Is there a need for more interfaith dialogue in Malaysia? (Part 1)

— Dina Zaman
The Malaysian Insider
Jun 23, 2012

JUNE 23 — Malaysia is not unique in its multicultural make-up, and the problems it faces. What makes Malaysia unique is Islam is the largest practised religion, (not unlike Indonesia) with a huge percentage of people who practise other faiths and beliefs. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution declares that Islam is the religion of the Federation, and that this does not affect the other provisions of the Constitution (Article 4(3)). Therefore, the fact that Islam is the religion of Malaysia does not by itself import Islamic principles into the Constitution but it does contain a number of specific Islamic features:

States may create their own laws to govern Muslims in respect of Islamic law and personal and family law matter. States may create Syariah courts to adjudicate over Muslims in respect of State Islamic laws. States may also create laws in relation to offences against precepts of Islam but this is subject to a number of limitations: (i) such laws may only apply to Muslims, (ii) such laws may not create criminal offences as only Parliament has the power to create criminal laws and (iii) the State Syariah Courts have no jurisdiction over Islamic offences unless allowed by federal law (see the above section). Much has been said about the country and its tolerance for the many faiths practised by its people. Malaysia makes for a fantastic advertisement on multiculturalism, and the infamous Malaysia, Truly Asia advertisement seen on television is proof of that.

The Myth of Malaysia, Truly Asia

Note the word ‘tolerance’, and herein lies the root of all the problems the country faces. In the past seven years, religious tensions dominate the news on a regular basis. “Perkasa (an all Malay ultranationalist group) ready to crusade against ungrateful Christians,” “Tension rise among Malaysian Muslims and Christians”, to name a few are some of the headliners seen by Malaysians and global community. These examples are rather tame, to put it mildly, especially when other news of animal heads being thrown into the compounds of mosques and temples dominate and promote an even more fearful, distrustful atmosphere.

Jakim’s (Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development) guidelines for Muslims participating in non-Muslim festivals are cited as follows:

(Muslims may attend) the event (as long as it) is not accompanied by ceremonies that are against the Islamic faith (aqidah).

For example:

to include religious symbols such as the cross, installing lights, candles, Christmas tree and so forth; to sing religious songs; to put any religious markings on the forehead, or other markings onto parts of the body; to deliver speech or gestures in the form of a praise to the non-Muslim religion; to bow or conduct acts of honour to the religious ceremony of non-Muslims. wearing red costumes like Santa Claus or other garments that reflect religion; serving intoxicating food or beverages and the likes; having sounds or ornaments like church bells, Christmas tree, temple or breaking of coconuts; having ceremonies with elements of gaming, worship, cult, superstitions and the likes. [2] Leaders of religious communities and political parties have condemned such actions, and Malaysians have taken it upon themselves to quell this paranoia. Among young people and up and coming activists, dialogues, forums and gatherings have been organised where ‘The Other Meets The Other.’

There have been studies on ethnic relations in Malaysia, but on the macro level. If there is (micro) then these studies have yet to come into the public domain. Dr Patricia A Martinez’s survey on Muslim identities and their concerns, which is highly quoted and a reference, was published in 2005. The picture has changed in many ways, but this is best left to be discussed in another essay. Merdeka Centre publishes social surveys on a regular basis and its 2011 survey on ethnic relations showed that the divide is increasing; 39 percent identified themselves as Malaysians first, while 41 percent saw themselves as followers of a faith first. There was a 12 per cent decline in respondents who said that “ethnic relations were good.” “44 per cent thought it was just superficial unity. They (respondents) were mostly Chinese (50%), below 30 (52%), high educated and high income (> 50%),” the survey quoted. In another finding in the survey, “Those who stated ethnic relations have grown “further apart” were mostly are Indian & Malay respondents, male and younger people.” Yet, there is hope. 96 per cent said that inter-ethnic relations were very important, “… to avoid conflict, create unity among each other and understand one another (culture).”

An Observation

As an observer and commentator of faith in Malaysia, I would like to say that this essay is by no means a solid study of inter-faith dialogue in this country. The work I do is a combination of research, interviews and observations. Some are anecdotal.

For instance, when the Jakim fatwa on non-Muslim celebration went viral on Facebook, and a debate on an Al-Azhar University thesis which said that the hijab was cultural, more than a religious obligation, an outcry was heard. The one comment I kept hearing was that such incidents should not be exposed, as Islam and its people would be ridiculed and mocked at. It was interesting to observe the outcry: the liberals went to town within their own clique, and the conservatives raged in their own circles. When I suggested that perhaps a dialogue, however angry, should be held, between the two parties, the suggestion was turned down. Both parties had their own opinions and were not willing to discuss and negotiate. Also, “… an Islamic state (and her ruler) has every right to censor what may be unhealthy for the ummah. If a debate can split a people, then it must not be allowed.” This goes against the principle of Syura (consultation among those affected)

Another observation which was ironic and comic in a way: the hijab thesis sparked a debate among women, and these women were observant Muslims who wore the veil. The women who donned the hijab, but were exposed, educated abroad, well-read were more forthcoming and willing to meet halfway, while the women who were educated locally in predominantly Malay institutions (not universities), had little exposure to global affairs and reading materials were the current pop flavour of the month, were vehement and refused to engage, preferring to condemn the thesis and the debate which followed it. They were also of the opinion that non-Muslims should stay clear away from discussing Islam because “… they were not Muslims.”

If within a faith, the believers (and this is by no means just a Muslim problem. Even the Christians have their moments) refuse to engage with each other, how will this help inter-faith dialogue?

There have been many inter-faith dialogues organised but they tend to be urban-centric and attended by stakeholders, the elite activists and public intellectuals, the converted and the ‘urban-curious’ or ‘urban-concerned.’ Then there is the arrogance (defensiveness?) of believers and non-believers – I will listen to what you say, but my way is still the right and best. Add to the mixture the generation gap: The new wave of ulamas who want to engage and meet with their non Muslim brethren. Here’s the old guard who view such interactions suspiciously. At end of the day, the agenda is the same, we may live together, and tolerate each others’ sentiments, but remember that Malaysia is a Muslim country, and it is populated by a predominantly Muslim people. We must protect our people.

Some recommendations I would like to humbly suggest when dealing with such prickly topics. The culture of thinking and reading critically is largely absent from the Malaysian psyche. Even among academics, religious and cultural priorities may influence their work. Objectivity and emotional detachment are not easy to inculcate but are needed. Sadly, our national education system no longer supports the study of literature and the art of the essay. The list of complaints is long but what we must do is inculcate this culture in ourselves.

Second — we need to learn to agree to disagree. As a former editor at Internet news websites, the commentators seem to be prone to hysterionics. Now that the Internet has allowed the space to vent, Malaysians, who are still infants at thinking and communicating objectively and critically, verbalise their thoughts, and not always in the most healthy fashion. The silent readers who are articulate and prefer to keep mum for reasons such as (a) being intimidated by a vocal crowd (b) not interested in being in a debate, should be encouraged to speak out. We must learn that disagreement does not mean to paint one in a bad light: it’s just an opinion.

Thirdly, the dialogues must move away from the cloistered worlds of NGOs and urbanites. It cannot be the domain of the intellectual and power elites, and the stakeholders.

Can The Media Help?

At the end of the day, news sells, and that is the business of the media, in spite of its lofty goals of upholding the truth. While it is responsible for the articles it churns out, it wants a readership. I am not saying that the media, mainstream or otherwise, create falsehoods to retain and attract readership, but sometimes both of them do not help the situation.

Just look for ‘Cow’s head’ ‘Perkasa’ ‘Muslim-Christian relations in Malaysia’ in the search engines of the media, and in Google. The reader would probably think that we are hammer and tongs at each other every day. Yes we do have problems, but it is not as if cows’ heads and porcine matter are flung at every mosque and temple on a daily basis.

And when a media organ seems to side a certain leaning — conservative, liberal, what have you — it stokes the ambers of fear and hate. It’s all very well to speak to the editors and ask them to tamper the contents of their newspapers, but realistically, editors have no time to deal with such issues, even if the issues are close to their hearts. Deadlines; content; sub-editing; closing the print newspaper; updating online on an hourly basis — the editor is a juggler.

We must also be mindful of contributing to the hysteria. The Internet which has allowed such sites like The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today to thrive, has created a monster in some of its readers. Columnists are well read and learned help very much in the fight against xenophobia, but with a population that is still struggling to understand the truth of its country and lacking the tools to do so, the fight can be futile. Internet penetration may be high, but is this influence positive? Are Malaysians reading more news, educating themselves about human rights and civil society, or are they watching pornography? What do Malaysians use the Internet for? The European Travel Commission’s findings show the following,

Once online, Malaysians primarily use social networking sites. Almost three-quarters (71%) are keeping in touch with friends and family via these sites, a 24% increase from 2009. Instant messaging and reading local news rounded out the top three online activities. (The Nielsen Company, April 2011)

Malaysian internet usage is driven primarily by people in Central Region. The Central region, which consists of Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, led as the most dominant region for online usage, accounting for 54.4% of the total internet audience in Malaysia in August 2010, 51.3% of pages consumed and 52.6% of minutes spent online in the country, according to comScore.

Regional breakdown in Malaysia, August 2010 (Total Malaysia internet audience, Age 15+ – Home & Work Locations):

Total Audience: 100.0% of unique visitors

– Central Region: 54.4%

– Southern Region: 14.9%

– East Coast: 4.0%

– Northern Region: 14.9%

– Sabah: 5.9%

– Sarawak: 5.9%

The Star reported on October 13, 2010 that “Malaysians have the most number of friends on social networking websites like Facebook. They also spend the most hours per week on such sites. According to a survey conducted by international firm TNS, a Malaysian has an average of 233 friends in their social network, followed by 231 in Brazil and 217 in Norway. Japanese users had the least number of friends, averaging 29. The survey was based on recent interviews of 50,000 consumers in 46 countries.”

In light the abovementioned, how is the media to assist with such dialogues when Malaysians prefer to Facebook? — New Mandala

* Dina Zaman is an Asia Pacific Intellectual (API) Senior Fellow 2012-2013 and her research is on saints and their impact on Malaysia. Her column Holy Men, Holy Women is published by The Malaysian Insider and is on hiatus, as she pursues research. She has a keen interest in socio-religious issues and hopes to work on inter-faith dialogues and matters in the future.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 12:46 am

    I think it is important to have interfaith dialog to clear any misunderstanding between the different faiths.

    When I was working as a senior lecturer for a particular college, I had to welcome and shake hand with lecturers from other countries. I remember that on one occasion a Pakistani woman lecturer refused to shake hand with me. I was very upset thinking that she was arrogant. Later her friend quietly told me that it was not customary for Muslim Pakistani women to shake hand with men. Instantly in my heart I forgave that woman lecturer.

    A lot of misunderstanding would be created if there is no interfaith dialog.

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 1:14 am

    Some years ago during Pak Lah’s time, a major annual international Islam-Christian Conference / Dialogue was scheduled to be held in Kuala Lumpur. Everything was arranged and set to go. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Head of the Anglican Church was in town as a major participant in this international dialogue.

    But at the last moment there were alot of murmurs among the local (not international) Muslim community and Pak Lah and his government hastily ‘postponed’ the Conference even though many of the key participants were already here and raring to go.

    Pak Lah said he was busy and had to postpone the Conference to a later date when he can give more personal attention and time to this very important Conference cum Dialogue.

    Well the Conference was put in limbo and was finally held and hosted by Singapore. This was more than six years ago. And we all know Pak Lah’s ‘Islam Hadhari’ thingy has died a natural death and is not heard of again.

    Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia? Looking at current trends and sentiment, I believe it will never happen or it will be a very one-sided one or a watered down ‘dialogue’ if we can ever call it one.

  3. #3 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 1:24 am

    A Dialogue requires the active participation of all parties to discuss issues and come out with solutions that is acceptable to all. If one party sees its faith as superior to all others and will not participate or budge an inch, then any ‘Dialogue’ if held will surely fail. Has our country reached this scenario?

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 1:31 am

    Dina asks ‘Is there a need for more interfaith dialogue in Malaysia?’. The answer is definitely an emphatic ‘Yes’.

    But will meaningful dialogues ever be held without parties demonstrating, threatening, agitating, blocking and even aggressively intruding into these dialogue sessions to prevent them from proceeding as we have seen before?

  5. #5 by monsterball on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 3:34 am

    I think what’s make Malaysia unique is that we have a bunch of crooked hypocrites proclaiming they are defenders of Islam faith…superseding Indonesia who is the greatest Islamic country in the world.
    The acts and gestures have few million Muslims believing in UMNO b….thus hooked them to believe back home…UMNO b is defending their rights too.
    Been going on for 35 years….and suddenly millions woke up and know they had been deceived with so many corruption cases exposed.
    It’s unique in the sense that Malaysians are deceived by con men for decades.

  6. #6 by monsterball on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 7:59 am

    Malaysians understand and respect all faiths.
    Non Muslims understands Muslims is the majority.
    There is no contradictions nor lack of tolerance and patience from all to live happily in Malaysia.
    It’s the UMNO b dirty politics..keep instigating…keep drumming up no problems into problems.
    It’s UMNO b keep stirring up religion politics from nothing into something.
    Fortunately…Malaysians prefer to speak up and not be provoked into fights.
    It’s all out-dated and stale.
    Najib dare not announce 13th GE date shows Malaysians are smart voters and the crooks do not like what they see.

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 8:04 am

    At the root of interfaith issues in Malaysia is simply about Greed and Power. Its not about religion. For hundreds of years, without any sort of involvement of the state, the different races and religion have coexisted and even all the way through the initial years of the founding of Malaysia.

    Until 1969 that is. When the ultras took over UMNO after that, Razak reached out to PAS AND then betrayed them – that is what started all the mess that we have today..

  8. #8 by Sallang on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 10:42 am

    An interfaith dialogue, is it Good to Have, or Nice to Have?

    It is easier to manage a dialogue between other faiths, but not Islam.
    At the end of the dialogue, only the participants understand a little bit of other faiths, but not the public at large.
    In Malaysia, Friday prayers will last from 12.00 to 2.30pm.
    In Indonesia, I understand that Friday prayers is just like any other day, not more than 15 minutes.

  9. #9 by sotong on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 2:04 pm

    Islam is fairly new in South East Asia.

    The problem is compounded by politics of race, bad leadership, unfounded fear and insecurity, corruption, gross mismanagement and etc..

    Decades of misguided and narrow teaching is a huge problem……ask the middle eastern Muslims and they will tell you that their problems are caused by the politicians, not those who truely understand the religion.

  10. #10 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 2:54 pm

    How does one ‘truly understand the religion’?. What is the benchmark? Everyone claims to ‘truly understand the religion’ and then go on to want to enforce their understanding of the religion on to others. It then goes out of hand when they all are at loggerheads often with dire and unpleasant incidents and results.

  11. #11 by drngsc on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 3:37 pm

    It is not the faith. It is not the law. It is the bankrupt UMNO politicians. Remove them and the religious issues can begin to be resolved.

    We must change the tenant at Putrajaya. GE 13 is coming. First prepare for Bersih 4.0 if there are no significant electoral reforms. First to Bersih 4.0, then to GE 13, then to Putrajaya.

    Change we must. Change we can. Change we will. Change through the ballot box.

  12. #12 by Loh on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 3:46 pm

    ///In another finding in the survey, “Those who stated ethnic relations have grown “further apart” were mostly are Indian & Malay respondents, male and younger people.” Yet, there is hope. 96 per cent said that inter-ethnic relations were very important, “… to avoid conflict, create unity among each other and understand one another (culture).”///–the author

    When 96 per cent of the people said that inter-ethnic relations are important, that may be translated to say that they are concerned that the relations are bad. That did not say that they would be able to do anything, after all, the persons who are in charge of religious activities in this country are just but a handful. If the powers-that-be decide that race is a convenient political tool, and they believe that the tool should be utilized to get votes, and that ketuanan of religion is effective, then interfaith dialogue serves no purposes. Indeed, the ordinary citizens are quietly practising their religions and it was those who are vested with government authorities which transgress.

    The other example is education. The Minister of Education was free to decide whether Chinese Independent school should be established; he objected to it initially and later relented. Nothing happen. Well, soon they might remember that Perkasa should be aroused to show that the Minister might be circumspect. The fact is the public are not concerned whether others are allowed opportunities to pursue their education, so long as they are not adversely affected. There is no need for inter-mother-tongue teaching dialogue except when Mamakthir called for it.

  13. #13 by Loh on Sunday, 24 June 2012 - 4:07 pm

    Bigjoe :
    At the root of interfaith issues in Malaysia is simply about Greed and Power. Its not about religion. For hundreds of years, without any sort of involvement of the state, the different races and religion have coexisted and even all the way through the initial years of the founding of Malaysia.
    Until 1969 that is. When the ultras took over UMNO after that, Razak reached out to PAS AND then betrayed them – that is what started all the mess that we have today..

    Well said. In Penang mosques, temples of different faiths are found near one another. They were built before Independence. That stopped perhaps because Article 3 states that Islam is the religion of the Federation. That simple sentence was suggested by a Commission member from Pakistan. Other Commissioners never had experience of how religion could split the people agreed. The problem we have here is politicians want to make the words in that sentence to carry them to heaven.

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