The Malay Mail Online
May 15, 2015
MAY 15 — Last month, I had the honour of being selected to participate in the Australia-Malaysia Institute (AMI) Muslim Exchange Programme Visit.
The purpose of the programme was for us, the participants, to discover different perspectives on current cultural issues in an increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-religious migrant society such as Australia.
Through the programme, we were also able to exchange ideas and experiences with various communities there.
As the main objective of the programme was to broaden our understanding of inter-community relations, the state of Victoria was an obvious place to visit. Victorians originated from more than 200 countries, speak more than 230 languages and dialects, and follow more than 130 religious faiths. While their origins couldn’t be anymore diverse, they all migrated with one aspiration in mind – to find a better life for themselves and their children.
A memorable highlight of the visit was when we had afternoon tea and lamingtons (a traditional Australian treat of sponge cake squares coated in chocolate and grated coconut) at a kosher café in Balaclava.
As interesting as the lamingtons were, we were more enthralled by the conversation we had with Abraham, a rabbi and Mohsin, an imam.
Recalling how they first met, Imam Mohsin related that he had been asking the local council for a place to assemble in order to conduct weekly Friday prayers for the small Muslim community in Balaclava.
However, response was not positive due to anxiety over the Islamic State threat and other unfounded militant sentiments associated with Muslims. The council was afraid that the premise would be used for malicious rather than religious purposes.
Rabbi Abraham, having noticed the situation, wrote a letter on behalf of the small Jewish community (also a minority) to support Imam Mohsins’s plea to practise his religion. After further discussions, the local council agreed and Muslims in Balaclava were granted a place to assemble for their weekly Friday prayers.
This was a beautiful story of people from different faiths respecting and supporting each other’s right to practise their own religion peacefully.
Meanwhile, little did we realise that back home, Malaysia was experiencing a totally different kind of religious engagement. A church in Taman Medan had its weekly Sunday mass interrupted by a group of politically motivated “ethno-religious protesters” who showed up with placards, demanding for the removal of a cross affixed to the exterior of the building.
The cross was then voluntarily removed by the church, for fear of further threats. As news broke of this incident, demands by the public for the police to intervene were met by a defiant IGP’s pronouncement that there was nothing seditious about the group’s demonstration as no one had been harmed.
Thankfully, the Selangor Menteri Besar saved the day by exhorting that there was nothing wrong with a cross or any religious symbole on the building’s façade.
Religions as the unifying force
In today’s world, religions seem to be a dividing factor rather than a unifying one. This is true even within a country that has only one religion, as different interpretations of that faith can cause conflict and intolerance. Throughout history, we have seen clashes between Christianity and Islam, the Protestant-Catholic feud within Christiniatiy, the Shunni-Shia divide within Islam, amongst others.
As much as religion can be used as a force of good, it can also be easily abused by bigots and rabble-rousers. This is because religion can easily arouse emotions of love or hate, construction or destruction, peace or war, depending on the intent and purpose of its preachers.
Hence, when it comes to managing multi-religious interaction and relationships, it is important to refrain from arguing over exclusive religious claims or attempting to convert others directly, but rather to use it as an opportunity to promote mutual respect, understanding and recognition of different faiths and spiritual traditions. More importantly, we should focus on the commonality that is present in each and every religion – values of goodwill, love, justice and peace.
I believe that by allowing fellow Malaysians to practise their religions, whatever they are and however different they may be, would not shake my conviction but instead strengthen my own belief in God and His beautiful ways.
After all, I have been taught that Islam clearly accepts people’s right to follow the religion of their choice, as stated clearly in the Holy Quran: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2: 190) and “to you your religion, to me mine” (109:6).