DATIN Paduka Che Asmah Ibrahim, head of the women’s wing of Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia, is of the view that there should be no discrimination against women, which is a perfectly sensible position to take since it’s the law of the land.
But if she means that Damai Service Hospital is guilty of discrimination for insisting that its nurses wear short sleeves (a rule that has been in place since 1989), then Che Asmah is wrong.
Our courts have decided that you cannot wear a serban to school or a hijab at the workplace and use your religious beliefs as justification for wearing whatever you like.
This is the country’s current legal position on the matter but Che Asmah has another argument: a Muslim woman has no choice but to cover her aurat as it is a religious obligation. Here, I would like to respond to her. Muslims have a choice because they are blessed with akal (the mind) given to them by Allah.
If Allah does not wish His subjects to have freedom of choice, he would have made us robots instead. Of course the choice we make may incur God’s wrath, for which we will be punished, but a choice is nevertheless available and which we can freely make.
Like many Malaysian Muslims, Che Asmah seems to have some difficulty understanding the difference between a religious obligation, which is personal in nature, and the law, which must be followed by all citizens regardless of religion.
In a democracy, a person has a choice with regard to his or her religious obligation, but not in respect of the law.
Che Asmah is not alone in experiencing this dilemma and confusion. A former minister in charge of law confided in me that he was uncomfortable in opposinghudud because, as a Muslim, he felt compelled to follow God’s commands.
I assured him that since he had taken his oath of office to defend the Constitution, he should not lose sleep over it.
Anyway, I did not think he was uncomfortable receiving his pay cheque every month despite the then Cabinet’s decision to oppose hudud (this was during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s time).
There is even the perception that some of our top judges (who are predominantly Muslim) have a bias towards Islam when deciding – or not wanting to decide, as some allege – the “Allah case”.
This suggests the same state of confusion experienced by Che Asmah and the minister in failing to differentiate the different roles they had to play.
As judges, they need to interpret and decide cases in accordance with the Constitution.
As Muslims, of course, they are entitled to the view that Allah belongs to them and to them alone, but they should be able to distinguish the two positions if they are to serve the interests of justice in a democracy.
I know that many Muslims are unhappy with me and lambast me for recognising the separation between the law of the land and religious commandments. They feel that as Muslims, religious laws and obligations come first and cannot be compromised.
All I can say is that if you want to live in a democracy, then we must first separate the law of the land from those religious obligations. Then, we need to defend the right to have personal choices with regard to our lives.
In a country that’s not free, you become a prisoner where those in robes will tell you how to live this life; if you don’t, they will punish you.
If we force a new religious system on the people regardless of their wishes, then we are no different from IS, which doesn’t believe in choice.
There is a whole world of difference between a democracy and a country governed by religious law.
The former respects and allows for freedom of choice, while the latter does not recognise choice.
In a democracy, Muslims may commit some sins in their lives (otherwise they would be angels, not humans) but the state will let God punish them.
In a religious state, sins will be criminalised, more criminal offences created, and more people will go to jail. Minorities will be exploited, and freedom restricted.
Muslims in Malaysia seem to want to move aggressively towards a religious state.
They think that by supporting “an Islamic” political structure, they will become better Muslims and be rewarded.
I hope they think again. Do they really want their lives to be determined by some men in robes? Or do they value a life where there are choices, which, as mature adults, they are capable of making for themselves?
If, however, what they want is a “more Islamic way of life”, more Islamic schools for their children, and if they want nurses to wear long sleeves and to fly Rayani Airline, by all means, do that.
What they must not do is to force other Muslims to do the same. They have no business forcing on others their points of view or their lifestyle.
They must not say we have no choices, because we do.
Like them we also can decide what our grandchildren wear, what books they read, what restaurants or banks to go to, and what entertainment they are permitted to amuse themselves with.
And just as these Islamists feel good about their choices, so do we. We do not feel guilty at all or are worried about the sins we may have committed in living the life we choose.
The difference is that these Islamists feel the need to force their views on others; we don’t!
Former de facto Law Minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now a legal consultant. The views expressed here are entirely his own.