Muslims and Buddhists in Malaysia should not allow the Surau incident to have a negative impact upon relations between the two communities. There are at least two reasons why they should be vigilant about protecting what has been generally a harmonious relationship.
One, given the deterioration in Malay-non-Malay ties in recent times, the Surau incident may be perceived in some quarters as further proof of a worsening communal milieu. Two, since the incident has come in the midst of a series of negative episodes involving Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia--- apart from Thailand --- there may be a tendency to view what happened at the Tanjung Sutera Resort in Johor on 10 August 2013 as part of an emerging pattern of tension and friction between the two communities in Asia.
Muslims and Buddhists in Malaysia are by and large aware of inter-religious sensitivities. The very fact that the Chief Buddhist High Priest of Malaysia, Datuk K. Sri Dhammaratana apologised immediately to “our Muslim brothers and sisters” for the actions of a group of Buddhists from Singapore who had used the Surau for Buddhist meditation and chanting testifies to this. The Adviser to the Johor State Religious Council expressed his appreciation of the Buddhist apology and described it as a “praiseworthy measure.”
The Surau incident reminds us that performing the religious ritual of a particular community within the sacred space of another community is not acceptable in Malaysia. True, it has been done, on rare occasions, in other parts of the world but the norm everywhere is to preserve and protect what is perceived as the sanctity of one’s own sacred space for those within the fold. This in itself is not a barrier to inter-religious understanding and empathy.
It is when the notion of the sanctity and purity of one’s place of worship is carried to extremes that it becomes a challenge. In that context, demolishing the Surau simply because it had been misused on a single occasion would be a radical move, at variance with the past practices of a religion which had allowed people of other faiths into its sacred space. Besides, demolishing the Surau because it had been “defiled” sends a wrong message to our multi-religious society.
Rather than taking punitive measures of this sort, religious authorities should be embarking upon programmes to educate Muslims and Buddhists about the values and principles that they share in common. For the last seventeen years, the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) has been engaged in dialogues with Buddhist groups such as the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), Soka Gakkai and the Museum of World Religions on how shared universal spiritual and moral values and principles can help to shape a just and peaceful world. In the process, we have discovered how even on issues that appear to pit Buddhists against Muslims such as the conflict in Southern Thailand or the clashes between Buddhists and Rohingyas in Myanmar, Muslim and Buddhist advocates of dialogue are able to adopt common positions based upon justice and inspired by compassion --- values that are at the heart of both religions.