Reason and Superstition: When will we move on from the past?

In a nation that is still trying to understand the meaning of democracy, political leaders openly declare to their party members that witchdoctors should not be used in election campaigns.

Farish A. Noor

Once again there is talk of all manner of hocus-pocus skulduggery in the corridors of power in Malaysia, and once again Malaysia’s image has been tainted by the bugbear of the past. It was not too long ago that a government agency even contemplated the thought of formally recognising witchcraft as a form of ‘alternative therapy’. And to add insult to our injuries it was revealed not too long ago that a magic spell was placed under the table of the former Prime Minister no less.

Is this a symptom of the uneven development that has come to be the norm in so many postcolonial societies? What is the point, pray tell, of having the tallest building in the world when the people working in it believe in ghosts, poltergeists and vampires? Or worse still, would consider hiring some of these spooky characters to do their dirty political work?

The most embarrassing thing of all is that these revelations are coming from and about Malaysia, a country which in the eyes of many other developing nations is seen as a model to be emulated. In the words of a Bangladeshi analyst colleague of mine: “One certainly expects more from a country like Malaysia, simply because Malaysia occupies such a high position in the eyes of so many other countries.” But like many analysts who have spent more than an hour studying the Byzantine and at time bizarre politics of the country, he too is left to wonder what the hype is all about.


Which brings us back to the debate between reason and superstition that has been a staple of Muslim debates going back for centuries…