Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wild boar and mosque

It is becoming more and more obvious there are groups bent on fuelling open religious conflicts in our Malaysian nation. Frustrated by the defusing of potential conflicts in the aftermath of the attacks on churches and Sikh temple, the groups concerned have decided to expand its mischief making to include mosques, in the hope that this could perhaps provide the flare to their earlier attempts. Such groups of anarchists, which thrive only in social and political conditions steep in discord and dissension, amid heightened tension and mutual suspicion, may not necessarily be the direct perpetrators of violent acts themselves, but are nevertheless active as ideational instigators, agitators and strategist at other levels.

The wild-boar head incidents involving mosques is most revealing in some respects and in that regard most worrying. Clearly the act is not calculated for maximum physical damage to the mosque, for we know for this purpose wild-boar head is not quite the best choice of missile or agent. The choice of wild-boar head is not to inflict maximum physical damage but more to desecrate. Through the manipulation of taboos and religious symbols, it is evident that the perpetrators meant the act to be extremely provocative, in the hope that the backlash would be highly emotive.

It is most important therefore that Malaysians resist the manipulation and machination of anarchic groups to sow the seeds of dissension or conflicts among us, be it religious or religiously camouflaged. Let us resolve not to allow our home to be the battle ground for domestic or international conflicts and violence. Knowing of the anarchists desire to provoke and manipulate us towards disunity and discord, we should resolve to move in the opposite direction, towards closing rank and the strengthening of bonds.

We must never take the peace and harmony we have been enjoying for granted. The bonds between us, fellow citizens, must be forged, nurtured and strengthened. We have to live and practice our ideal of peace and brotherhood, for only then can we believe and cherish it collectively. In this regard I must confess I am surprised and somewhat disappointed with the reaction of Malaysians over the wild-boar head incidents. While the incidents of church attacks drew many reaction from Muslim groups expressing condemnation and regret over the incidents, the wild-boar head seem to evoke a very different kind of response. While Muslims seem to choose to remain quiet and muted, rather restrained, there seem to be no widespread expression of regret or condemnation from other quarters. In the midst of social tension, there is a real danger of silence being misinterpreted as acquiescence or indifference, which is of course unhealthy for bonding and nurturing solidarity.

The response of the internet, both local and international, have been interesting and striking too. While the church attacks were quick to draw charges of Malaysian Muslims as’ zealots’, ‘extremists’, ‘racists’, ‘fanatics’, there is no equivalent charges on the perpetrators of the wild-boar incidents ( though we do not know who the perpetrators are, we can still condemn the act itself)

The purpose of this posting is merely to note a kind of distemper or imbalance in our response to issues and challenges of nation-building. We would be more effective in becoming a nation of common interests and destiny if such distemper or incongruence is minimized or significantly changed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The stone hewer in our political psyche!

Lately certain calm had set upon our public and political life. The ‘Allah’ usage controversy had abated somewhat, I suppose awaiting the appeal by the government. Of course some discussion are continuing with some social groups or NGO’s making representation to the government, either supporting or opposing the usage by all Malaysians. The specter of widespread violence breaking has been controlled by news of several persons or groups being arrested over incidents. There were some news on land law, with legal loopholes being plugged to check future frauds.

The public welcome news of reforms in public transportation. Some news too on 1Malaysia opening its chain of clinics in tune with its ‘people first’ pledge. The nation was saddened by the passing of several dignitaries and public figures of repute. The issue of missing plane engines had been somewhat muted of late, though there were news of liaison between the police and the AG’s office. A high profile case is just beginning, which is of course potentially controversial or contentious, but too early for us to comment. Indications seem to suggest a lull of some sort in an otherwise tumultuous times. Or is it the proverbial calm before the raging tempest?

In moment like this, I usually find refuge in stories and parables, even relishing fairy tales, which most people dismiss as childish, naïve and immature. To them fairy tales are suitable only for minors or those very much wanting in intellectual prowess, wisdom or philosophical depth. For some unclear reasons to me (I hate to think I fit into those categories), I adore fairy tales.

One charming parable from the pen of Multatuli comes to mind. I certainly think it worthwhile sharing with my esteemed readers. I can only recount from memory though, and only a thought gives me the audacity to do so. I am in a win-win situation. Should I succeed in rendering the original adequately, it would be a credit to my memory. Should I fail in rendering anything remotely close to the original, it would be a credit to my creativity. So this is how the parable goes.

There was once a weather-beaten stone hewer, who daily toiled at chipping and chiseling the huge boulders in his village, regardless of the scorching sun or unsympathetic weather, eking a living to support his simple life. One day the high and mighty king passed by, in all pomp and splendor. Beholding the king surrounded by the paraphernalia of power and privileges, resting beneath resplendent shades and canopies, while he suffered and toiled under the scorching sun, the stone hewer deeply regretted his station in life. In his lamentation, he wished he could be king. Lo and behold, he became the king!

As the king, he was happy and felt gratified. He relished his power and dispensed it as he liked. He enjoyed the pomp and grandeur it conferred him. In particular he cherished the idea that nothing was above him, questioning or challenging his eminence and might. One day, a severe draught fell on his country. All the crops, live stocks perished, leaving the earth parched and dry, while the people suffered. When the severe heat caused him much personal discomfort, it dawned upon him that he was not the most high and mighty after all. He began to grudge the sun over its power. He wished he could be the sun. Lo and behold, he became the sun!

As the sun, he felt happy and gratified. He could radiate or shut down, turning the earth brilliant or pitch black as the case may be. He could make the land green or parched dry, determining over the question of life and death. Yes, nothing could compete or equal his power, so he thought. One day a fleet of cloud passed beneath him cutting out his rays. The rain-bearing cloud brought torrential rain, even flooding the land. The flood did more than reversed the severe draught caused by the sun. This battered the self-esteem of the sun, feeling the clouds are indeed more powerful than himself. He wished to be the cloud. Lo and behold, he actually became the cloud!

He was actually happy as the cloud. It gave him a sense of omnipotence. He could either provide shade or expose others to the scorching sun. He could bring down torrential rain, flooding the land to demonstrate his power. One day, his sense of omnipotence was badly shaken. While enjoying the sight of his flood destroying everything in its path, uprooting trees, removing dwellings, he saw a huge boulder standing firm in its path, unperturbed by the rushing flood. Much as the clouds tried to step up the torrents, the rock stood its ground. In humiliation, the clouds admitted his impotency before the power of the boulder. It wished to become the boulder. Lo and behold! He became the huge powerful boulder.

One day, a humble stone hewer came along and with his simple tools began chipping the huge boulder….

To be sure, the above is a fairy tale, what with stone hewer becoming the king, the sun, the cloud and so forth. But the motifs and morals are real, part and parcel of our daily living and certainly an integral part of the Malaysian public life. If we reflect upon news of megalomaniac quest for power untempered by scruples, unsatiated greed fuelling corruption, or holding the rein of power without values and ideals, we begin to wonder which is fairy tale and which is real? Is there a stone hewer amongst us, or even within us? Indeed the dividing line between fairy tale and reality is then greatly blurred.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A grave wrong in His name

I am saddened by news of the recent attacks on various churches in Kuala Lumpur. I am sure our morality and collective conscience find such violent act absolutely unacceptable. I am certain upon hearing the news, we deeply regret with remorse the loss of something we all cherish. Let us pray that the violent act had been a rare aberration or deviation. Though vital principle of peace and universal brotherhood had been compromised and put to jeopardy, let us dearly hope and pray that it is still very much the principle and value that guides and binds our lives.

Many of our bloggers had been most active and prolific over The Issue precisely in the hope of never witnessing such sad incidents in our midst. In general we understand and deeply appreciate how sacred and delicate is the religious harmony that binds us all in universal brotherhood. We had been judicious to the best of our ability to render to God what is His, to Caesar accordingly. The beauty of His name and the brilliance of His guiding light is certainly well beyond the law and constitutionality, what more of mundane politics.

In our sadness and deep regret, we shall not quote beautiful verses from our Sacred Books. They would be superfluous, for the gravity of the wrong done is as clear as daylight or the blazing sun. To marshal holy texts and divine verses would perhaps indicate we had not learn anything or much from His guiding light. Let us reject violence and reaffirm our universal brotherhood more as an act of conscience and deep faith, relying less on our religious or scriptural ‘manuals’.

Let us all pray this is not the beginning of a sad chapter in our history. Our religious harmony is something we cannot afford to take for granted. We need to be vigilant, sensitive and wise in handling religious issues as they touch the innermost of our being and existence. Let us not then trade His guiding light for other mundane and trivial considerations.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The‘Allah’ controversy- alamak don’t miss the contextlah!

I watch in dismay the development of controversy over the usage of the term ‘Allah’. The issue is so high in public consciousness that I don’t need to give the facts and background of it, suffice for me to simply speak of ‘the controversy’. In my dismay, I am thankful though that Allah has blessed me with a simple mind, hence always seeing things in plain terms and uncomplicated manner. I have learnt much from the various posting of the subjects, though I confess most of the sophisticated arguments are quite beyond me.

Firstly, as I see it, the case is about ‘the usage’ of the term ‘Allah’ by the Herald, so to my mind the relevant questions would be do they have the right to the use? How have they been using it? What is their intention in so using? Is their usage or intention offensive to others, not only legally or constitutionally, but also by other standards of social or ethical propriety?

The court had decided on the question of right to the usage,favouring the Herald with the right albeit in limited context and for very specific ‘internal’ purpose. I must confess I don’t have enough information to judge on many of the other questions. I have not seen a copy of the Herald (has the Home Affairs been very effective in this respect?) to help me see what is the manner of usage. As for the many questions pertaining to intention, this belong to our own analysis and evaluation of past and future conduct of the group behind the Herald. Many perceptive analysis and observation had been posted in various blogs, as well as not so perceptive ones, and readers can avail themselves of their freedom of speech and expression, as well as freedom of religion, to peruse them.

Following the judgment, a controversy in now raging, though the PM and the government is appealing for restraint. The much welcome news to the Muslims that the government is appealing against the judgment has somewhat moderated their anger, though I believe only for the moment as they watch further development. Many blogs and comments therein had expressed concern that the legal wrangling of appeal and possible counter appeal and so forth may be costly for the religious harmony of our nation. I share deeply their concern.

I have followed the discourse on the matter and I am moved to jot down my own thoughts for sharing with readers. Firstly I notice that what started as a constitutional and legal case has now assume the nature of theological controversy, internally and externally to the various faith. Some Muslims for example had taken upon themselves to explain to Muslims that the usage of the term by non-Muslims had always been current in the Middle East and that it is commanded by Allah according to the Al-Quran, from which they quote profusely in support of their position. Somehow, this position seems to coincide generally with the response of PAS and PKR leaders, for whatever reasons. This position has the effect of trivializing or even derogating the anger and anxiety of concern Muslims in the region.

While sharing the ‘common use of Allah’ argument in other context, I beg to differ within the specific context of the current controversy. This ‘common use ’ argument pertains to mankind’s monotheistic quest for One Absolute God. Hence the common heritage of the term ‘Allah’ in the Middle East, being the cradle of the various Judaic-Christian and Islamic religion, all of them tracing their roots and origin to the monotheism of Abraham. Where they differ is in their testimony of their faithfulness to the original spirit of their source. This explains why the currency and commonality of the usage of ‘Allah’ within the context of the Middle East, a context which includes the raging and seemingly endless religious conflict in that region.

Now it is fair for me to say, I think, that the word and the concept of ‘Allah’ in Southeast Asia has been more closely associated with islamization or the spread of Islam in the region. To cite simply the common use of ‘Allah’ in the Middle East as an argument for Southeast Asia is to take the word out of its proper socio-historical or even religious context, and artificially transplant it on to our own situation. We cannot pretend Southeast Asia to be the cradle of the Judaic-Christian and Islamic faith. On the other hand to be sure, we can certainly import the conflicts of the Middle East, of the crusade, into Southeast Asia if we choose to ignore the Southeast Asian context and be a part of the Middle Eastern conflict. I for one think we should strive to maintain our religious harmony at all cost!

To insist on the common use of the term within our present controversy is to actually give it the very opposite meaning as used in the Middle East. Within the context ofthe Middle East the word ‘Allah’ refers to the belief in his Absoluteness and Oneness, which is the original source of the Judaic-Christian and Islamic religion. It is an argument for universalism against sectarianism.In this respect it is intended to be a unifying symbol. In contrast to this,the present controversy over the use of 'Allah'seems to be heading more in the direction of sectarianism, away from the meaning of 'Allah'as the One Absolute God.

Let’s be light-hearted and not get highly strung over the issue,though we certainly need to keep a cool head. The point I really want to make is that the meaning of words and symbols are contextual. We all know, the Indonesian words like ‘gampang’, ‘butuh’, ‘bisa’ are ordinary words, functional and useful words in the Indonesian context, but in Bahasa Malaysia or Bruneian Malay they would be offensive indeed ( check the different dictionaries if you miss my point). Words and symbols do have their contextual meaning. Hope we never lose sight of this in facing the current controversy in our midst.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Allah, Tuhan, Jesus - What's His name?

Since yesterday, the press, the internet and the blogsphere had been abuzz with the issue over the right to use the word 'Allah' in the name of freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of religion as laid down by the Malaysian constitution.

Yesterday Justice Datuk Lau Bee Lan held that the Herald, a Catholic weekly magazine had the constitutional right to use the word 'Allah' in its publication to propagate the Christian religion but not Islam. She said that pursuant to Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution, it was an offence for non-Muslims to use the word 'Allah' to Muslims to propagate their religion

A brief background to the case is as follows:

On Jan 7, the Home Minister approved the Herald's publishing permit for the period Jan 1 to Dec 31, 2009, on condition that the word "Allah" was not used in it and the words "Restricted" must be printed on the weekly's front page whereby it could only be circulated to Christians and at churches only.

In response, Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam filed for a judicial review on the usage of the word 'Allah' in the church's publicatons, naming the Home Ministry and the goverment as respondents.

Throughout the case, many arguments had been put put forth by involved parties to the issue, which make us realise how unique and complex our nation and its pluralism is. Suffice to say, this case certainly impressed upon my mind that the security, peace and harmony of the nation is well beyond the ambit of legal wranglings and cold letter of the law, even of the constitution. Beyond legal and constitutional quiblings, I dare say that we as a nation are in dire need of mutual respect, sensitivity and just plain old goodwill among the various segments of the population, of various cultural and religious traditions. The questions brought forth for judiciary review are very much part of our current political discourse even when divorced from their specific judicial setting.

It has been argued by non-Muslims mainly that the word 'Allah' is not exclusive to the Muslims and predate the birth of Islam. For the Muslims, this is just stating the obvious as it is the basic teaching of their religion to enjoin mankind to return to the older monetheism brought by Abraham, long before the coming of Islam. So in the evolution of religion then, it was the conception and idea of God that was debated and not just the plain word 'Allah' or his name. Such evolution is furthermore in line with the dynamics of cultural change, which does not involve a whole culture changing overnight, but proceeds by gradual adjustment and adaptation. So the argument that the word 'Allah' is not exclusive to Muslims and predate Islam is not quite to the point.

Within the specific context of Malaysia, however, the word 'Allah' has assumed its contextual and specific meaning as understood and held by the religion of Islam and the Muslims.Now, the formulation, understanding and interpretation of laws has always been everywhere,and in history, a matter of context in response to specific requirements. Therefore in my humble opinion, the argument that the word has an earlier meaning in history, and for other groups elsewhere, should not carry that much weight in the contextual interpretation of our own laws.

Now, there is the question of the freedom of speech and expression under our constitution. I think we all know and understand that such freedom is conditional and not without qualification It is almost a cliche to say that freedom of speech and expression carries with it responsibilities and due regards for the sensitivity of others.

In fact in this case, the Honorable Justice had given due regards to this requirement of the law. Bound by the wordings of Article 11( 4), she had made it clear that the word 'Allah' is permitted the Herald only for specific use of Christian congregation and for the teaching of Christianity to Christians. It would be an offence if the word 'Allah' is used to propagate religion to Muslims.

This is of course the contentious point raised by many. If it is of such limited 'freedom of speech and expression' , amounting to some sort of 'internal' Christian use, why is the Herald bent on using the word 'Allah'? Why not 'Tuhan', or 'Jesus'? This of course gives ground for suspicion among Muslims of intention to convert Muslims to Christianity.On this score, of course, we would be moving into areas quite beyond the immediate case before the court. As we know, beyond formal question of law and jurisprudence,there is a broad area of living which is not quite amenable to the court standards of what is right or wrong.

For now the law has made its declaration, giving literal meaning to the words of the law and the constitution. Judging by its declaration, the court had confined its role to defining the extent and limit of the freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom of religion in this case. It has been careful to exclude the issue of implementing and policing the law. While granting the Herald the right to use the word ' Allah', it has also clearly defined the extent and limit of that use. While it is a right for the Herald to use the word 'Allah' within their fold for their particular use, it is illegal beyond this.

As for the Home Affairs and the goverment, it remains for them to make a more convincing case in its appeal against the decision on the ground of national security and the confusion it might engender among Muslims by the use of the word 'Allah' by non-Muslims.It is their failure to make a convincing case that forced the court to fall back on the constitutional provision itself in the first instance. In addition, it is very much the responsibility of the Home Affairs and the goverment to implement, police and wisely manage what the court has decided. I suspect an inherent difficulty in its exercise of duty would be determining what constitutes 'propagation to Muslims' in this age of mass communication, including publishing,with its free flow of ideas, including religious ones.