As dawn breaks in downtown Kuala Lumpur, calls to prayer blare out from speakers that sit atop the minarets of the city’s mosques, blanketing the ring of bells from neighbouring Hindu temples. In the background, churches and Buddhist temples quietly come alive. To the many tourists who visit this vibrant city, this religious routine of the faithful exudes a charm of old Asia, showcasing a seemingly exemplary state of religious tolerance. As the sun rises from beyond the skyscrapers, the noise of new world traffic displaces the chants of old, displaying a 21st century city that visitors marvel at.
Malaysia is a nation of contradictions: modern in its infrastructure, archaic in its civil liberty; secular in constitution, Islamic in practice; its display of racial tolerance belied by an apartheid-like policy against its minorities.
At the heart of these contradictions lies a nostalgic pull away from the secular to emulate life at the time of the prophet. The cry of the fundamentalists’ cosmic battle can be read between the lines of the nation’s docile dailies, which have pushed the nation’s voices of reason to find refuge on the web.
Religious rows dominate national media: students arrested for handing Christian pamphlets to Muslims; protests outside churches suspected of facilitating Muslim apostasy; a ban prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word “Allah”; Islamic rehabilitation centres “persuading” Muslims against conversion; a Hindu widow fighting to reclaim the body of her late husband from authorities who claim the dead man had converted to Islam years earlier.
What might be deemed lunacy in the modern world pervades life in Malaysia, troubling its non-Muslim minorities and indeed its liberal Muslims.
While older nations strive to keep state and religion at arm’s length, Malaysia, a relatively young democracy, struggles to keep its admiration of Islam away from state governance. Even the common law, passed down by the British, has to compete for dominance as Sharia courts gain ground.
Malaysia does not stand alone at this crossroad. Many other nations are seeing a resurgence of religion, prompting calls for national identity along lines of faith. States that identify themselves with a faith face the challenge of managing religious tolerance, an idea which contradicts the assumed faith of the state.
While the idea of a state religion gains popularity in some parts of the world, the liberals of our time stress that religion is personal and has no place in state governance. International human rights conventions keep reinforcing the principle that each individual is entitled to hold his own belief - a right regardless of the majority’s view on faith. What international law may decree in the abstract is not necessarily adopted domestically, especially when state and church (or mosque, temple, or synagogue) form an alliance.
Religion can be a positive influence generally - it instills morality, a sense of purpose and belief, and enriches the cultures of the world. However, when taken to the extreme it can lead to ignorance, defining unwarranted parameters in the minds of the faithful. It can also sow the seeds of prejudice against “non-believers” as demonstrated in Malaysia. The religious often fail to appreciate that faith is not science, and that people can find spirituality in more ways than one, regardless of faith.
Amidst universal belief by all faiths that there is a Higher Power, if someday God appeared to reveal Himself, the irony is that God would be rejected by the respective religious groups if the message God conveyed did not conform to their expectations and received teachings, from holy books and texts. Their books define their God.
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