Muhammad Fadli Mohammed Fawzi: Religion-based Ideas In Public Sphere Must Face Scrutiny

The writer of “Don’t let secular fundamentalism be the norm” (May 15) makes a simplistic argument for the unqualified acceptance and veracity of ideas based on religious or moral convictions in the public domain.

While we can accept that religious sentiments have a role to play in public discourse, this does not mean that all views based on religion or morality are therefore legitimate and deserving of consideration.

First, to play a constructive role, religious claims must be transparent and not be hidden behind vague assertions of common good, public interest or family values. Second, religion-based views must be subjected to the same analytical rigour and scepticism we extend to non-religious claims.

The writer seems to agree that any value, religious or otherwise, “must be open to scrutiny and critiques once they enter the public domain”. This is often difficult, however, since many of the proponents of religion-based views would allege offence against their faith when these views are criticised.

Third, we should distinguish between making a religiously inspired contribution to public discourse and simply making a religious demand.

For example, the former involves articulating support for certain policies in line with one’s religious convictions but simultaneously being cognisant enough to offer other public reasons in support of said policies.

These public reasons are those that people from different faiths and backgrounds could endorse, whereas making a religious demand limits itself to translating religious dictates into public policy demands.

Such demands are generally articulated in a non-negotiable manner and usually seek to confine the scope of freedom for others. This approach impedes further conversation and can potentially be divisive.

The role of religion in the public sphere is indispensable. Many progressive causes in history, such as the abolitionist and civil rights movements, have been spurred by religion.

We should also realise, however, that not all religious views are legitimate for public discourse, even if religion is dear to many people.

It is thus simplistic to rail against “secular fundamentalism” when the greater danger comes from those trying to narrow public space and conversation with their religious demands.


This article written by Muhammad Fadli Mohammed Fawzi, was published in Voices, Today, dated 19 May 2015.


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