Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

An Exercise in Reciprocal Tolerance

Written by johnleemk on 12:07:33 pm Aug 20, 2008.

The controversy over the recent Bar Council forum on religious conversions shows little sign of dying down, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad insisting that the government should have banned the dialogue. The grand old man of Malaysian politics is entitled to his opinion, as are the 300-odd protesters who showed up that Saturday; I applaud them for exercising their fully deserved freedoms of thought, conscience and expression. I cannot, however, commend their nonchalant rejection of some other fundamental freedoms, such as the right to private property, and the reciprocal right of others to their own thoughts, their own consciences, and their own speech.

The 19th century philosopher Edmund Burke once remarked that "Toleration is good for all, or it is good for none." In other words, whatever you expect me to tolerate from you, you must likewise tolerate from me. If I have to tolerate you calling me a pig and telling me to leave the country, you must tolerate the same treatment from me; if you cannot tolerate a frank discussion of how your religious beliefs impact mine, then I likewise have the right to insist you never discuss my religion.

This reciprocal rule of tolerance may stem from English rather than Islamic jurisprudence and ethics, but I am confident it resonates with any civilised value system in existence. Jesus' golden rule of do unto others as you would have done unto you is at the heart of almost every moral value out there. So why would the fervent fundamentalists deny to others the very rights they themselves freely claim and exercise?

The protesters on Saturday were beautifully exercising their freedom to speak their minds, yet the purpose of their rally was to shut down the free expression going on within the Bar Council building. Inside, Muslims and non-Muslims were discussing the ramifications of religious conversions — a perfectly valid topic, considering that non-Muslims are increasingly being compelled to appear in Muslim Syariah courts, and the scope of Islamic law is expanding to include non-Muslims who previously converted to Islam or whose family members have done so. Yet outside, protesters were insisting that this horrible infringement of their right to practice Islam be stopped, by any means necessary.

Fortunately only a handful of the activists outside appeared to really believe this. The Malaysian Insider and other media outlets quoted protesters who were unhappy with the order to storm the building if the forum could not be stopped, citing the presence of Muslims at the dialogue who were sharing the Muslim point of view. Many of the activists appear to have been there only to voice their own opinion, rather than to silence others' thoughts.

In spite of this, it is insidious that a vocal minority of the protesters were eager to deny those inside the very rights those outside were exercising. If the Bar Council had organised the forum to call Muslims pigs and to ask them to leave the country, then I would understand the protest; such language can easily be violent incitement in our sensitive sociopolitical climate. But the Bar Council organised a peaceful discussion open to all Malaysians to discuss the ramifications of religious conversion for all Malaysians; there was no intent to demean any religion or faith.

Instead, what wound up happening was a handful of protesters calling non-Muslim attendees pigs and asking them to get out of Malaysia. The only people present who threatened any violence against anyone were those calling on the Muslim activists to storm the building. Honestly, which group was more hurtful, more seditious, more likely to inflame vile sentiments in our plural population?

The Police presence should have deterred the protesters from making good on their threats of violence; they instead validated the threats, and advised the Bar to halt the forum. This hardly makes sense; it is completely contrary to the laws governing the fundamental right to private property.

This is not like the BERSIH or HINDRAF rallies, which were held in a public area; the forum was being held on the private premises of the Bar. The Bar has every right to do what they like with their own property — just like you and me. The Police are obligated to arrest anyone who violates this right by trespassing and causing damage to the property within — that's all there is to it.

By analogy, let us say that I have my birthday party at home. I invite a bunch of friends, but I also tell them to invite anyone they like — it's an open house, for the public. At the party, talk turns to politics and religion — nobody says anything seditious, but somebody does mention how an acquaintance had difficulty converting out of Islam after his Muslim wife passed away. Now, a bunch of people turn up and tell us to stop talking or else they will come into my house, trash my property, and attack my friends. We call the Police, and they advise us to heed the warning. But how can we be in the wrong for having a discussion on our own private premises?

Some suggest that there is a relevant distinction between open and closed events, saying that the dialogue should not have been open to the public. I cannot for the life of me see how this matters; is the public going to be inflamed by a few intemperate comments in a little forum? Ultimately the purpose of dialogue is for people to understand each other, and I would much rather have a public dialogue moderated by a bunch of lawyers rather than secretive gossip in the coffee shops moderated by, well, nobody at all.

There are others who find it disappointing that some of the most offensive remarks made came from a Pakatan Rakyat politician. I do not think it is instructive to listen to the views of any individual politician if you are really interested in judging his party. Why not judge Pakatan by the actions of its other elected officials there who tried to calm the protesters? Why not judge Pakatan by the actions of the PAS Unit Amal, which played a key role in preventing things from getting ugly at the rally?

I believe it is heartening that PAS has come out swinging for the right of people to express themselves freely and peacefully; it is heartening that Pakatan is willing to censure politicians who cross the line. Pakatan may insist on drawing a distinction between open and closed discussions, but they are at least open to some sort of dialogue. Whether you are satisfied or not, how Pakatan handled the issue is infinitely more prudent than how Barisan Nasional would have tackled it. Can you see UMNO Youth holding back a crowd bent on violence, or the UMNO Deputy President issuing an immediate statement criticising UMNO politicians who play the racial card?

Ultimately, this still comes down to some fundamental rights: our right to express our thoughts, our right to possess property gained by the sweat of our brow, our right to live in peace. These rights can only last as long as we are willing to respect them when they are exercised by those we vehemently disagree with. The Barisan coalition has persistently and repeatedly failed this test of reciprocal tolerance; that Saturday, Pakatan passed it with flying colours.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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