So, the controversy surrounding Bon Odori is still raging even after Selangor’s Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah intervened to clarify that the Japanese festival, which is to be held on 16 July in his state, is not detrimental to the practice of the Islamic faith, as the festival is cultural and not religious in nature.
This came about after Religious Affairs Minister Idris Ahmad claimed that the Japanese festival had religious elements that could adversely affect the faith of Muslims who intend to participate in the cultural event.
He and his Pas party had issued a warning to Muslims not to attend the event in defiance of the ruling of the Sultan – who is also the chairman of the muzakarah committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs – that interested Muslims should not be obstructed from attending the festival.
The Japanese festival has been held for the last 45 years in Malaysia, attracting not only the Japanese community in the country but also others interested in celebrating it. The festival has also fostered close relations between Japan and Malaysia.
All these years, no objections were made against the cultural event nor was there any report about Muslims having their faith shaken as a result of participating in the event.
That is why some people wonder, rightly or wrongly, whether Pas’ objection to Bon Odori at this juncture was an attempt to burnish its Islamic credentials prior to the next general election.
In an earnest desire to save Muslims from being ‘confused’ over the Japanese festival, a suggestion was even made to change the name Bon Odori into something else.
Here we wonder whether Bon Jovi would make a good alternative, but then we may run the risk of having some Muslims getting hooked on the supposedly insidious rock music culture as a result. (For the uninitiated, Bon Jovi is the name of an American rock band formed in 1983. Its name was picked from thin air to suggest that it is as good as any, but would not – and should not – change the nature of the festival.)
We’ve been here before. Such a suggestion throws us back to the moment when the Timah whiskey producers were asked to change its name, as if that would enable everyone to wrap their head around the alcoholic drink. Since then, no Muslims were reported to have been confused about, let alone drunk on, what the spirit is all about.
For reasons best known only to Idris and his ilk, ordinary Muslims are often assumed to be easily confused, particularly when it involves cultural interactions between Muslims and people of other faiths and cultures in the country.
It is counterproductive and unfair to treat fellow Muslims as if they are a lost tribe or their faith is so fragile that moral police are needed to hold their hands.
To be sure, the common people, Muslims or otherwise, generally do not easily blur the line between right and wrong, unlike many politicians, especially in recent years, who have lost their moral compass in the dizzying pursuit of political power and fortune.
What is important is the intent that lies behind one’s overt action, which would indicate whether the line has been crossed. This is reminded and emphasised in Islam.
Hence, a Muslim could wish a friend, for example, Happy Deepavali and even visit the latter’s house as part of the celebration without having his or her creed eroded.
Following this argument, one could even watch the Bon Odori on social media (as advanced technology has the capacity to make easy access to knowledge and events), knowing fully well it is done out of curiosity or to enjoy oneself while one’s faith is still kept intact. In fact, it would possibly strengthen one’s faith in the face of many challenges.
There is no need for political power to regulate the intent of the faithful. Nor should the will of the powerful be imposed on the people in an undemocratic fashion.
To reiterate, one’s intent is important, particularly in a multicultural society in which we are expected to foster good relations with people of other faiths and cultures as part of being inclusive.
Clearly, we cannot afford to harbour a narrow worldview and, God forbid, bigotry when tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are essential in a diverse society.
Perhaps we should take a leaf from our neighbour’s book. Indonesia has taken a step further to forge harmonious relations between adherents of various faiths in the country. Its Religion Minister (for all religious persuasions) Yaqut Cholil Quomas had declared this year as the Year of Tolerance in an endeavour to make Indonesia a barometer of religious harmony in the world.
There is life, no less divine, beyond parochialism. – The Malaysian Insight