji Abdul Hadi Awang sympathising with the Taliban regime, PAS has continuously created controversies and caused unnecessary distress to Malaysians in this country, often encroaching into the rights of non-Muslims.

It is time we call for a ban on political parties using religion as their sole ideology. History has shown how religion can be exploited by political parties and leaders to cause unrest and divisions among communities and disrupt the development of a country.

The nexus of state and religion in this country overlaps to the extent that Perlis Mufti Datuk Dr Mohd Asri is not aware that he has no right or business in telling people of other faiths on how to celebrate their festivals.

It was recently reported that he had proposed for the Bon Odori festival to be renamed to “Japanese cultural festival” and for the organiser to ensure that there will be no religious elements at the event.

It is mind blogging on how a well-known preacher could come out with such a statement. While many might laugh at his statement and joke on how silly that can be, incidents such as this, reaffirms the need for the separation of religion from the state and politics and to return the power back to the Sultans as the true head of the Islamic religion.

The words of John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1960, addressed to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in U.S, is very relevant to Malaysia today albeit in a context of a different religion, in that he said:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote... I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish - where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source - where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials...”

*K. Sudhagaran Stanley is a human rights activist. The views expressed here are of his personal opinion and do not represent any of the organisations he serves in.*