An open letter to Pope Benedict XVI

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Martin Jalleh hopes that Pope Benedict XVI will not allow Najib to politicise the papacy and use his visit to the Vatican as a political ploy and a public relations exercise.

Dear Holy Father,

I am a Catholic, writing from my blessed and beloved country, Malaysia, a land of poignant diversity, pitiful contradictions, pathetic leadership and plentiful opportunity. It is a nation which I am proud of, one where anything and everything is possible – from the most virtuous to the most vile and venal.

Very soon our Prime Minister (PM) Najib Tun Razak will be paying you an official visit at your summer residence Castel Gandolfo. He will no doubt put on a “grand show” in Gandolfo, in spite of having suffered from “heat stroke” after a recent summer of discontent in Malaysia.

The Star, an established (i.e. one dictated by the establishment) newspaper, has described the scheduled visit as one “making waves among Roman Catholics” in Malaysia. Strangely, the only “wave” still etched in the minds of many Catholics is a “political tsunami” that took place in 2008.

The visit which The Star claims is “bound to make an impression especially on Catholics” was not even mentioned at Sunday Mass in Catholic churches. Further many Catholics currently wave off the PM as one who is leading the nation into abysmal political backwaters.

Catholics who are against the visit, fail to understand that as a spiritual leader, your doors are open to any leader – be he honourable or hypocritical, saint or sinner, righteous or rogue and towering statesman or tyrant, though they know for sure which category their PM belongs in!

It seems this ‘watershed’ event will lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Malaysia. Still, many Catholics fail to see the difference such diplomatic ties would make in their daily lives. Will closer ties mean better times to exercise their religious rights, or will there be bolder lies?

The Star also sensationally exclaims: “There cannot be a better opportunity, and at a more appropriate juncture, for the Malaysian leader to highlight the country as one that embodies the principles of inter-religious harmony and respectful co-existence.”

Ask anyone who does not read the mainstream press and they will tell you, Holy Father, that since Najib became the PM, Malaysia has been slowly but surely imploding as a result of unprecedented racial and religious insensitivities and intolerance brought about by Muslim zealots and bigots.

In the past, Malaysia had so often been touted as a melting pot of all races and religions in Asia. It has now become a boiling pot! We were once a model, a showcase of a multiracial, multi-religious society. Now the Government has to put on a big show though the reality that we are so divided is showing!

Truth be told, inter-religious harmony is a myth in this country. Sincere attempts at inter-religious dialogue with Muslims and earnest intellectual discussions and discourses have often been derailed by a mob adept only at displaying their ignorance and irrational arguments to justify their intimidating behaviour.

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Myth and mockery of moderation

The Star also quotes a senior Malaysian diplomatic official involved in the behind-the-scenes work with the Vatican as saying: “The Vatican has also been wanting to engage with Malaysia which it recognises as a moderate Muslim nation made up of various ethnic groups.’’

Joceline Tan, a senior journalist of The Star at her jocular best, even “canonises” the PM as such: “There is no doubt the Western world has begun to take note of Najib as a Muslim leader of reason and moderation and the visit will certainly reinforce that.”

If Najib was indeed “moderate” we would not have had to contend with controversial race and religious issues which are too many to list down here. Najib’s heavy-handed response to the recently held Walk for Democarcy (to institutionalise clean and fair elections) made Malaysia look like a moderate police state!

Such is the “moderation” of Najib that Christians to date cannot use the word “Allah” though a High Court in 2009 had affirmed it as a constitutional right. Surely, the shocked and speechless preacher to the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, who visited East Malaysia in 2010 can fill you in on the details!

The PM’s political party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) has been politicising religion for its survival by creating unfounded fears and insecurities, sowing seeds of suspicion (and definitely not of “reason”) amongst Muslims, and deepening their distrust for the adherents of other religions.

Malays/Muslims are made to feel that they are always under siege and non-Muslims are their enemies! Yet, as the Muslims are constantly reminded, Malay/Muslim rights have been carved into and guaranteed clearly by the Federal Constitution. The only party that they have to fear most is the Umno elite and warlords!

Imaginary threats and bogeymen have been created by Umno and its cohorts, such as the Christians being hell-bent on confusing and converting every Muslim and the latest being an unsubstantiated allegation of a Christian conspiracy to replace Islam as the official religion, and to pave the way for a Christian PM!

At times the paranoia created has reached such a ridiculous level that the enlightened Muslim community have expressed their embarrassment and even disgust. Marina Mahathir, a truly moderate Muslim lady, once highlighted the existence of a group of defenders of the Islamic faith whom she called the SS (the shallow and superficial).

They are people “who have nothing better to do with their lives than look for monsters under their beds, enemies in their blankets or crosses in their buns (and) ice-cream biscuits”. She also wrote about “the Simple-Minded and Stupid (SMS)… who believe every little message that comes into their hot little phones, no matter how unlikely”.

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There are also the “Korrupt Kombative Knuckleheads (KKK)” who “will do things like throw firecrackers into churchyards, destroy temples and raid married people’s bedrooms”. She pointed at “the supreme irony of trumpeting our religious superiority while at the same time claiming that it only takes biscuits to destroy us”.

Meanwhile Najib’s Government, through its religious departments and the Home Ministry in particular, dominates, dictates, decides, determines and even defines what non-Muslims can and cannot discuss, deliberate on, display in print, and do. Talk about moderation!

In 2008, the then Home Minister, when issuing a show-cause letter and several warning letters to The Herald (the Catholic newspaper in Peninsula Malaysia) made it his implicit prerogative and position to preach to and pontificate on what Catholics should and should not believe in!

Umno-owned papers, especially Utusan Malaysia are allowed to go on a spree of spinning falsehood, spouting lies, spewing seditious articles and spreading what the Minister in the PM Department called “outdated racist propaganda” with impunity and immunity provided by the Home Minister.

In June this year, Utusan Malaysia claimed that millions of ringgit were being funnelled from some 11 foreign Christian organisations to fund the Walk for Democracy . The organisers denied any links to Christian funding, saying instead that funds for the march came from local sources.

Bishop Paul Tan of the Malacca-Johor diocese, who is concurrently president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia, said the Malay daily “appears to have a licence to publish unsubstantiated and wild allegations aimed at fomenting discord between Christians and Muslims in Malaysia”.

“It appears the authorities are more interested in checking and monitoring people engaged in legitimate expression of their rights than in stopping people who spread all sorts of calumnies against individuals and groups in this country,” he added.

Honour or hypocrisy?

The religious freedom of Christians and other faiths tragically rests on the PM’s political expediency and circumstantial goodwill conveyed during crisis moments in cordial, congenial and courteous close-door meetings together with a chosen few – and not on the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom!

Muslim extremists or fanatics who have been found guilty of sedition, criminal intimidation and sacrilegious acts either go scot-free or are given light and ludicrous court sentences which make the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the judiciary and the government laughable, and reduce Najib’s “moderate” resolve to check extremism to mere lip service.

Fanatics, extremists, or what the Minister in the PM Department calls “clowns” are given a free hand in taunting and threatening Christians and other faiths with a bloodbath and a holy war (jihad) whilst the landscape is littered with an increasing number of “Little Mullah Napoleons” running riot with their own brand of religion.

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What gives extremist Malay/Muslim groups the audacity to display their insolence with impunity? The moderate PM is their inspiration! During the 61st Umno Annual General Assembly, Najib moderately vowed to defend Umno’s five-decade stranglehold on the federal government even if it meant “crushed bodies”, “lost lives” and “ethnic cleansing”!

After being PM for almost three years, Najib has failed to fight the fires of racial and religious fanaticism, aggressively fanned by his own party. He takes flight and hides behind his 1Malaysia slogan – a faltering façade, farce and flop which makes him look so utterly foolish! Now we have another slogan – “moderation”!

According to Najib’s Umno, the Malay/Muslim majority in this country must stamp their superiority over the rest, made all the more easier by executive supremacy! Yet this very party that harps on supremacy (be it race or religion), claims that Muslims here can be very easily confused, convinced, controlled and converted!

Perhaps the saddest outcome of today’s “moderate Malaysia” is that we have accepted the distinction between “Muslim and non-Muslim dominated areas”. Yet, there was a time when the citizens of diverse races and religions so successfully lived together side-by-side in mutual respect and admiration!

Tengku Razaleigh, a veteran in Umno once, with dead honesty declared that ours is a “sham democracy… one which existed only in name but grievously compromised in substance, reality and fact”! According to the politician and prince, Malaysia has “a domineering style of leadership with the cult of the great leader”. How can there be moderation?

I hope that you will remind our PM of your wise warning in 2009 when speaking at the King Hussein bin Talal mosque in Amman that the “manipulation of religion sometimes for political ends… is the real catalyst for tension and division and at times even violence in society…”

I pray, Holy Father, that you will not allow our Prime Minister to politicise the papacy and use the visit as a political ploy and a public relations exercise with his predictable “moderate” proclamations, pious pronouncements and pretentious promises.

In spite of the depressing scenario that I have so described, we are not discouraged nor do we despair. You had once declared that “interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims … is a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends”.

It is this path and one towards a “more authentic mutual understanding” with our Muslim friends which many Catholics in Malaysia continue to strive towards. The divine always triumphs over evil human designs.

May the heavens intervene when His Holiness meets His Hollowness! May hype give way to true hope! May honour prevail over hypocrisy! May humility be the spirit that will grace the hallowed halls of Gandolfo!

Martin Jalleh, a well known political commentator, is a regular contributor to Aliran.

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Janet Baker
22 Jul 2011 5.14am

I read your open letter with sadness, because I fear hype will prevail. It’s not hype, either. It’s bad doctrine, the same that many sincere Catholics are protesting with increasing intensity as the real effects of the madness of Vatican II hits home. In this case, it was the reversal of the teaching of the Church regarding the secular versus the religious state. Vatican II wholeheartedly endorsed secularism, which means in practice the support of a democratically elected state, and the support of even the worst legislation from those same unmoored states as long as they were democratically conducted, the role of Catholicism being restricted to ‘forming consciences’ so that good-hearted people do not practice the sin that has become suddenly licit. It is difficult to explain but not because I am an unproficient exlainer! I am a pro-life ‘worker’ here in the US, and we are regularly scandalized, even crushed, by the warmth with which Benedict praises our Obama, who has unleashed the most horrific attack on all the fundamental values even as he fails to address the economic problems killing us (many of them… Read more »