Sunday January 26, 2014
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Azrul Mohd Khalib

Azrul Mohd Khalib is a social activist who works on HIV/AIDS, sexual reproductive health and human rights issues. He unashamedly considers himself a moderate and liberal person who loves reading great books and naughty stories, and running. He can be contacted at azrulmohdkhalib@gmail.com or on Twitter @azrulmohdkhalib

A girl wearing a hijab waits at the Shah Alam stadium during celebrations of Maulidur Rasul, or the birth of Prophet Muhammad, outside Kuala Lumpur January 14, 2014. — Reuters picA girl wearing a hijab waits at the Shah Alam stadium during celebrations of Maulidur Rasul, or the birth of Prophet Muhammad, outside Kuala Lumpur January 14, 2014. — Reuters picJAN  26 — Actually, to my mind, whether one is Muslim or non-Muslim, it really matters not. But the reality is far different. Many of us have viewed the recent shenanigans of various individuals, organisations and groups which seek to divide our country into these two categories. There have been so many champions and defenders of the faith who have been self-anointed or self-appointed. It’s hard to keep track honestly. 

As if Allah needed defending. I am reminded by what is arguably one of Abdurrahman Wahid’s (Gus Dur) greatest legacies: his statement that “Allah tidak perlu dibela” (Allah needs no defender) (Tempo magazine, 1982).

But really, let us be clear. The issue here is not about a word. It never was. What this debacle is really about is power, exclusivity, entitlement and dominance.

For many Malaysians, this is a distraction from bread and butter issues. With the rising prices of goods (except kangkung) affecting the cost of living and quality of life, we really have no time to get upset with the possession of a word. Or how people of another faith calls God. 

These debates are often seen as the luxury of those who don’t have to worry about three meals a day, hungry mouths to feed and having a roof over their heads. At the end of the day, it contributes very little to whether or not a person is able to support himself or herself or the family.

However, this issue is not only about religious freedom, nourishment for the soul. It is also about drawing a line in the sand and putting a stop to religious tyranny and repression. This is not an unfamiliar road. 

The bitter histories of other countries have shown that those who choose to travel down this path and drag others down it inevitably end up with fascism which impacts every aspect of people’s lives. Make no mistake. This is not an isolated issue.

Over the past few weeks, I have heard so many stories from Peninsular and East Malaysian Christians (and even Sikhs) who are bewildered, confused and honestly, quite scared. Anguished, they are at a loss to understand the series of events which have led to a court deciding that one of the words which they have used for generations to address God on their lips and in their hearts, is not “integral” to their worship. 

That by this virtue, the ability to address God in a particular language seemingly belongs to those of another faith and to them alone. That the Holy Bible in Bahasa Malaysia and imprinted with the word Allah is considered contraband and subject to confiscation by religious enforcers of that other faith. Where then are the guarantees under the Federal Constitution which, last time I checked, is the ultimate law of Malaysia?

There are many who argue, including those who are supposedly learned and knowledgeable such as the bearded wise men of the Majlis Agama Islam Selangor, as to why there is even a need to translate the Bible into Bahasa Malaysia?  They maliciously insinuate and even accuse the Catholic Church of doing so for the purposes of proselytising and converting specifically Muslims. 

Because it is a national language, Bahasa Malaysia is spoken widely. For many, it is the only language they speak and read. How else would one communicate with the congregation if not in that language? In Latin? Would you deny another person the right to the freedom of religion simply based on the erroneous conviction that Bahasa Malaysia is synonymous with Malays and Islam?

The widespread belief that the Christians predominantly and automatically speak and read the English language is central to this massive misunderstanding which dominates today’s discussion. As if being a member of another faith confers comprehension of a particular language or that a language “belongs” to a specific religion. The ability to reach out and embrace adherents of a faith is central to all religions regardless of language.

I wonder if the Prophet Muhammad pbuh were alive today, what he would make of this ridiculous tussle to seize the word Allah and make it exclusive to Islam. Maybe he would shake his head in wonderment and in his best Kedahan accent say, “Biaq pi la depa nak cakap nama tuhan tu Allah. Yang hangpa nak menyibuk pasai agama orang lain apa hai?” (Let them use the word Allah to call God. Why are you so busybody and wanting to disturb other people’s faith?).

Islam, as I understand it, is not and has never been about exclusivity. The Prophet Muhammad himself, through numerous examples, practised inclusivity and religious pluralism. Exclusivity not only goes against the teachings of Islam, it also prevents others from understanding Muslims and Islam, which ironically we hear time and again, being called for by fringe extreme groups such as Perkasa, ISMA and some factions in Umno and PAS. 

You must understand and learn about Islam, they say. But they make very little effort to understand other religions, which has led us to this mess. Exclusivity cultivates misunderstanding, ignorance, conflict, hate and fear. Exclusivity breeds contempt for others and arrogance. Neither the Quran nor the sunnah encourages this. 

More than ever, we need people to engage in an interfaith dialogue with representation from all major faiths in Malaysia. For once, nobody should come to the table from a position of power and dominance. Instead it should be with recognition of the equality of religions, following the example of religious pluralism laid forth by the Prophet.

To my Muslim brothers and sisters, I say this to you. Let us not allow our faith and our religious beliefs to be hijacked by groups and people such as Perkasa and ISMA who have fringe and extremist views regarding Islam in Malaysia and those of other faiths. Close your ears to the messages of fear, distrust and hate, even when they come clothed as religious rulings or come from the Friday khutbah because men are fallible and we know who writes those texts. 

Do not be afraid to question. With questions, come reasoning, answers, knowledge and enlightenment. These days, we seem to be scared of the shadows and do not hesitate to threaten others. We fear only that which is unknown and if we fear our non-Muslim brothers and sisters, particularly those who are Christian, it is because we have not done enough to know about them and their faith. 

It is no longer enough to eat together and visit each other’s open house. Speak to them and learn. Banish that fear, the prejudice, the bigotry and the injustice.

To my non-Muslim brothers and sisters, I ask for patience, compassion, love and acceptance. Open your doors and your hearts to us so that we may learn and know of you better. I know some of you already have. Forgive us for our harsh words and actions because sometimes we know not what we do. I sometimes fear that as humans, even your patience has limits. Don’t lose faith in us

To all Malaysians: we need to get some sanity back and to send a clear signal to our leaders, representatives and these people who claim to speak for us and on our behalf but remain silent. This arrogance is not what our individual faiths are about. Neither is it about being rigid, regressive, dominant, tyrannical nor authoritarian. 

When you go for prayers in church, temples and mosques or attend public events this end of the week, do so with your head bowed low in humility but with the strength of conviction in our hearts. Wear a flower or a purple ribbon on your person and find others not of your faith and give flowers to them. 

When people ask why, tell them why. While others may lift their voices in anger, and have spiteful messages on banners and placards, we do not need these. Let the humble flower and ribbon become symbols of our message of peace and acceptance.

Let us gather in public spaces wearing and holding flowers in our hands and pinned ribbons on our chests while observing short moments of silence and prayer. Malaysians are a peaceful lot and that the frothing in the mouth group do not have the monopoly of the public’s attention and support. 

Of late, I have often thought of this paraphrased quote from the movie Thirteen Days, “if the sun comes up tomorrow, it is only because of persons of good will. That is all there is between us and the devil.”

As Malaysians for Malaysia, let us be these persons of good will. For that, is all there is.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.

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