Is religion in multi-religious Malaysia a force for unity --- or disunity? This is an important question to ask at this juncture since religion has assumed tremendous significance in the public arena in recent times.
In the first decade and a half of our Independence, religion was not perceived as a hindrance to national unity. The Malaysian Constitution recognised Islam as the religion of the Federation. It was an affirmation of the identity of the new nation which had evolved from Muslim Sultanates. If this identity was not acknowledged, the Malay-Muslim populace would have felt that the Malaysian state had not taken cognisance of their identity as a people.
The Islamic identity of the land expressed itself through both ceremony and substance in the early years of Merdeka. The recital of the doa at official functions was an example of the former; state funding for the building of mosques and Islamic religious instruction in national schools were examples of the latter. Ceremony and substance continue to feature in the expression of Malaysia’s Islamic identity.
The non-Muslim communities were not unhappy about the status and practise of Islam. By and large the nation’s Islamic identity did not impinge upon their rights. In fact, the Constitution, then and now, protects their right to profess and practise their religion, to manage their own religious affairs, “to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes; and “to acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with law.” It is a truism that Buddhist Viharas, Hindu temples, and Christian Churches are integral to the landscape of a nation where more than 60% of the population is Muslim. The religious festivals of communities which constitute less than even 10% of the total are celebrated as public holidays, and have become etched in the people’s collective psyche.
However, the relatively tension free coexistence among the majority and minority religious communities of the first 15 years, began to witness some strains from the eighties onwards. Rapid Malay urbanisation since the seventies has created a situation in which Muslims todayshare physical and cultural space with people of other faiths as never before.The consequent interaction has resulted in an increase in inter-religious marriages and divorces, and the attendant problems of conversion especially of minors, custody of children, the abandonment of one’s religion, the religious status of the deceased, and so on.
Often, in situations like this where interaction gives rise to friction, segments within a religious community become more conscious of religious boundaries. Any breach of what is sometimes an artificially constructed boundary arouses passions and heightens tensions. The controversy over the use of the term “Allah” by non-Muslims is a case in point.
To overcome this and other controversies, there has to be a fundamental change in the mindset of the influential stratum of Muslim society. There will be no solution to controversies such as child conversion as long as one accords primacy to religious injunctions that have developed over time rather than the perennial values and principles of the Qur’an. Our religious establishment, religious teachers at all levels and the media will have to be imbued with a more enlightened and dynamic outlook on the meaning and practice of faith in a multi-religious society grappling with contemporary challenges.
In this regard, it is important to emphasise that while this conservative, sometimes atavistic, mindset that confronts us transcends party affiliations, the dogma associated with it is more closely aligned to PAS than UMNO. This is why it is PAS that sought to introduce hudud—the emblem of this dogma--- in Kelantan andTrengganu, something which no UMNO-led state or federal government has done in the last 54 years.
If a certain mindset within a segment of the Muslim population is a barrier to national unity, so is a certain movement within the growing Christian community. Evangelical Christians determined to spread Christianity are becoming more zealous. Non-Muslim communities are their main targets in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak. But there is increasing evidence to suggest that Malays are also being approached --- in spite of the constitutional provision that restricts “the propagation ofany religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.”
The evangelical push in Malaysia and other parts of the world has a lot to do with the rise of what is broadly described as the Christian Right in the United States. For the Christian Right exporting their brand of the religion serves to strengthen the global hegemonic power of the US. As Iain Buchannan shows in his superb academic study of this movement entitled The Armies of God,converting Muslims to Christianity is one of the evangelist’s cherished goals. Since Muslims worldwide have always resisted conversion, the tactics employed are more subtle and sophisticated.
Many Christian groups in Malaysia and other countries are opposed to this sort of evangelism. They know that it is not only a betrayal of the essence of Jesus’ message of love, compassion and justice but also inimical to harmonious relations among different religious communities. They emphasise universal values shared by Christianity, Islam and other religions.
It is these shared values that should be the fount of unity in a multi-religious society. They underscore our common humanity. If religions through the deeds of their adherents bring forth our common humanity, they will help forge unity in this land that we call our home.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Yayasan 1Malaysia and Professor of Global Studies, UniversitiSains Malaysia.
22 August 2011.