Monday, August 3, 2020

Exploiting Religious Insecurities (reprise)

A Malay Student Front representative (left) gatecrashes the Bar Council's forum yesterday on Islamic conversion, yelling: “I represent Umno. Stop this forum! Don’t insult Islam! You... Chinese, Indians, go to hell!” (Photos courtesy of Malaysiakini) 

Never a dull moment. That sums up Malaysian politics since the 12th General Election on 8 March 2008. Even as the nation celebrates the 61st birthday of prime minister elect Anwar Ibrahim in eager anticipation of a smooth transition of power come September, we are rudely reminded of the wide disparities that divide Muslims from non-Muslims, Malays from non-Malays. Disparities easily exploited by those frightened by the sweeping transformations underway and who can always be counted upon to resort to the race-and-religion card to protect their own vested interests. 

At this crucial juncture in our political evolution, we have to keep a cool head and stay calm. Five months after the political earthquake that forever altered the course of Malaysian politics, there are still many who fail to comprehend the big picture. Scared and confused by the rapid changes they see around them, they can be easily goaded into creating havoc on the streets - thereby giving the fascist BN government an excuse to declare an emergency and reclaim their power through military rule. Don't forget who's still in charge of the Defence and Home Ministries.

We must not allow reactionary forces to whip up ancient fears and resentments in order to thwart our collective dream of a mature, multiracial, multicultural nation at peace with itself and prospering as a harmonious rainbow family. Remember, 300 misguided religionists do not speak for 27 million. No matter where you go, you will find a handful who cling fanatically to narrow, sectarian beliefs. In a healthy, mature society, opposing views can be expressed without recourse to violence. The Bar Council, after all, hosted the forum mainly to bring certain "sensitive" issues into the open by encouraging intelligent public debate. The timing, as it turns out, wasn't quite right.

Nevertheless, it's particularly depressing to note that Zulkifli Noordin, PKR's Kulim-Bandar Baharu MP, was among the leaders of yesterday's rowdy protest over the Bar Council forum. What message is Zulkifli sending to all those who have put their faith in a Pakatan Rakyat government? That when it comes to questions of Malay rights and religious freedom, nothing will change? This, of course, puts Anwar Ibrahim in an awkward spot. If he advises people like Zulkifli within PKR to downplay religious differences, Umno will be quick to use that as evidence that Anwar will sell out the Malays. After so many decades of Barisan Nasional's racist policies and divisive politics, it will take some time for the people to voluntarily break down the walls of interethnic mistrust and build solid bridges of understanding and love between the various communities. With Pakatan Rakyat in charge of the Ministry of Information, the powerful reach of the mass media can be utilized to foster genuine friendship and the spirit of cooperative symbiosis amongst all ethnic groups - rather than keep racial and religious issues simmering undebated and unresolved. 

Allow me to use an analogy to illustrate the situation we are faced with in Malaysia. Let's say we're flying 20,000 feet above sea level in an airplane and a few of us are veteran skydivers eagerly anticipating the moment we hurl ourselves from the aircraft and experience the sheer ecstasy of freefall before we pull the cord of our parachutes and float gracefully down to the ground.

Now, can you imagine the fear and hesitation you might feel if you've never done this before? Do we despise the novices in our midst and jeer at their cowardice? That would be extremely unkind and uncouth. We mustn't push them either - because we would then be responsible if, in their panic, they forget to pull the cord and plunge to their deaths. Those of us who have long outgrown our emotional attachment to a particular belief system can be compared to veteran skydivers who have taken that leap of faith into the unknown many times before. The novices have yet to experience the sense of freedom one feels when liberated from childhood indoctrination and social rituals. Naturally, the unknown scares them. They cling to the safety of the aircraft rather then hurl themselves wholeheartedly and gleefully into the freedom of speculative metaphysics, rational secularism, agnosticism, atheism, or pantheistic mysticism.

But, given a little more time and encouragement, they will one day become veteran skydivers too. In other words, when dealing with folks who are emotionally attached to a particular belief system - and who closely identify with belonging to a specific ethnic group - it's pointless to force the issue or waste your breath trying to talk them out of it. Just love and honor them wholeheartedly regardless of their belief systems. Remember, it's really a question of software preferences. Some people are constantly upgrading to the latest versions of everything - while others haven't even taken their first tentative steps into the digital age. Some folks are neophiles (swift to embrace the new) and others are neophobes (terrified of new ideas). In any community, some individuals serve as the accelerators of evolution; while others function as the brakes. Good driving requires that we step on the accelerator more often than the brakes - which means the more adventurous and open-minded members of the family are the natural-born leaders, while the more conservative ones keep us from speeding too fast and colliding with obstacles. They're the ones who remind us of our origins and heritage and keep us rooted to terra firma, to Mother Earth. I have absolute faith that given sufficient time, all belief systems begin to mellow or break down into simpler elements - and yesterday's fanatics will be tomorrow's sages.

[Read Moris Farhi's excellent essay, God Save Us From Religion! First posted 10 August 2008]