Brief summary of a talk about religion and the state in Malaysia and The Netherlands

(Adriaan van der Staay, discussion group at Society de Witte, The Hague, 7th December 2017)

Against the background of democracy today having to deal with political religion in Europe (Polish Catholicism, Islamism) the talk touches on two examples of a struggle with the relationship between religion and the state, one historical and one contemporary.

The historical one is four hundred years old (1617, in the Dutch Republic) and nearly led to civil war. The outcome was the dominance of a strictly Calvinistic regime, that both changed the course of the Dutch Republic and Dutch civilisation. It took a long counter-development to reach the present situation of religious pluralism and a secular state, in which religion is basically seen as a private matter.

In this present situation enters Islam, both in the form of migrations of significant numbers from Islamic countries and as repercussion of events in the world of Islam itself.

Instead of the usual attempts to theoretically capture the nature of the problems of integrating Islam into a democracy, the talk explores Malaysia where Islamic and western ideas about state and religion have resulted in a struggle about the implementation of the Federal Constitution, which is basically a struggle between democracy and theocracy.

Attention is drawn to the appearance of a book that tries to give voice to a moderate option to integrate Islam into a constitutional democracy. It calls for a return to the principles of the constitution, a view of the law as benefiting the whole of society, and the importance of liberty and equality to create a state that encompasses all members. The writers that wrote essays in this book (G25 Malaysia, Breaking the silence/voices of moderation, Singapore 2016) can be called Islamic democrats.

In view of both the Dutch historical and the present Malaysian examples the speech cautions about mixing politics and religion. And asks: what is our concept of the secular state? And what is our commitment to it?