Bismillahi’r-Rahmani’r-Rahim

Nahmaduhu wa nusalli ‘ala Rasulihil-Karim

THE CHALLENGES OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY IN MALAYSIA

BY

MUHAMMAD ‘UTHMAN EL-MUHAMMADY

Bi’awnika Ya Latif! Due to certain historical circumstances destiny has made it that Malaysia has been given the tremendous task of forging harmonious collective life among its inhabitants consisting of various religious and cultural groups, especially during the post-merdeka period. The citizens of the country consisting of representatives of such diverse civilizations as Muslims, predominantly Malays, Buddhists, predominantly Chinese, then Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and others, have to live with each other as neighbours. Compared to many societies with such multi-religious and multi-cultural nature, our country, due to the wisdom, tolerance and the spirit of giving –and take of its leaders, has emerged as a successful one. History has proved it clearly, in spite of comments to the contrary from certain quarters which would like to see it otherwise, for reasons known only to them.

There are challenges, of course, to improve upon the situation, so that that harmony will continue, and will improve, making the situation a better one, especially after September 11 with Islam being made the target of suspicion wherever there are Muslims. It is an unfortunate turn of events that a civilization which has been victimized a number of times in history with such devastations as the destruction of its civilization and “ethnic cleansing” of its adherents for a number of times with events in Spain and then the Crusades and recent events in modern times has now been stigmatized as “terrorist”, whereas others are not so stigmatized, in spite of terrorism having been perpetrated by some of its adherents.

Track record of a high degree tolerance of this civilization has been historically proven in the Muslim period in Spain, with Christians and Jews living in harmony with Muslims, with the Jews achieving their golden period, never achieved again thereafter, and non-Muslims living in harmony during the Ottoman period with the “millet” system, should give some lessons for people of the present times. The recent comments by the Secretary-general of the UN about the world organization and the acts of omission and commission of some countries should lead thoughtful and sincere people committed to ethics, morality and real human rights to reflect and do some introspective thinking before giving adverse comments about other nations. Recent events seem to suggest that humanity has not improved, if not to the contrary, in terms of practicing compassion and human brotherhood, in spite of all the rhetoric and talk about high-sounding noble values and aspirations.

Malaysia is a small country, and it has in its own way tried to put into practice the lesson of living in harmony and tolerance among such diverse cultural and religious groups as mentioned above. Of course there are so much more to be done, and by God’s Grace we hope to achieve much more in future. Those who would like to give adverse comments about our performance, we hope, will first set their own house in order, and then mention constructively, in the spirit of compassion among mankind, things which we should do to improve our situation. If this attitude is put into practice, the world would be a better place to live in. It is also in keeping with Christ’s “love thy neighbour…”, and the Prophet’s teaching about the brotherhood among the children of Adam and the creatures of God being figuratively “the family of God” (“iyal Allah”), and living according to the Tao in far eastern doctrine about the tao, of harmony with the way of heaven and earth, the harmony of the “yang” and “yin”. It is also in harmony with the disinterested action of the “Bhavadgita”.

There is the challenge of cool-headed dialogue among intellectuals and leaders of the cultural and religious groups, coming together, like the present one, with the idea of seeing the intellectual and spiritual contours of the various religions, so that the meeting points can be understood, not with the idea of blurring the real characteristics, the similarities and the differences, but with the idea of understanding where there are real differences, so that we respect the differences, and where there are similarities, so that we encourage the improvement in the similarities, for enhancing harmonious living. And this is done with intellectual seriousness and not with a false sense of superiority and disdain.

Then there is the necessity for respecting what can be called as “spiritual privacy” of the various collectivities; just as we have psychological privacy, privacy, in which we do not let out our secrets to people not relevant to it, the privacy of the body, in which we do not expose certain parts of the body, out of natural sense of modesty-barring aside people who already have lost this sense, for some reasons only known to them, the privacy of the bed-room in which we do not expose ourselves in that situation, barring aside other people who generate income from doing so, so there are spiritual aspects of privacy. The priest in the holy of holies has got to be alone there, cannot be disturbed in that spiritual privacy; the food in the Muslim yearly festival of sacrifice is of such a nature. This has got to be understood and respected, and this should not be construed as exclusive attitude as opposite of the inclusive attitude. Aspects of the Islamic sacred law fall into this category, and people who just have paper qualifications only, or know from personal readings only, should not comment adversely on these. Muslims are duty-bound not to do the same thing. The Qur’an teaches them not to vilify the objects of worship of others deemed not in harmony with the reality of the scheme of things from their perspective, for then they will vilify God worshipped by Muslims, and it becomes like they themselves are vilifying Allah. This serious attitude towards things deemed sacred should be inculcated; this is not about saying that things should be blurred so that people will think that things are all the same creating spiritual and intellectual confusion, creating more harm than good. This is about understanding things as they are and responding to them with spiritual and intellectual propriety.

There is the challenge of all the religions facing the phenomenon of cultural trivialization and gradual loss of cultural identity and values, and how they should unite to face this danger. What is meant here is the gradual loss of interest to understand the deeper implications of the teachings and practices of the religions, and concentrating on the paraphernalia, not attaching them to the inner core of the principles and values. And added to this there is the cultural trivialization and concentration on entertainment culture from foreign sources. The consequences are seen: for instance we see young people dying their hair yellow so that they look like some one who is an icon of the entertainment media; it is if they are ashamed of coming from their culture and looking in that way and with that colour. Then there are cases of elderly people in some cities committing suicide because they are no more cared by the young because the young would like them to abandon their houses and live in old folk’s homes; the world is a stage for the youthful; the elderly should be in old folk’s home. Respect and care for the elderly is disappearing. This is happening in the society. Some people mention that this is the influence of Hollywood culture. Only God knows. But this is a challenge which must be faced by all the religions and cultures, and they must face it together.

The various representatives of Asian cultures of the country have to face cultural domination of foreign cultural elements, and this will be cultural disaster for the rich heritage of diverse cultures of the country.

Then there is the consumerism culture: people are behaving as if they are worshipping the devil of a cult: a cult of buying things more than what they actually need just to be with the times as fashionable consumers. This is against all the teachings and values of the eastern cultures and civilizations. So some people say: the new cult is that the temple is the mega-mall, the rite is the shopping spree, the sacred things are the colour TV, the refrigerator, the air-conditioner, etc. The religions and cultures have to face this challenge together so that the principles and values are relevant and effective in moulding members of the society who are moral, disciplined, serious, respectful of others, hardworking, good, law-abiding citizens and patriotic. Other issues are side-issues when compared to this principal issues. Others from outside our country or culture should be heard in relation to our ultimate interests according to our philosophies, and not otherwise. Exceptions can be made in relation to universal issues agreed upon by all the nations as done by the UN. One example of things done by seeing our ultimate interest was the Malaysian economic step taken after the recent crisis in the region because of international manipulators of the currency.

The other aspects of the challenge are related to globalization; how global trends are making people more stressful; people are no more related to each other directly, hence their relationship is becoming more “faceless”, only communicating through gadgets, hand phones, etc., people are traveling more often, hence there is no more concept of neighbourhood and the traditional association, and stable relationship and respecting people because you “know” them really because you are living in the same neighbourhood, etc. People are becoming more and more rootless, more and more drawn into “the technological intoxicated zone”.

Then there is the challenge of post-modernism thinking which consists of the rejection of the grand narratives- the religions and the fundamental discourses, the rejection of absolute values and criteria about the truth and right and wrong, and the blurring of reality and the images. All these will lead to the withering away of the principles and values in the civilizations. There is the spreading of liberalism of the religions. This is emptying of the religions and civilizations from sacred and fundamental values, including family values. This has got to be faced squarely by all the religious traditions of the country. Other issues will appear as non-issues when seen in this fundamental philosophical perspective. This is the evil dragon which will swallow all and everybody. All have to get united to face this evil dragon.

The representatives of the various eastern civilizations in Malaysia have to be united in facing these challenges. The fundamental values about human relationships in the various traditions have got to be re-learned and their relevance seen in the present global perspective.

Then the country is also facing the global competition. The various religions have to help the leaders of the country to strengthen the survival of the identity and the economy of the country in the face of globalization onslaught, based on free and unbridled play of market forces; otherwise there will be another form of imperialism.

These are some of the challenges which the religious and cultural diversity of Malaysia has to face or is in fact facing now, and they must get united in forums and other ways so that such challenges are met with effectively. What is of utmost importance is the integrity of the various religions and cultures are preserved, the harmonious life continued, and improved upon, the cultural identity of the people is intact, the country is strengthened, its principles and values are realized, and differences are resolved through amicable discussions and consultations, without outside interference. With God’s grace the country and the people will survive well and with success in facing the global challenge.

Wallahu a’lam.