Thursday, September 17, 2009

Piety and Places of Worship by Dr Chandra

Written by Chandra Muzaffar
September 17th, 2009

The recent cow head incident has brought to the fore certain important prerequisites for the maintenance of peace and harmony in a multi-religious society like ours.

One, an appreciation of the sensitivities of each and every religious community is fundamental. These sensitivities may be at variance with one’s own beliefs but recognizing them for what they are, is a pre-condition for ensuring inter-ethnic peace in a multi-religious society.

Two, when these sensitivities are ignored, or worse, transgressed, it is individuals and groups from the offending community who should be more vocal in condemning the behaviour of their fellow religionists. This will have a more positive impact upon inter-religious ties than the denunciations of people from the aggrieved community. It is commendable that in the cow head incident a number of Muslim groups took a firm stand against the despicable action of a misguided few from their own community who had clearly violated Islamic teachings. I have no doubt at all that if police investigations reveal that those responsible for the pig head incidents in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur are from some non-Muslim community, there will be individuals and groups from the community who will condemn such debased conduct.

Three, while Malaysians are generally conscious of the red lines that should not be crossed on certain matters pertaining to religion, the level of understanding and empathy among the different communities is still appallingly low. On a variety of issues ranging from education to economics, misconception and distrust continue to impact negatively upon ethnic relations. This is why public policies that seek to redress ethnic grievances, buttressed by effective public education, are so critical at this point in time in enhancing inter-community understanding.

If there was empathy among the communities, the question of relocating a Hindu temple in Shah Alam would have been less controversial. No one would have argued that a minority religious community cannot have its own place of worship in a locality where the majority professes a different religion. Right through history, Muslim Rulers --- with a few exceptions—saw it as their duty to protect the temples, churches and synagogues of minority faiths, in accordance with Quranic principles. By the same token, in a number of societies where Hindus or Buddhists or Christians are in the majority, Muslim minorities have been able build their mosques and practise their faith in peace. Malaysia itself is an outstanding example of a country where the majority-minority dichotomy has had no effect upon the construction of places of worship. If we were influenced by such myopic thinking, there would be no gurdwaras in Malaysia since Sikhs are a tiny minority everywhere in the country!

Of course, in any multi-religious society there will have to be unambiguous rules governing the construction, maintenance and expansion of places of worship. These rules should be just and fair to all religious communities. Equally important, they should be enforced effectively. The lack of effective enforcement has in some instances contributed to inter-religious friction and tension.

From a broader perspective, while it is important to acknowledge the significance of a place of worship to the religious life of a people, it would be wrong to assume that a place of worship is proof of the piety of a people. We have to get rid of the idea that there is a direct equation between the two. True piety is reflected in faith in God and in good deeds. In the ultimate analysis, it is deeds that mirror values such as justice and compassion and kindness that really count.

It is not just kindness and compassion to our fellow human beings that is indicative of piety. Showing kindness and compassion to animals is also regarded as a noble virtue in all our religions. This virtue was one of the edicts of that illustrious Buddhist Ruler of antiquity, Asoka. . The Qur’an even recognizes the rights of animals as illustrated in the story of the Prophet Salih and the people of Thamud. It explains why early Muslim jurists not only formulated rules and regulations aimed at protecting the welfare of animals but also prohibited animal torture. This is why stomping and spitting upon the slaughtered head of a cow with venom is an unconscionable act.

The time has come for more individuals and groups of conscience to speak out against those attitudes and actions within their own religious community that violate the humane values and principles embodied in their respective faiths.

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