Food for unity thought

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File photo - People of all faiths joined in solidarity with those breaking their fast at the Acheen Street Mosque in Penang ahead of Raya

The unity issues management committee must look into the underlying causes – and not mere symptoms – of hate speech, race-baiting, and racial prejudices, writes Mustafa K Anuar.

Malaysians like to eat, to the extent that some even claim that food can be a unifying factor for a multi-ethnic and multicultural Malaysia.

And yet, food can also be a cause for concern for adherents of religious traditions when it comes to dietary obligations.

The issue raised by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P Waytha Moorthy concerning a student’s complaint of being deprived of his vegetarian food by his educational institution deserves serious attention. It suggests a lack of basic understanding and respect for religious or dietary requirements among some members of society.

Such poor understanding and inadequate respect are often manifested in many official functions organised by governmental departments, as well as private organisations, where strict adherence tends to be observed for Muslims’ halal food while the Hindus’ vegetarian diet is largely neglected.

The worst example of food becoming a divisive factor is when the religious obligation of Muslim students – ie fasting – was reportedly observed at the expense of freedom to eat among their non-Muslim counterparts at a school in Sungai Buloh in 2013. The non-Muslims students had to eat in a changing room, supposedly not to offend their fasting friends. Doesn’t sound like what Islam truly preaches here.

Conscious observance of the dietary obligations of various religious groups goes a long way towards enhancing mutual understanding and respect among members of our pluralistic society.

Acknowledging the importance of these dietary obligations for certain groups, as well as the freedom to eat for others, would help strengthen our sense of belonging to this diverse entity called Malaysia.

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If anything, food can be an easy and efficient mechanism for Malaysians to get to know about the cultures of “the Others” that is very much needed at a time when ethnic relations appear to be fragile.

However, it is useful to remember that any lack of understanding and respect for the cultures of others that exists in our midst does not occur in a social vacuum. This situation is in large part brought about by the toxic politics of race and religion that is played by certain politicians and other individuals with nefarious agendas.

As we all know, many of these individuals, as well as the parties or organisations they represent, profit politically at the altar of ethno-religious exploitation, to the detriment of ethnic relations and overall progress in our society.

Moreover, in a social context where racial and religious sensitivities are heightened, cultural differences tend to be exaggerated to the point of becoming defence mechanisms against perceived cultural threats. Here, differences are clearly no longer celebrated.

That is why the unity issues management committee that is to be set up soon should take into account the prejudices, hate speech and discriminatory practices of certain politicians when searching for solutions to sensitive and ethnic issues in the country.

While it is commendable that the government has made the decision to set up this committee, it should bear in mind that the committee has also to look for the underlying causes – and not mere symptoms – of hate speech, race-baiting, and racial prejudices and discrimination if it is serious about searching for a long-term solution.

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For one thing, some public policies that were crafted in the past had the effect, directly or otherwise, of marginalising certain groups in society that, in turn, fostered resentment and unhappiness.

Obviously, such unhappiness must be addressed adequately so that the cultural smorgasbord that we have, truly becomes an asset that we pride ourselves in.

Source: themalaysianinsight.com

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