Australia and Malaysia: Western and Islamic Angles on Multiculturalism
A snapshot of the difference between the Western nation of Australia and Islamic Malaysia demonstrates radically different approaches to religious liberty. At face value the two nations share a number of common features. Both are medium-sized, with Australia having a population of 22 million and Malaysia 28 million. Both are multifaith societies. Australia’s 61% Christian majority sits alongside a non-religious minority of 22%, as well as smaller numbers of Buddhists (2.5%), Muslims (2.2%), Hindus (1.3%), and others. Malaysia’s 60% Muslim majority shares the country with Buddhists (19%), Christians (9%), Hindus (6%), and others. In effect, both societies are highly pluralistic in terms of both faith and ethnicity.
However, such superficial similarities mask deep-seated differences in terms of multiculturalism and multifaith issues. Australia does not have an official religion, whereas in Malaysia Islam is the official faith. This difference has significant ramifications, providing rich ingredients for discussion about the rights of Christian minorities.
Multiculturalism is embraced by officialdom in Australia. The 2011 government document “The People of Australia” made the following statement: “This policy recognises the amazing breadth and diversity of Australian society, and reaffirms the Government’s unwavering support for a culturally diverse and socially cohesive nation.” Inasmuch as it can do so, the Australian government strives to offer a level playing field to the different communities that make up the multicultural nation.
In contrast, multiculturalism is not so well viewed in Malaysia, as seen in the document “Debunking Multiculturalism” uploaded to the Malaysian government website by the government agency IKIM. It states in unambiguous terms: “The followers of other religions should recognize the fact that their religions have many things in common with Islam, particularly when it comes to ethics and morality. As such, it is through Malaysia, as an Islamic State, that other religions would survive and thrive. It is through Malaysia, as an Islamic State, that we have a better chance of fostering a national unity based on a common religious worldview.” In other words, other religions exist and are practiced inasmuch as they sit under the umbrella of Islam, and adhere to Islamic norms.
In Australia, the government does not intervene in matters of faith sharing and mission activity. All faiths are free to promote themselves to anyone. However, in Malaysia, the government facilitates Islamic mission to other faiths, but legislates against non-Muslims engaging in mission to Muslims, with detention and fines the penalty for breaking this law.
In Australian government schools, all faiths can be studied as part of religious education programs. In Malaysian government schools, by contrast, Islamic Studies is an official part of the curriculum for Muslim students. However non-Muslim Malaysian school students cannot study their faiths but instead must take Moral Education, a subject teaching broader ethical concepts.
In the legal sector, Australia has one court system for all. In Malaysia parallel court systems exist, with Shariah courts serving the family law needs of Muslims and civil law courts serving other faith communities. However, in a dispute between a Muslim and a non-Muslim, such as in inheritance matters, the case will come before the Shariah court, which will favor Muslim parties.
The commercial arena represents another area of significant difference. Australia works on capitalist principles and banks follow such principles—although there are increasing calls for some aspects of Shariah banking to be introduced into Australia with its growing Muslim community. In Malaysia, however, again a parallel system exists, with a fast-growing Islamic banking system operating alongside non-Islamic banks. The Malaysian government is providing substantial encouragement and funding support to Shariah finance in all its forms.
The use of public funding for faith facilities is non-discriminatory in Australia. However in Malaysia, public funds heavily favour Muslim development. There are far more mosques per head of Muslim population than other houses of worship for non-Muslim communities. Burial grounds for Muslim dead are readily available, while non-Muslims are facing a crisis in shortage of space for burials.
This comparison is instructive, for it juxtaposes the culturally stifling effects of Islam with the freedom that results from leavening of Christianity in a nation. Countries where Islam is ascendant and pressing for an expanded role in public life should consider Australia and Malaysia. Islamic government and freedom of religion don’t mix.