That Religious Issue: Faith, Space and Justice
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 13 Apr 2012
Every now and then arises a hot potato issue that few are inclined to comment upon, namely that of religious sensitivities. This week former Selangor state executive councillor and head of new NGO JATI, Hasan Ali, revealed a video of purported proselytisation of Muslims by a group of Christians.
This piece will not comment on the veracity of the event, but on the steady complexity of dealing with a multiracial and multireligious society, a characteristic of Malaysia that will never change.
In recent years we have been witness to several alarming events, namely the church-burning incidents following the controversy of the use of the word “Allah” by East Malaysian Christians (whose native tongue is Malay), the raid on the DUMC church when officials from the Selangor religious department JAIS suspected that Muslims were also present, as well as the trampling upon a cow head (the cow is a holy and respected creature in the Hindu faith) in relation to a temple relocation dispute in Shah Alam.
Sharing Common Spaces
Asians are a religious lot. With the exception of your urbanite atheist and agnostic, religion and its manifestations in public life is pretty much here to stay in all of its various forms. And given the multiplicity of faiths in Malaysia, figuring out just how to live in a common public space has been the million-dollar question.
Miroslaf Volf from the Yale Center of Faith and Culture writes about a “reciprocal relationship”, where we are “interested not only in what we think about ourselves and about others but also in what others think of themselves and us”. Rowan Williams, up to recently the Archbishop of Canterbury in Britain says similarly that “we have to see that we have a life in other people’s imaginations, quite beyond our control”. (Sivin Kit, 2009).
One of the best ways to bridge the gap between ourselves and those around us is to seek to understand those different from us. The danger that accompanies living in a plural society is that each community begins to adopt an insular approach, one that is inward-looking and creates isolated silos.
Living in Malaysia does not necessarily mean knowing, truly, the heart of your fellow neighbour Muslim/Christian/Buddhist/Hindu/animist: what are his motivations, dreams, hopes, fears and needs?
Sharing a common space is more than about sharing a common physical space. If the lowest common denominator as Malaysians means being together and merely not breaking out into a brawl, then circumstances are sad indeed.
We must aim to reach a stage where we share common ideals and goals. And this is entirely possible if one were to use a faith-based context.
Faith and Justice
It has been said that all religions preach justice. And certainly, social justice does feature prominently in the main faiths practised in our country.
That said, what then of the points of contention that keep recurring? What happens when the interpretation of justice sought for each faith group conflicts with that of another faith group? When each community’s needs and demands rub against each other’s and cause friction – how is justice then achieved?
This is where some cool heads, rational minds, steady conversation, prolonged interaction and wisdom come into play.
The whole point of building a network of people from different religions was to ensure these sorts of long-term relationships would develop. When emergencies or fringe cases take place, this group of concerned citizens of Malaysia would work closely with various other stakeholders – government, NGOs, community groups, faith groups respectively – to solve the problem in the best way possible.
If there is something to learn about ourselves, it is that the diversity is here to stay.
And the sooner we recognise that, the sooner we will realise the importance of working with and reaching out to groups that we consider not worth our time.
This works both ways between Muslim and non-Muslim faith groups. The chasm might seem overwhelmingly wide between the two at times, but like it or not, this is Malaysia in its full glory.
Conservative and liberal groups may not see eye to eye on almost every subject, but when circumstances demand resolution, some compromise (not theological compromise but that of personal pride, perhaps) may be necessary.
Where Christians fear their minority rights being eroded, Muslims fear their own community being weakened and converted, for example.
A recognition of this is needed at the first instance.
Some intellectuals continue to argue for a separation of religion and state, and whilst I may personally believe this is a solution theoretically, this is not a realistic outcome in the near future.
In a country (and region) that is so deeply steeped in the history and tradition of religion, this will continue to be a prevailing theme.