LAST Christmas, after a splendid lunch at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, my nieces posed with their dad for photographs amidst a glittery forest of Christmas trees in the hotel lobby. Earlier that day they had scrambled to yet another tree, in my mother's house, to open the presents that had been piled up under it in anticipation of their arrival.
None of this is remarkable, except for the fact that my brother-in-law is a strictly observant Malay Muslim, and that at lunch my sister was veiled, as are many Muslim women in Malaysia these days.
We didn't pretend, for the sake of my Muslim family's "sensitivities", that Christmas was some kind of jolly secular knees-up. Next to our Christmas tree was set up, as it is every year, a scene made up of carved wooden figures depicting the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. From the CD player came carols about how he "came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all", and calls to "come let us adore him, Christ the Lord".
If some people in Malaysia were to have their way, my family would no longer be allowed to celebrate our very Malaysian Christmas. We would be accused of "confusing" my Muslim family, and of being "insensitive" to their faith.
Is Christmas in Malaysia increasingly de-Christian- ised? (Pic by Arnold Wong, courtesy of Nick Choo)
Just before the last election, a group of Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) and the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF), issued a set of demands. The usual suspects were rounded up for condemnation: "pluralism"; "secular-liberal thought"; the Interfaith Commission; the notion that Malaysia is a secular state, etc.
It is a depressing document to have to read, both for its intellectual dishonesty as well as for its being a fairly accurate reflection of public discourse about Islam in Malaysia today.
The mental convolutions it must take to produce such a document would win a gold medal if intellectual bankruptcy were an Olympic sport. It would be clear to a Martian emerging from her (do notional Martians have gender?) ship in Putrajaya that Islam is an all-pervasive and dominant force in this land. Nevertheless, these Muslim NGOs prefer to paint a picture of Muslims here as a community under siege.
They state that all forms of religious and ethnic extremism must be rejected, and in the next line demand that Muslim organisations have a say in approving the building of non-Muslim places of worship in Muslim-majority areas, because the "sensitivities" of the "local community" must be considered.
It is even suggested that the authorities have been too permissive with regards to the building of non-Muslim places of worship, while being very rigid regarding the erecting of mosques. Does any non-Muslim recognise this state of affairs as congruent with reality as we know it?
The NGOs also call for the strengthening of civil society institutions, and the opening up of greater democratic space. At the same time, they call for the restriction of religious terms such as "Allah" to Muslim use only; condemn those who promote individual rights and freedom of religion for Muslims; and warn the Ministry of Education to ignore non-Muslim concerns about the role that Islamic rituals have in national schools.
The Muslim NGOs also lament the fact that four states and the federal territories have yet to introduce legislation forbidding non-Muslims from proselytising among Muslims. By highlighting this, they perhaps inadvertently explode one of the myths about the Constitution, viz. that it forbids such proselytising. In fact, Article 11(4) states only that non-Muslims may be forbidden by state legislation to preach their faith to Muslims. There is nothing in the Constitution that says this must be done.
These NGOs, however, are the same ones who emerge from under a rock every time there is a Muslim apostasy case, with demands that we should respect the "position" of Islam as guaranteed in the Constitution. Their reading of the Constitution is as dishonest as their interpretations of civil society and democratic space.
One of the dominant tropes in the list of demands is the need for non-Muslims to be "sensitive" to Muslim sensibilities. The authorities justified the recent detention of Teresa Kok under the Internal Security Act (ISA) by claiming that she had injured Muslim sensitivities. Whatever the real political calculations (or miscalculations) behind her detention, the mere allegation of injuring Muslim sensitivities was a sufficient condition to orchestrate a campaign against her.
It has come to a point where nothing labelled "Muslim" can be questioned or debated by non-Muslims, and even dissenting Muslims, for fear of injuring "Muslim" sensibilities.
To some, given the dominant position of Muslims in Malaysia, this has the ring of a rich man asking a beggar not to bother him with requests for money: the beggar's pleading is "insensitive", as it highlights the disparity between his enormous wealth and the beggar's poverty. The rich man thinks his comfort should not be disturbed, even if the poor man dies at his doorstep.
Walk into any Muslim bookshop in Kuala Lumpur, and you will come across the works of South African writer Ahmad Deedat. They are filled with vitriol against Christian beliefs, and Christian sensitivities do not enter the picture. A Malay politician slanders the Chinese citizenry of this country (and spouts anti-Semitism in the same breath), and gets away with a three-year suspension from his party, while a journalist who reports his hate-speech is detained under the ISA. When it comes to sensitivities in Malaysia, which community is it that truly has a grievance?
The other point of view
It is easy to adopt a condescending tone when approaching the issue of Muslim sensitivities, especially when it is clear that non-Muslim sensitivities are on a regular basis ridden over roughshod. However, I want to take seriously the idea of the Muslim community's sensitivities. I understand why a pious Muslim could be distressed whenever she sees pork being consumed, or when she sees alcohol being sold openly. A Muslim who finds truth and consolation in his faith will certainly be saddened by the apostasy of another Muslim. These are not trivial matters.
Ahmad Deedat (Public domain. Source: Wikipedia.org)
However, these neuralgic points are just as painful for non-Muslims as they are for Muslims. It pains me to see a Catholic convert to Islam only because Malaysian law (against the weight of Islamic tradition) says she must if she marries a Muslim. I am offended by the toxic writings of Ahmad Deedat, in the same way that some Muslims were offended by Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses or by the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. But what is it that causes me not to demand a ban on Ahmad Deedat's books?
I do not believe that those who offend me should as a consequence lose their right to free speech. Racists and bigots should have their opinions challenged and debated: dismissing them from the public sphere simply drives them underground, and who knows then what noxious weed will grow in the dark?
Neither do I think that the world should always pander to all my sensitivities. To have every desire fulfilled, without discernment or accommodation, is to be an infant. We all know the exasperation we feel at friends who are sensitive to the most minor imagined slight, or who are unable to cope with the rough and tumble of relationships. We want to say to them, "Oh, for heaven's sake, just grow up!"
Societies also can be infantilised, and religious societies with strong authoritarian tendencies all the more so. An infantilised religious community is one that will always feel that it is under siege, for it will never have had to take its creeds and practices into the light of reason and charity, those adult qualities so emphasised in the Quran.
Aloysious Mowe, SJ, was born after Merdeka and considers himself Malaysian by birthright and not by anyone's concession. The last time he checked his passport, it says he was born in Malaysia, not Tanah Melayu.