Thin skin and relative sensitivities

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To unilaterally demand that a perfectly sensible, responsible and objective public forum be stopped on account of the perceived injury to one community – real or imagined – smacks of bias and prejudice, and the failure to even understand the anxiety of other communities, observes Farish A Noor. One is compelled to ask if these ‘defenders of Islam’ have even thought of the pain and anguish caused to those families who have seen and lived through broken marriages, divorces and grave-robbings? Or do the feelings of other communities not count, and do other communities have no sensitivities?

Odd how sensitive some people can be at times. Reading the reports about the debacle that passed during the Bar Council’s public forum on religious conversions in Malaysia, one gets the distinct impression that there are still many Malaysians among us who cannot and do not understand the meaning of respectful, intelligent dialogue between equal citizens who have reached adulthood. Rather than sitting down quietly and listening to the other’s point of view before making one’s own point or expressing one’s reservations, it turned out that a rather large crowd of demonstrators had assembled to demand that the forum be called off altogether, on the grounds that such a forum would upset the gentle and genteel sensitivities of some.

Well, before commenting any further, let us revisit what actually happened at the Bar Council’s forum itself:

According to the Bar Council’s account of the event, the forum passed without any undue incident and the discussion – before it was disrupted – proceeded without any degree of animosity or chaos. The first part of the forum involved two individuals who merely recounted their personal experiences of having to deal with the issue of conversion when a member of their respective families or spouses had converted to another religion without their knowledge. This was, by all accounts, a rather mundane recounting of personal experiences for the sake of shedding some light onto what actually happens in such cases and showing just how such instances of conversion can lead to all manner of legal complications later. The second part of the forum was stopped before it began thanks to the entry of some of the protestors into the auditorium, thereby forcing the Bar Council to bring the proceedings to an untimely end.

Beyond the forum itself what really caught the attention of the press has been the reaction of the crowd of demonstrators and the language used by some of them as they demanded the forum to be stopped: Taunts of a racial nature, apparently, were used and there are reports of phrases like ‘Babi’ and ‘Balik Cina’ being uttered, by the very same people who claim to be defenders of a faith that is just and loving. One wonders just how Islam can be reconciled with such racist language and behaviour and whether those who uttered such remarks considered the simple fact that it was they who were really damaging the image of Islam and Muslims in Malaysia…

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To make things worse, the Bar Council’s report (http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/family_law/molotov_cocktail_thrown_into_bar_president_s_old_house.html) on the forum went on to note that Molotov cocktails were found in the vicinity of the Bar Council building, and that on the same day another Molotov cocktail had been thrown into the compound of the former residence of the President of the Bar Council. Should these developments be related, we are again compelled to ask the obvious question: Was this also part of the defence of Islam and the reputation of Muslims, one wonders?

Malaysians, of course, are not unused to the claim that certain topics and issues cannot be discussed in public due to ‘public sensitivities’. Since the formation of this nation, we have been told again and again that issues such as race and religion are taboo and that Malaysian citizens are not allowed to discuss them in the open.

What is distressing, however, is the fact that among those who took part in the demonstration were also leaders of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance, notably YB Zulkifli Nordin of PKR and YB Salehudin Ayob of PAS. It would appear that despite claims to representing a new Malaysia that aims to go beyond the communitarian logic of the past, some leaders of the Pakatan Rakyat have no problems whatsoever calling for a ban on public forums alongside their counterparts in Umno. And some of us were under the mistaken impression that the results of the 8 March 2008 elections were an indication of the emergence of a new Malaysian politics that is non-sectarian and non-communitarian. Perhaps we should be thankful for the active and vocal participation of the PKR and Pas in this latest fiasco, which has reminded us that nothing has really changed after all.

While disrupting public forums has become somewhat of a speciality among the more robust members of the BN, as was the case during the disruption of the Apcet II meeting in KL years ago, it is sad to see that the component parties of the PR are likewise able to emulate their BN counterparts, all in the name of protecting Muslim sensitivities. We therefore need to raise a host of other related questions here, that may shed some light into helping us understand the real motivations behind this latest drama in Malaysia’s convoluted politics:

Firstly, it should be noted that talk of ‘protecting public sensitivities’ is not unique to Malaysia or Muslims alone. In my research into the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups in India, I have come across ample instances of the same sort of skewered logic at work; where extreme right-wing Hindu fascists proclaiming the exclusive ideology of Hindutva have also resorted to the same sort of argument. Thus whenever there is any debate about the rights of Muslim minorities in India, the right-wing Hindutva lobby sounds the rallying call of ‘Hindus in danger!’ and makes the claim that Muslims and Christians are touching on Hindu sensitivities, and consequently provoking a violent response. Even after numerous instances of mosques being destroyed, Muslims being harassed, attacked and even killed, the Muslims of India are told that they cannot question the politics of the far-right Hindu lobby, its hate campaigns and demonisation of other faiths, as this is a ‘sensitive issue’ that would ‘inflame Hindu anger’. Minorities in India have thus been held hostage by an extremist, racist, Hindutva lobby and one cannot even question this on the grounds that such interrogation would be insensitive! Now, tell me, is it not the case that a similarly flawed and biased logic is at work here in Malaysia?

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The appeal to communal sensitivity is perhaps one of the easiest ploys that have been used time and again to further the end of extremist, communitarian and sectarian politics at its worst. Likewise the issuance of bogus threats and fear-mongering campaigns that are designed to distract our attention from the real issues at stake, and that are instead used merely as a smokescreen for a more insidious politics of racial, ethnic or religious majoritarianism worldwide. From the rise of the Fascists in Europe during the 1930s to the rise of the Hindutva lobby from the 1970s and the rise of Muslim fundamentalists from the 1980s, we have seen the same tired and worn-out strategy at work: To use the notion of ‘public sensitivity’ as a blanket excuse to foreclose debate, narrow down the public domain, marginalise civil society and erode democracy. While this is to be expected from a ruling elite that is bankrupt of ideas and values, again we need to ask: why was PKR and Pas there?

Secondly, we would like to remind our friends in the Pakatan Rakyat that the PR is precisely that: it is the PEOPLE’s alliance and it is meant to express and mirror the aspirations of the Malaysian people as a whole. Now this may be news to some of the leaders of PKR and Pas, but Malaysia happens to be a plural, multi-confessional nation that is complex. Malaysian society is made up of many different faith communities as there are varied ethnicities. The election results of 8 March 2008 was the clearest indicator ever, given by this plural Malaysian public, that we want a new form of national politics that transcends racial, ethnic and religious differences; one that demands a new politics based on universal citizenship.

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Now one of the features of any democratic plural society is its maturity and ability to deal with matters that transcend communal divisions, including religious conversion. In case the leaders of PKR and Pas are not aware of this, conversion is a commonplace occurrence and it often leads to distress among family members and those related to the convert. I myself have had to play a pastoral role in assuaging the worries of many non-Muslim families when one of their members converted to Islam. Surely this is a matter that requires all those qualities that Islam speaks of: compassion, understanding, sympathy and integrity – and not to merely fly off the handle and start a demonstration just to make a point and grab some media publicity.

To unilaterally demand that a perfectly sensible, responsible and objective public forum be stopped on account of the perceived injury to one community – real or imagined – smacks of bias and prejudice, and the failure to even understand the anxiety of other communities. One is compelled to ask if these ‘defenders of Islam’ have even thought of the pain and anguish caused to those families who have seen and lived through broken marriages, divorces and grave-robbings? Or do the feelings of other communities not count, and do other communities have no sensitivities? Why is if that time and again, it is only the sensitivities of Muslims that matter in the eyes of some of these people?

And finally a note about decorum and language. That PKR and Pas could have been present at a demonstration where phrases like ‘Babi balik Cina’ were uttered is a mind-boggling revelation that beggars belief. If the members of Pas’ Unit Amal could have walked out of a public performance simply because they did not take to the sort of music being played at a concert on the grounds of its alleged indecency, how and why could they consent to be present at a demonstration where such foul, obscene racist language was used? Or have we come to a point where Pas is able to live with racist language that calls on our fellow Malaysians to ‘balik Cina’, while unable to tolerate even a simple, mature and objective discussion on freedom of religion?

Truly, the event at the Bar Council has served as a check on the perception and optimism of the Malaysian public who voted for the Pakatan in March. We gave the parties of the Pakatan – notably the PKR and Pas – our votes on trust and the longing to see a new Malaysia. Instead, all we have is the hysteria of mass-organised moral panics and the language of ‘babi balik Cina’ instead. Shame on you.

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