Segregation, moral policing, intolerance reach absurd levels

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Photograph: Free Malaysia Today

Henry Loh describes a disturbing trend not even a month after Prime Minister Najib Razak told US President Donald Trump to support moderate progressive regimes,

Just two weeks ago on 16 September 2017, patriotic and proud citizens of the country joyfully celebrated Malaysia Day.

The spirit of muhibbah (goodwill) and unity was evident, manifested through events such as the “Kita Anak Malaysia” unity walks that were held in all the major cities in the country. As citizens enjoyed the special holiday, many would have reflected on how fortunate they are, to be able to live, work, learn and play amidst peace and harmony in this multi-ethnic and multi–religious country with a population of 31.6m.

But recent events conveyed grim reminders to moderate Malaysians that the fabric of tolerance and acceptance may easily be torn or damaged.

Frothing over beer

The Kuala Lumpur City Hall, for instance, informed organisers of the Better Beer Festival that their permit to hold that event had been cancelled. A week earlier, Pas had objected to the proposed event, saying “the festival would encourage immorality and turn Kuala Lumpur into Asia’s vice capital”.

Fully conscious that there is a prohibition on Muslims on the consumption of alcohol, the organisers of the festival had stated very clearly that this event was strictly for non-Muslims adults. Adults of other faiths, on the other hand, do not face such restrictions and have always enjoyed the freedom to choose whether or not to consume alcohol when it is available with good sense indicating they be respectful of Muslim sentiments. The move by City Hall not to allow the festival to proceed is therefore a clear threat to this cherished choice that adults of other faiths have always enjoyed.

As non-Muslim groups and certain politicians started to lobby City Hall to reconsider its decision, the inspector general of police announced that the festival was cancelled because there was an imminent security threat and that a militant group (terrorists) had planned to sabotage or disrupt the function.

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Even if this was really the case, Azmi Sharom, in his weekly had raised this point that “if there are threats being made towards people who are merely having a frothy beverage, then surely it is those who threatened that should be stopped. Not the other way around.”

Launderette’s cleaner-than-thou sign

Before the froth of this issue could dissipate news emerged of a launderette in Muar, Johor that had put up a sign highlighting that it only serves Muslims customers. The sign translated verbatim read: “Muslim Friendly: This dhobi only serves Muslim customers based on the holiness factor [atas faktor kesucian] – any inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.”

Of course, people of other faiths have many alternative launderettes to choose from but what is sad and divisive is the discrimination done in the name of a religion. As people who value moderation and promote acceptance, we should be encouraging greater inclusiveness.

The moderate and progressive NGO, Sisters in Islam, responded quickly to this news, urging the Islamic authorities not to condone such discriminatory practices. Their statement stressed that the focus of Islam should be on community building, as it is a religion of fairness and justice with a high regard for human dignity.

Thankfully too, first a Johor prince and then the Johor sultan came out strongly to admonish the operator of the launderette highlighting that “Johor belongs to people of all races and faiths and is a progressive, modern and moderate state. This is not a Taliban State”.

The day after getting admonished the launderette operator apologised and announced that he had dropped his “Muslims-only” policy. Perhaps what is more disturbing and frightening is his conviction that what he tried to do was just to be a ‘good Muslim’.

You can be sure there are some Muslims who agree that this differentiation and segregation based on religion should be maintained and supported. If this kind of mentality is allowed to grow and develop, we can bid goodbye to moderation.

No shorts, we are Kelantanese!

Moral policing has also crept to a certain stage of absurdity. For instance the Kelantan Religious Affairs Department issued a notice to a Muslim man for wearing shorts that did not cover his knees. The poor fellow was on his way to play a game of futsal.

READ MORE:  Policies needed to reflect more compassionate Islam

Social media had a field day circulating pictures of men trying to play football or futsal while wearing sarongs. The sarcasm of the images may be funny but the implications of such moral policing are certainly no laughing matter.

Yet our country’s leaders go on the international stage to promote Malaysia as a moderate nation. In 2010, Prime Minister Najib at a United Nations General Assembly mooted the idea of creating a ‘Global Movement of Moderates’.

The introduction at the GMM Foundation website reads:

Moderation is acceptance and respect. It is about mutual understanding and the celebration of the rich dimensions of diversity. Diversity enriches and strengthens the fabric of life. Acceptance of diversity, more than tolerance, is the key to peaceful co-existence.

Although the introduction is directed at peaceful co-existence among different nations with diverse cultures and religions, a careful reading highlights a most apt formula for Malaysia’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic population to adhere to and apply.

Perhaps the prime minister should realise that, before he goes around the international stage to promote the GMM, he should get things right domestically and tackle the many divisive issues that affect social relations among the multi-religious and multi-ethnic communities. We need to combat extremism, to challenge discriminatory practices, racism and bigotry. We simply cannot pretend that all is well.

Harassment of Mustafa Akyol: Not quite moderation

Still on the topic of moderation – or perhaps more appropriately the lack of it – in this country, not many may have been aware that a somewhat shameful and certainly frightening incident happened to an international guest and visitor to our country on 25 September 2017.

Mustafa Akyol, an internationally respected Turkish, journalist, author and public speaker was invited by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) to participate in a series of peaceful and civilised public talks and discussions on matters that concern – or should concern – ordinary Malaysians such as faith, democracy and justice.

Mustafa Akyol had written a book, translated into Bahasa Malaysia by IRF, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. He is known to argue, with evidence, for understanding and mutual respect among people of different faiths. If his arguments are convincing, surely his recipe for mutual understanding will help enhance multi-religious understanding and relations in our country.

READ MORE:  Policies needed to reflect more compassionate Islam

Unfortunately, the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) took a dim, negative view of Mustafa Akyol’s stand and position on Islam. Jawi was able to get the Federal Territory Sharia Court to issue a warrant of arrest/detention on Akyol under Section 11 of the Sharia Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act.

In Mustafa Akyol’s own words, what may have troubled and upset Jawi officers was a talk he gave on a controversial topic: apostasy from Islam. He had argued, “Muslims must uphold freedom of conscience, in line with the Qur’anic dictum, ‘No compulsion in religion’. The practice of Islam must be on the basis of freedom, not coercion and governments shouldn’t police religion or morality.”

Following his second talk after being confronted by Jawi officers, Mustafa Akyol in consultation with his hosts decided to cancel his third lecture which would have been on the “commonalities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity”.

Still the cancellation was not enough or Jawi and its officers felt it necessary to detain Mustafa Akyol for questioning.

Aliran, Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM) and the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) issued media statements respectively to oppose Akyol’s detention and call for his immediate release. At Aliran, we are appalled that Jawi could be so intolerant and treat a well known international journalist, thinker and public speaker in the manner that they did.

Najib promotes Malaysia as a champion in the GMM Foundation yet Jawi could treat Akyol in the manner that they did and get away with it. The irony is way too obvious.

What can we as peace-loving and moderate citizens of our country do? We need to call out in a resounding voice to the powers that be that we expect them to ensure that our freedom, rights and privileges as enshrined in the Federal Constitution be guarded, respected and honoured at all times.

We need to send the message that we will not accept any compromise and put the federal government on notice that ultimate power rests with us, the Rakyat Jelata.

Henry Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
2 October 2017

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