Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Open Dialogue for Religious Freedom and Harmony

Written by johnleemk on 3:25:57 pm Aug 9, 2008.
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Religious freedom is hitting the Malaysian headlines again, this time because of yet another forum forced to end after threats of violence. Both sides clearly believe they are fighting for what is right; maybe we could have a forum to clear the air on this? We need to understand why the other side behaves the way they do; like it or not, both sides feel that something very fundamental is under threat, and we have to solve the problem, either by clearing up this misapprehension, or by removing the threat.

From my point of view, there is absolutely nothing at all with holding a forum on the subject of religious conversion, no matter how biased it actually is. Even if it's just a huge party where everyone agrees we should burn the heretics at the stake, or alternatively encourage more heresy — both stances I strongly disagree with, in case it wasn't apparent — I'm not going to tell you what to believe or what to say. If you really think that we should kill the infidels or that blaspheming God is great, I'm not going to threaten to kill you for what you believe in, or what you say.

Media reports suggest that the Bar Council-organised forum was merely relating the experiences of people who have dealt with the problems arising when an individual converts into or converts out of Islam. Of course, since the forum was cut short, it presumably would have moved onto other issues later, but there does not seem to be any indication of incivility on the part of organisers or participants. The main aggressors were the 300-odd protesters outside the Bar Council building, threatening to storm it.

Now, I would say that the protesters are in the wrong. Not for exercising their freedom of speech, of course, but for threatening violence towards the forum participants. Violence is unacceptable — it makes dialogue impossible, because it reduces your options from "talk, fight or give in" to "fight or give in".

But there is more to the issue than that; the fact that some people want to use violence to resolve the issue does not change another fact — there are reasonable people genuinely concerned about open dialogue on religious conversions. The Malaysian Insider quoted some protesters upset that PKR MP Zulkifli Noordin told them to storm the building if they could not get the Bar to shut down the forum. A number accepted that the forum was meant to be a dialogue for them to express their views too; many leaders at the protest tried to calm the crowd, with Zulkifli reportedly the main instigator.

One banner carried at the protest read "Menjunjung keadilan, menyanggah kezaliman" — upholding justice, fighting tyranny. The people concerned about the forum are not imbeciles, mind you — they are reasonable people who must have a reason for doing the things they do. They, for some reason, believe that the forum was meant to promote tyranny and injustice.

And likewise the people at the forum surely did not see themselves as oppressors; they saw themselves as victims too. They must be reasonable people as well; contrary to some aggressive promoters of religious tyranny and religious freedom, normal people do not take to the streets for no damn reason, and neither do they stand up to claim they have been victimised unless they have, in some way, been a victim. So the forum participants saw themselves as standing up for justice and freedom as well.

Clearly someone is wrong — but maybe, just maybe, both sides are in the right. Discount the actions of provocateurs for a moment, and just think. The people at the forum were upset because they felt their right to practice their beliefs is under threat. The people protesting the forum were upset because they felt their right to practice their beliefs is under threat. From a purely ethical standpoint, both groups are right; nobody's right to believe in something should be suppressed, as long as they do not interfere with anyone else's right to their own beliefs.

It follows that the solution is for both sides to get together, and understand what makes each other feel threatened. This is hard to do when you have people threatening people's property and wellbeing, or when you have people yelling at other people to get out of the country ("balik Cina" and "babi" were among the insults heard at the rally). But there are reasonable people on both sides; if we can sit down, if we can talk about the issues, we might get somewhere.

There are of course a couple of obstacles to this, the main one being the pervasive belief that dialogue is harmful. The rally started in the first place, mind you, because the protesters believed that open discussion of Islam is taboo. We have to start by respecting the other side's right to disagree with us, rather than insisting that we must pretend the issue is settled and there is a clear consensus.

Discussion does not challenge anyone; the forum was not held to call anyone a pig (as some protesters did), or to insult anybody's religion. It was held to understand the issues surrounding religious conversion in Malaysia. We must distinguish between actual insults, and constructive dialogue.

The other obstacle is the threat that any discussion will be shut down by those who want to stop it by any means possible. Incitement to violence should be a crime, if it is not already; the police have a responsibility to protect people from violence when going about their lives. It is one thing to advise a public rally to disperse, since that is on public property; it is another thing to tell the people using private premises that they cannot be there because the police do not want to protect them from violence. People have a right to do what they like on their own premises, and the police must enforce that right.

I don't know if we have anti-incitement laws, but we definitely should; there are sporadic reports at the moment that in lieu of arresting Zulkifli Noordin and charging him with incitement, the government has detained him under the Internal Security Act. I think it's abhorrent to lock people up without charging them for anything, but if the ISA has any use at all, this is one of them. The primary use of the ISA has always been supposed to be protecting public order, so if the government uses it at all (which it shouldn't), it should at least confine its use to cases like this, where a man tries to provoke violence.

It is of course a bit trite and cliched to say that dialogue is the answer, but in this case, I believe it really is. Dialogue is the only way non-Muslims and Muslims will understand why we feel and act the way we do, and it has to be done in an atmosphere of openness, rather than under the veil of secrecy and threat of harm. Most Malaysians are reasonable people who can talk with each other as reasonable fellow human beings; the only threat to harmony is the few who refuse to participate in dialogue, and insist on stopping it. If we want real and lasting peace, the answer is not to make the many stop talking at the behest of a few; it is to make the few understand that their sensitivities cannot stand in the way of understanding and dialogue.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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