When it comes to religion, respect is a two-way street

ANDER BURDAIN/UNSPLASH

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Religion is an emotive factor, particularly in a diverse society such as Malaysia, where it has been weaponised over the years by certain quarters for their own ends.

Religion has often become socially divisive, and not as a medium to build bridges or heal wounds as it is supposed to do.

That is why it is politically significant for Deputy PM Zahid Hamidi to have reportedly said that respecting religion goes both ways.

Addressing a “Pre-Gawai 2024” celebration in Sarikei, Sarawak, he added, “For my religion to be respected, I must learn to respect other religions”.

While his assurance to the multicultural Sarawakians is appreciated, such a vital message would carry more weight if it is also expressed by him and other politicians in the peninsula, where there were reported incidents in the past of certain Muslims, including preachers, hurling insults against other faiths.

Why, there was even a Muslim threat to burn the Bible in the past, which obviously caused anxiety and fear among Christians.

And it doesn’t help to allay fears among non-Muslims when certain Muslim individuals who were accused of insulting other religions appeared to have not been brought to justice.

To be sure, steps must be taken by the government to combat such insults in the interest of national harmony and inter-religious understanding and respect.

The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) recently took the initiative to set up a 24-hour hotline for the public to report any incidents involving “insults to Islam”, including on social media.

The minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Mohd Na’im Mokhtar, said the initiative involved a collaboration between Jakim, state religious departments, police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.

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This is obviously a high-powered message to the recalcitrant who try to mess around with the authorities.

But, to follow through Zahid’s argument that respecting religion should work both ways, surely similar measures ought to be taken to protect religions other than Islam from insults.

Since we don’t have a ministry of (all) religions, a monitoring body on behalf of all non-Islamic faiths may be established and parked under the Ministry of National Unity in collaboration with the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), as well as the police and the MCMC.

Such a move will show the public that the government is deeply concerned about religion-bashing and inter-religious schisms.

It is also to be fair to followers of faiths other than Islam, who are equally concerned about their faiths being smeared.

Besides, it should also be in the interest of Muslims, as Islamic teachings prohibit Muslims from insulting and sowing the seeds of hatred against other religions. 

Having said that, there has to be a concerted effort to define precisely what “insulting a religion” entails. This is to avoid possible abuse of broad definitions that could stand in the way of freedom of expression and legitimate criticism. 

Those who hurl insults might be emboldened if they are not checked in time. Their written or verbal hate might eventually find violent expression in the larger society.

There is obviously more to be gained if there is a conscious attempt to embrace differences and celebrate diversity in our society. 

Let’s have faith in our solidarity and mutual respect. – The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Mustafa K Anuar
Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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