Civil society must build bridges across the Muslim-non-Muslim divide

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Now, more than ever before, progressive and critical voices must be heard within our respective religions, urges Francis Loh.


It is most telling that the Prime Minister’s special aide, in the midst of speaking about 1Malaysia, apparently for the umpteenth time, makes insensitive racist remarks about the Chinese and Indians. It raises questions about what kinds of people get so close to the PM, what their attitudes towards other ethno-religious groups are, and what they really mean when they call for ‘1Malaysia’.

Simillarly, it is ticklish to read about the MCA trying to resolve ethno-religious conflict when its leaders cannot even agree among themselves to disagree!

Tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, not just Christians, have been rising. The recent arson and other attacks on churches, temples and suraus, triggered off by the High Court’s ruling over the use of ‘Allah’, is but one of the controversies that have contributed towards rising tensions.

In 2009, the ‘cow’s head incident’ occurred in Shah Alam, which was most disrespectful of Hindu sensitivities, because a group of Muslims opposed the relocation of a Hindu temple to a site where Malay-Muslims were a majority.

From 2007 to 2009, there had occurred a series of controversies surrounding competing legal jurisdictions between the civil court and the sharia such as the Lina Joy case; the custody cases involving Shamala Sathiyaseelan and R Subashini (whose respective husbands had embraced Islam and converted their children as well); and the burials of Moorthy Maniam@Mohammad Abdullah and Rayappan Anthony, whose bodies were claimed by the Islamic authorities on the grounds that they were converts.

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Tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims must be addressed and resolved. The BN government’s current modus operandi of conflict resolution behind closed doors has reached its upper limits. Progressive people in civil society must get involved.

Perhaps the first step is to push for a permanent inter-religious organisation, whatever form it takes. Unlike the MCCBCHST, this organisation must include Muslims. This will provide a forum where controversies can be discussed and suggestions put forward to the government, and to society at large. No doubt the matter can be sensitive. But not acting is not an option.

We also need to strengthen our democratic institutions for they offer the best protection of the rights of all Malaysians, especially minority groups. A fundamental principle of any democracy is to avoid the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Hence, judges must be courageous and dispense justice without fear or favour. There is a huge credibility gap vis-à-vis the justice system among ordinary citizens which must be corrected. Legislators should wake up and challenge all bills which are unjust, not just those pertaining to matters of religion. The Executive must recognise the seriousness of the present situation and move fast, rather than politicise the situation.

The easiest way to reach a consensus on the matter is to defend and promote the integrity of the Federal Constitution and ensure that there is a place for all, regardless of creed, in Malaysia.

Finally, there is a need to broaden our understanding of national unity. It is not merely the absence of conflict. Aliran has argued that National Unity should be propped up by five pillars: a celebration of our diversity; a commitment to pluralism; respect for democracy; dedication to justice; compassion and solidarity with all in need.

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We have the responsibility to promote such values within our own religious community. Progressive-minded Muslims should reach out to their fellow conservative Muslims, progressive-minded Christians should do the same vis-a-vis their fellow conservative Christians, and so forth.  The interpretation of religious texts should be democratised instead of being the monopoly of conservative clerics and inward-looking scholars.

Now, more than ever before, progressive and critical voices must be heard within our respective religions. And they should also hold dialogues with their counterparts in other religions not just on religious matters, but also about ushering in socio-economic development and democratisation for all.

Francis Loh is the hon secretary of Aliran

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