Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bibles: Stamping out the holy and the devil must pay!

We all know how sensitive religious issues can be within the context of our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-­religious nation. Although in terms of abstraction and conceptual analysis we can differentiate between these categories, in reality they are part and parcel of one reality of our daily lives simultaneously. This is especially so within the context of our Malaysian nation where racial, cultural and religious denomination greatly coincide or overlap. Hence it is seldom the case where a particular issue is exclusively 'racial', 'cultural' or 'religious', with no wider implications beyond the immediate and particular definition of the situation, spilling over into the general complex of the racial, the cultural and the religious.

I realise I am merely stating 'the obvious', which however needs restating, given the discourse even among our politicians or public figures on important and touchy matters. For example, take the usual polemics of politicians themselves on various occasions, consciously or unconsciously stirring controversies: 'Are you Malay (Indian or Chinese) first, or Malaysians first?'; ' Are you Muslim( Christian, Buddhist, Hindu) first, or Malay, Indian, Chinese or others) first?; 'Are you of your faith (whatever), ethnicity (whatever) first, or your political party (whatever)?

This'obvious' multi-dimensional aspect of our nation, can work out to be indeed a blessing or a dangerous curse, depending on our wisdom, tack and sensitivity of  the collective life. Our stand on issues can readily either integrate or unravel the nation, as they normally affect deeply our innermost sentiments or feelings. One unfortunate effect of this is that someone with a Machiavellian outlook has a powerful tool at his disposal. Any medium he chooses, be it 'ethnic', 'racial', 'religious', 'linguistic', 'party line', can easily amplify right across the board into other areas of life as well.

I read with interest and concern a news item in the Star, 1 April 2011, carrying the caption ' The Gideons not ready to collect ''stamped' Bibles'. The facts are as follows: 30,000 copies of the Bibles are awaiting collection in Kucing. The importer the Gideon says it has not decided the course of action and would inform donors and Church leaders in Sarawak when it decides. The terms of their deliberation suggest strong identification, sympathy and cross referencing with the experience of the Bible Society of Malaysia in Peninsula Malaysia over another batch of imported Bibles in bahasa Malaysia

The facts are as follows: Last Wednesday, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BMS) collected 5,100 copies of the Bible in bahasa Malaysia, previously impounded by the Malaysian government.BMS collected the copies for the reason; ' to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect being committed against the holy books of the Christians by the ministry and its officers'. Here the BMS is referring to the ministry's act of stamping and serialising the copies. Well, is it an act of 'desecrating' or being ' disrespectful' towards 'the holy book of the Christians? I think it is somewhat overstating it.

It was the ministry's way of giving effect to the spirit of the law. The court had decided that Christians have the right to the use of 'Allah' internally, within their circle, under the principle of the right to practice their own religion( a court appeal is pending). From the ministry's point of view, I suppose, stamping and serialising serves the purpose of identifying copies and ensuring its legitimate area of circulation. The act of stamping and serialising does not go into the content and message of the Bible to be deemed 'desecrating' or 'disrespecting the holy book of Christians'. The holy or divine message of the scriptures had not been diminished or stamped out in any way.

Now the BMS had decided not to sell the stamped and serialised copies but instead 'to preserve them as museum pieces'. Is it figuratively speaking when BMS speaks of 'museum pieces'? Figuratively or otherwise, BMS intention of polemicizing or politicising the matter is clear. It has every intention to exploit the 'defaced copies' in some manner to incite religious sentiments, turning an administrative act into the mark of the devil, 'desecrating, defacing the holy book'.

Now there is the question of who should pay? The Home Minister Hishamuddin and Minister Idris Jala have made efforts to get 'Christian donors' and 'friends' to pay for the stamped and serialised copies (deemed 'desecrated' and ' defaced' by BMS) BMS has rejected these offers in strong terms: 'BMS wishes to make its stand clear that we will only accept a cheque from the Home Ministry and will not accept any money from so called “Christian donors”.Now all of this makes it interesting, though intriguing. Why should the government try to pay for the copies? Is it pang of guilt? Does the Home-Ministry feel it has wronged? Does it regret its action? If in the affirmative, it should of course resort to some restitution of cost, not otherwise.

BMS's stand raises questions too. Obviously BMS is not concerned about money, otherwise it should matter little what is the source of payment. BMS meant payment to be a symbolic act, an admission of guilt, hence it can only accept payment from the Ministry. This is holding to its charge that the copies had been desecrated and defaced, hence the devil should pay.Hence we are back to the earlier question. Does the Home Ministry feel it has done wrong? If so, it should pay and not get someone else to pick the tab, which will make it even more intriguing: how are we to interpret this from the responsibility or accountability point  of view?

The latest response of the government with regards to the whole Bible issue seems to suggest that the goverment assume full responsibility for the act of impounding, stamping and serialising, perceived by organisations the like of BMS as 'desecration' and 'defacement'. This is indicated in the policy to allow the free import and printing of Bibles in all languages, including in bahasa Malaysia. In Sabah and Sarawak, the importation and printing of Bibles are allowed without the necessity of any form of categorisation or serialisation.In Peninsula Malaysia Bibles in bahasa Malaysia need to be categorised as Christian publication, with a clear sign of the cross on the cover. Some elements of an admission of guilt are also indicated on the part of the goverment in the strongly worded instructions issued to officials on procedures concerning Bibles. But the clearest form of admission of guilt and apology is expressed in Minister Idris Jala's imploration for Christians to forgive the goverment over the action, whom he says are not perfect, as all human beings are only 'beautifully imperfect'.    

It is instructive to reflect over the whole incident.I am confident that the issue is by no means entirely resolved, going by the tendencies and sentiments of parties  in the whole incident. For now I can only say, let us not lose sight of both the secular and the divine in our lives, and let us vigilantly keep the devil of bigotry at bay at all times!

No comments:

Post a Comment