No cheers to tyranny of the majority

Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) has been slammed for defying the Selangor state government by confiscating beer worth RM620 at a 7-Eleven outlet in Shah Alam on Wednesday (29 July 2009).

By Ng Kam Weng

State executive councillor Ronnie Liu condemns the action as serious defiance of the state government and said action will be taken against those who act without any directive from the state.

Apparently, a task force has been set up by the state to come up with guidelines to regulate the sale of beer by the end of August.

Hopefully, the guidelines will ensure that non-Muslims will not be harassed just because some Muslims take offence at what non-Muslims are doing. Still, at the end of the day, we should not need to rely on directives of the state to declare which non-Muslim activity is haram or hallal.

Why should non-Muslims need approval from Muslims for their personal life style? The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith as one sees fit is a fundamental liberty enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

Muslims regardless of their personal scruples should be mature enough to accept cultural differences of their neighbours. I would have thought that a tolerant outlook should be natural in a pluralistic society like Malaysia. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that the Muslim society (or at least officials who claim to act on their behalf) has increasingly shown less tolerance towards people of other faiths.

The seizure of beer from the 7-11 shop in Shah Alam is only one incident amidst a disturbing trend of rising incidents of threats and harassment directed towards small time traders who are easily cowed by the Muslim officials.

It is therefore important that we analyze and critique the mindset of these Muslim officials.

We begin with the statement from MPSA: “the sale of all alcoholic drinks including beer will not be allowed at Muslim-majority areas”.

Note that the statement assumes that Muslim majority has more cultural rights than non-Muslim minorities in Muslim majority areas. Once the assumption is accepted, prohibition of sales of alcohol flows logically:

1) The majority population has the right to decide whether a cultural practice is acceptable
2) Muslims are the majority in Shah Alam
3) Muslims decide what is culturally acceptable and prohibited in Shah Alam
4) Muslims cannot accept sales and consumption of alcohol
5) Therefore the sales of alcohol is not allowed in Shah Alam

How do we challenge this argument? We challenge it right from the beginning, that is, analyze and reject the assumption or presupposition of the position of the Muslim officials. We assert that while the argument is logically valid (the truth of its premises entails the truth of its conclusion), nevertheless, the argument is not sound (the argument is valid but the premise (s) is not true) and it therefore rightly rejected).

We begin by asking, “what is this “Muslim majority?” Do Muslims in Shah Alam actually all and one object to the selling of alcohol/beer? There was no survey or referendum done to confirm that the majority of Malays in Shah Alam approve the high handed action of the authorities.

Even if the present authorities is elected in the last General Election by the majority, it is illegitimate to conclude that their votes could be transferred to every policy implemented by the present authorities. It is a fallacy to equate a vote in the last General Elections against a corrupt and unpopular government that was thrown out with as a vote for intolerance exhibited by the present authorities.

The truth is “the majority” does not share the same intolerance as the officials. For example, a recent social survey shows that 83% of Peninsular Muslims favor interfaith dialogue when the Prime Minister issued a ban on interfaith dialogue.

Furthermore, even if we grant for argument sake that the majority wants a ban on sales of alcohol by non-Muslims – that is, that proposition (1) is true – it must be judged that such a decision violates the spirit of justice and democracy. Indeed, political philosophers have consistently warned against granting the majority unqualified entitlement in a healthy democracy.

We do well remember the memorable words of John Stuart Mill when he describes a situation where the majority has arrogated so much power for itself that it freely and readily imposes its arbitrary demands onto minority communities as “the tyranny of the majority.” It is a more dangerous tyranny than the tyranny of ancient kings.

Ancient kings were basically interested in gathering the material produce of its citizens through arbitrary taxation. In contrast, the tyranny of the majority formulates and implements social policies that incarcerate, suffocate and eventually snuff out the inner spirit and outward cultural identity of the minority.
This grave threat of the tyranny of the majority can only be resisted with two fundamental democratic propositions:

a) The equality of all cultures and religions as enshrined in the Constitution

b) The non-negotiable fundamental liberties for all citizens enshrined as basic laws of the Federal Constitution.

(As a passing note, the fundamental liberties in the Malaysia Constitution are not entrenched under the category of “basic law” (Grundgesetz) or “basic norm” (Grundnorm) – norms that override ordinary ’statute law’ passed by the legislature. Without this special status, our fundamental liberties cannot be guaranteed and in principle Parliament could still rescind them by a special act).

These liberties then are expressed to include the following – i) inner cultural freedom grounded in a clear conscience with freedom for outward expression in thought, opinion and cultural practices, ii) liberty of “taste and pursuits” consistent with our self-chosen lifestyle and iii) liberty to associate with other citizens and organize such social groups to promote fundamental liberties for all citizens.

Liberties should be comprehensive since each culture has its own complexities. No liberty is too trivial either as fundamental liberties exist as a seamless fabric.

Finally, liberties should not be interfered with by other people simply on grounds of subjective dislikes or different religious outlook. We can be pretty sure that liberties should be wide ranging and is meaningful only with minimal state interference in the lives of citizens.

Statement (a) suggests that Muslims, majority or not, have no business to limit and interfere with the personal lives of non-Muslims, especially in matter of “tastes and pursuits.” Interestingly, Mill himself cites the issue of pork eating in Muslim countries in his classic political tract, On Liberty:

“As a first instance, consider the antipathies which men cherish on no better grounds than that persons whose religious opinions are different from theirs, do not practise their religious observances, especially their religious abstinences. To cite a rather trivial example, nothing in the creed or practice of Christians does more to envenom the hatred of Mahomedans against them, than the fact of their eating pork. There are few acts which Christians and Europeans regard with more unaffected disgust, than Mussulmans regard this particular mode of satisfying hunger. It is, in the first place, an offence against their religion; but this circumstance by no means explains either the degree or the kind of their repugnance; for wine also is forbidden by their religion, and to partake of it is by all Mussulmans accounted wrong, but not disgusting. Their aversion to the flesh of the “unclean beast” is, on the contrary, of that peculiar character, resembling an instinctive antipathy, which the idea of uncleanness, when once it thoroughly sinks into the feelings, seems always to excite even in those whose personal habits are anything but scrupulously cleanly and of which the sentiment of religious impurity, so intense in the Hindoos, is a remarkable example. Suppose now that in a people, of whom the majority were Mussulmans, that majority should insist upon not permitting pork to be eaten within the limits of the country. This would be nothing new in Mahomedan countries. Would it be a legitimate exercise of the moral authority of public opinion? and if not, why not? The practice is really revolting to such a public. They also sincerely think that it is forbidden and abhorred by the Deity. Neither could the prohibition be censured as religious persecution. It might be religious in its origin, but it would not be persecution for religion, since nobody’s religion makes it a duty to eat pork. The only tenable ground of condemnation would be, that with the personal tastes and self-regarding concerns of individuals the public has no business to interfere” (p. 82).

Mill famously declares that the only interference acceptable is one based on the ‘Harm Principle’. As Mill puts it, “That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (p.12).( Quotations taken from John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Utilitarianism. Everyman Library (Alfred Knopf, 1992).

Applying this principle would mean that it is acceptable to punish people who drive under the influence of alcohol. Sales of alcohol to minors should also be prohibited. I can imagine a borderline case whereby vendors are advised not to set up a liquor store right next to an existing mosque, not because Muslims are harmed so much as distracted from their worship by wafts of alcohol. But such considerations do not in any way apply in the indiscriminate and callous action committed by the Shah Alam authorities.

Applying the ‘Harm Principle’ obviously requires a nuanced discernment but accommodation to the sensitivity of our neighbors and should not be taken as license for the majority to impose its subjective preferences unto others. As Mill puts it, “the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.”

I shall conclude with a further observation. Applying the principle, “the majority population has the right to decide whether a cultural practice is acceptable” (1) initiates a slippery slide and erosion of fundamental liberties for non-Muslims.

Today, sale of alcohol is prohibited because Shah Alam has a Muslim majority.

Tomorrow, Muslims officials will extend the prohibition beyond Shah Alam to the whole nation, since “Malaysia is a country with a Muslim majority.” A fortiori, Muslim official will further ban whatever they regard as activities that are even more ’sinful’ and objectionable than sales of alcohol. The consequence of accepting the ‘majority principle’ is the limitation (and violation) of the fundamental liberties of non-Muslims.

I therefore strongly urge the Selangor government to bear in mind how the ‘majority principle’ does more harm than good when drafting the forthcoming guidelines. The guidelines should not be strictly based on the principle that the majority can unilaterally decide what is socially acceptable and should take into account the legitimate interests and rights of the various cultural communities in the country.

(Ng Kam Weng is research director of a Christian think tank and this article is reproduced with permission from his religious liberty watch blog