Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Book Review: 'The Quest for Covenant Community and Pluralist Democracy in an Islamic Context', by Ng Kam Weng

The main portion of the book comprises Ng Kam Weng's three public lectures delivered at Trinity Theological College, from 25-27 October 2006, organized by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia. The book includes responding articles by Ibraham Abu-Rabi, Robert A. Hunt, and Peter G. Riddell.

Ng organized his thesis into three parts: (1) Pluralist Democracy and Spheres of Justice: The Quest for ‘Complex Equality’ in an Islamic Context, (2) Religious Dialogue and Democratic Deliberation, and (3) Religion and Moral Citizenry: Whose Morality? What Law? Which Moral Community?

In the first part, Ng laid out the Malaysian context from which his thesis came forth. The context is characterized by Islamic hegemony that is motivated by a strong optimistic social vision. The ruling Malay majority has through the years attempt to disregardingly assimilate other ethnic and religious groups under one socio-political framework, the Syariah.

Ng thinks that social assimilation does not take seriously the given plurality in every society, even within the Muslim community. He points to the observation made by Isaiah Berlin and Michael Walzer that "much cherished values of liberty and equality, fairness and welfare" or "principles of justice" which reckoned as intrinsic goods often are pluralistic despite possessing overlapping features.

Therefore, to Ng, "Acceptance of plurality is a vital prerequisite for building overlapping consensus among citizens with different ideologies and religious beliefs. In this respect, the goal of a pluralist democracy is to provide manageable platforms for the resolution of differences among citizens." (p.24)

Next, Ng suggests that pluralist democracy is not an alien political structure to both Christian and Muslim community as it is found within each respective religious tradition. At first, one may get the impression that Ng is using religious tradition to legitimatize his preferred political framework, yet upon further reading, it is the other way around. To Ng, the concept of covenant is fundamental to pluralist democracy:

"Covenant politics adopts a realistic expectation regarding how the body politic should be run. Political power results from compromise by all interested parties and is exercised by fallen human beings. There should therefore be limitations to political power. Such awareness is the source of separation of powers in modern constitutionalism. That is to say, covenant is the moral prerequisite for the formation of a Constitution." (p.26. Emphasis added.)

"An awareness of the concept of entrusted authority given by all parties of the covenant also entails a rejection of dominance by any particular community upon others. Equality and mutual dependence is necessary because common justice is not achieved by elevating the interest of any one community. Common justice is a negotiated balance which give equal consideration to the benefits and responsibilities of each community." (p.30)

What is interesting is in Ng's demonstration that such concept is found in Islamic tradition. He points to the 'Charter of Privileges' and the 'Constitution of Madinah' where "equality that was accorded to every person in these covenants in contrast to how later Islam reduced non-Muslims to the much inferior status of Dhimmis. Such awareness only emphasizes the urgency for Muslims to recover the open spirit of early Islam to help overcome the torubled and sometimes violent relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims today." (p.32. Emphasis original.)

In the second part, Ng posits two points. First, covenant politics requires all to fight for equal rights for everyone, and second, the process of Ijtihad is necessary to prevent the transformation of Malaysia into Islamic State.

Ng critiques John Rawls' "conversational restraint" that discourages the raising of concrete differences among citizens for the sake of neutrality. He disagrees with Jürgen Habermas' expectation for moral agreement through a universalized rationality.

Nonetheless, Ng affirms the need for constant inter-religious dialog that is open to each participant's tradition, for each to "demonstrate that it has the resources necessary to build an inclusive society that is just and moral." (p.56) Ng goes on to list three benchmarks for dialog.

Next, Ng referred to the groundbreaking works written by Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and Abdullah An-Na'im as suggestion that there can be a reformation within Islam that is more open to equality and common justice.

Ng spends a section in this second chapter in the book on Christian's response to Islamic hegemony. He quoted from J. Philip Wogaman:

"When Christians mistakenly allow the denial of their basic civil rights (such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of worship, freedom from abitrary arrest and detainment, and the right to vote), they weaken such rights for others. For democracy to function, it is important to insist upon the rights of all, including oneself."

For this, Ng writes that, "What ought to be without controversy is the necessity for Christians to take active measures to preserve the democratic freedom which they enjoy." (p.65) He continues that point out that Christianity is just as comprehensive as a way of life as Islam. Therefore Churches in Malaysia should not privatize their faith as if their faith has nothing to do with the social challenges facing the nation.

In the final chapter, Ng addresses the challenges faced and opportunities available in the modern contemporary Malaysia. He begins by highlighting the fact that the idea of an Islamic State is the product of British colonialism in Malaya. He then gives a list of reported cases where individual rights are violated and cultural expression are curbed by the ruling Muslim majority.

Related to these cases, Ng points out that moral policing should not be the way to build a moral society, which is the assumption of the hegemonic Muslim authority. Instead of moral policing, Ng suggests that moral formation is best developed through the community, "Moral knowledge is not a matter of casuistic reasoning but a social practice and communal norm. Moral action does not consist of unconnected decisions based on situations but decisions more or less consistent with a set of moral values."(p.92)

Concerning the development of social structure, Ng thinks that "If we recognize the possibility of human goodness despite its fallenness, we would seek to develop a social arrangement that places safeguards that will limit human sinful abuses, while strengthening institutions which foster human relationships and community building." (p.93)

Overall the book is quite a comprehensive guide written by a Malaysian theologian for Christians presently living in Malaysia, or those wanting to learn the current state of the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Malaysia. There are relevant discussion of historical events, religious traditions, legal disputes, socio-political theory, and practical theology that equips one's understanding of how to be a Christian within the given social reality.

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