Wednesday 21 Feb 2024
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 3 - 9, 2017.


The recently released Racial Discrimination Report 2016 by Pusat KOMAS, a non-profit social outfit, concluded that there has been a rise in racial and ethnic discrimination in Malaysia. The report’s findings are based on news reports on incidents of racial discrimination in Malaysia in 2015 and 2016.

This is an extremely worrying trend that suggests that efforts by the government through various means, including the National Unity Consultative Council, to promote racial harmony and moderation in religion have not been effective.

According to the report, “[r]ecent incidents of racial discrimination, racism and stained ethnic relations within the Malaysian society have increasingly surfaced over the years despite the prime minister’s numerous assurances and claims at home and abroad that the government promotes moderation in the country”.

To be sure, there are many reasons that can be brought up to explain this state of affairs. One certainly has to do with the rise of hate speech and the opportunity that social media provides for the spread of hate speech. As the report notes, “[t]he emergence of the internet and social media platforms has provided more open spaces and platforms for widespread expression of racial sentiments and hate speech”.

This still begs the question as to what accounts for hate speech and prejudiced views in general. There are, in fact, many factors that go into the making of prejudice and discrimination along the lines of race and religion.

One factor is religious extremism. Indeed, religious extremism can be said to be a threat to 

inter-religious and inter-ethnic harmony in society to the extent that extremism advocates an exclusivist attitude towards religion and race.

Islam defines itself as the religion of the middle way. This idea is captured by the Qur’anic term ummatan wasatan — the community of the middle way. This, of course, refers to the middle way between extremes.

The idea of the middle way is intimately related to justice or adalah. A specific attribute of justice is mizan or balance. Both moderation and justice, therefore, refer to the balance between extremes.

Extremism is the failure to establish a balance between two poles. Take, for example, the two poles of exclusivism and inclusivism. It would be considered extremism to accept into the fold of Islam any and every school of thought, when they have departed from the basic tenets of Islam, just because that school claims to be Muslim.

It would be unreasonable to expect a religious community to be excessively inclusivist to the point that it is not able to maintain the integrity of its belief system. On the other hand, it would also be extremist of a religion if it were to be excessively exclusivist and rejected as part of Islam certain schools of thought that do subscribe to the fundamentals of Islam but may differ from the mainstream or majority schools in other respects.

What is needed is the balance between an inclusivist and exclusivist approach. In Malaysian Islam today, it is the exclusivist attitude, particularly among some of the influential religious and political elite, that is in the ascendancy.

There is the danger that the belief in the possibility of harmonious coexistence between the different communities in the country will be shaken due to the assertion of a more exclusivist Muslim identity among the religious and political elite.

In fact, this is beginning to affect Malaysians’ perceptions of the state of ethnic and religious harmony in the country. There are many examples of prejudice and even persecution that warrant this pessimistic stance. For example, the country had witnessed the persecution of its minority Shi’ite population in the last few years.

Malaysian Christians have been alarmed by a certain degree of Christian bashing in the country as well as restrictions placed on them, such as prohibition on the use of the term “Allah”. Last year, there were five cases of Hindu temples being vandalised in the states of Perak and Penang. Such incidents have the potential to sour relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, between the Malays and the non-Malays, and serve to heighten fears that Malaysia’s harmony is gradually being eroded.

As far as Muslims in Malaysia are concerned, there is a need for them to become more acquainted with their religious tradition such that they develop a more inclusivist orientation towards other religious communities.

While many Muslim religious leaders would often pay lip service to the idea that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, this is not always reflected in their words and conduct. This is possibly because they themselves are not rooted in Islamic tradition.

The historical fact is that Muslim political and religious elite in the past had adhered to the Qur’anic ideal of not just tolerance but also compassion towards religious minorities that lived in Muslim-ruled lands. This was certainly true of the Muslim treatment of Christians and Jews. The Prophet Muhammad himself had striven to protect Christians living under Muslim rule. He had entered into several covenants with Christians to achieve this.

Among the more famous of such covenants was the one with St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. The covenant granted protection to the monks of the monastery. The Prophet had said that “[w]hosoever of my nation shall presume to break my promise and oath … destroys the promise of God … [and] … becomes worthy of the curse, whether he be the King himself, or a poor man, or whatever person he may be”.

In Andalusia, or Spain under Muslim rule, Jewish civilisation thrived. Not only did the Jews make great advances in their philosophy and theology when they lived under Muslim rule, but some of them also attained high positions in the state administration, something that is unthinkable today.

For example, the Talmudic scholar, Samuel ibn Nagrillah, was a tax collector and assistant vizier to Sultan Habbus. He rose to the office of vizier under Sultan Badis in the 11th century. Another Jew, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, was a physician and personal adviser to Caliph Abd al-Rahman in the early 10th century.

We find similar stories of Jews in high places elsewhere. The famous Jewish scholar, Maimonides, was the personal physician of Sultan Salahuddin, the Ayubid ruler of Egypt and Syria. Don Joseph Nasim, a Jewish diplomat, was personal adviser to the 

Ottoman Sultan Sulaiman in the early 1500s.

It is possible to cite more contemporary examples of Muslim compassion for non-Muslims. During World War II, the Turks and Iranians saved thousands of European Jews and Christians from death and misery by making it possible for them to escape Europe to Turkey and Iran. The descendants of these people can still be found in these two countries.

The challenge in Malaysia is for our Muslim religious and political elite to be reconnected to their own religious tradition and to be inspired by that tradition such that they develop a genuinely multiculturalist approach.

There is no contradiction between respecting and having compassion for people of other religions and being steadfast in one’s own faith. If they fail to be guided by the ideals of Islam and the practice of the Muslims of the past, however, Malaysia will eventually be dragged into inter-religious and inter-ethnic unrest.

Syed Farid Alatas is head of the Department of Malay Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore

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