Thursday, June 29, 2017

In disservice to religion

S Thayaparan     Published     Updated
“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instils morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”
- Christopher Hitchens

COMMENT | Before I begin, I throw a great Garrison Keillor quote out there whenever people ask me what I think about religion. “Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car”; replace the words “church” and “Christian” with your preferred place of worship and religion, and you get exactly what I think about religion.

This brings me to two interesting Malaysiakini comment pieces by two authors, which neatly illustrates the disconnect in the religious discourse in this country. In a piece highlighting the complete failure of the MIC to dispel the perception that a canteen operator was told to cease operation was a racial issue, Stephen Ng turns the issue into a religious issue. This, of course, is understandable.

(Just to be clear, apparently the three other operators were Malay, hence the MIC operative's claims that this was not a racial issue and the administration's claim that syariah compliance was not the reason why this Malaysian of Indian descent was asked to cease operating.)

Race and religion are not mutually exclusive in this country; hence Ng is making a perfectly sensible argument when he asks, “Is there a need for the Indian operator, who may be a Hindu, to also be syariah compliant, since the stall has its own clients?”

The problem with this question is that the answer may not be what Ng hopes for. The answer is yes, this Indian operator has to be syariah compliant (if that was indeed the reason he was asked to cease operating), even though he had his own clients because he is operating in an educational establishment that been infused with religious dogma.

The real issue that the MIC cannot face is the issue that the opposition cannot face either. The real issue here is that there can never be (in Ng’s words) “mutual respect between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities” as long as political parties embrace the notion that religion will always be a factor in garnering Malay votes.

Has there ever been any Malaysian political coalition that promises to take religion out from education? Is there any political alliance that has not funded religious institutions even if it meant sacrificing “Malay” votes? Has there been any political alliance whose platform is to maintain a strict separation between mosque and state?

In another piece, I wrote of my disdain for the word “tolerate” - “Mind you, the word ‘tolerance’ is in itself a loathsome word. It is a word lacking empathy, simpatico, goodwill or camaraderie. The word implies, ‘enduring’ instead of ‘accepting’ and ‘understanding’ - all those sentiments that denote a sense of belonging.”

There is no point blaming the MIC for anything to do with Islam in this country because the reality is that when it comes to Islam and the Umno state, there is very little anyone can do about it because nobody wants to offer an alternative.

Finding the common ground

I keep asking oppositional political operatives and their supporters if there has been any change in the way how state-level Islam is promulgated, now that the opposition is in power in certain states, and I get variations of two political talking points.

1) The opposition can only do “something” about the intrusion of Islam if they get federal power. When I ask them for specifics, they mumble something about 1MDB being the greater problem and not Islamic extremism, as is the supposed agenda of my articles.

2) That the Malay vote is important and they cannot do anything to overtly support “secularism” because this would play into the hands of those religionists who are in control of the Islamic narrative in this country. In other words, nobody is interested in changing the narrative and those who are, are called "idealists" or worse.

And therein lies the rub. There will always be contentious issues because there are no clear-cut lines when it comes to the state and religion. The opposition uses religion just as much as the establishment. We are not dealing with competing ideas but an attempt to distract from the real issues by convincing ourselves that the magic bullet that would destroy a kleptocracy means we will not turn into a theocratic state.

When I ask which is worse, as in which would be preferable to live under - a kleptocracy or an Islamic state as envisioned by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang and co - all I get are mumblings about how, if Islam is practiced with empathy and consideration, it is a religion that can exist within the democratic process.

Honestly, is there a difference between “syariah compliance” and any other state-sanctioned Islamic dictates that restrict commerce, intrudes into our public spaces or oppresses the majority of this country? Lawyer Siti Kassim said that Muslims are the most oppressed people in this country and if you believe her narrative, then why is it that there are no alternatives that cater to her beliefs.

In her latest piece columnist Mariam Mokhtar wrote, “What happened to Siti is not just about a society which is intolerant. It is about control of the rakyat by a handful of people, who use religion to manipulate our behaviour. The constitution is our guide, but these officials have no respect for it.”

And that’s the key. The constitution, which for all intents is secular-leaning, has been co-opted by the state and Islamists to present a monolithic view of the Muslim community. If the constitution is manipulated by a handful of people then why isn’t another handful of people - and by people I mean Muslims working in tandem with other secular-minded people - who defend the constitution and not engage in the kind of political behaviour which many claim is detrimental to the Malay community?

The real question is not about syariah compliance but the way how people use “religion” as either a tool of oppression or a tool of victimisation. There is a common ground but until we have people committed to claiming that ground, we will always have this toxic discourse where non-Muslims devour their own because nobody wants to deal with real issues.

Where is this common ground?

I spelt it out clearly in another piece - “We find this common ground in a secular state. Anyone who does not support the idea of a secular state has no intention of finding common ground and would rather find ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ in a theocratic state. If you believe that you can co-exist peacefully in a theocratic state, then you are truly ignorant.”

Tomorrow: Hadi is not the problem

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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