Can discerning Malaysian citizens be blamed for wondering whether there is any substantive difference between Pastor Terry Jones’s warped sense of religious duty and similar misguided views shared by others on our own shores, asks Yeoh Seng Guan.
As I write this entry, I hear intermittent explosions – near and far – piercing the night sky. It’s the eve of Hari Raya Puasa/Aidilfitri. Muslims in Malaysia and around the world have fasted for the past month. For some – especially children and teenagers – the end of their bodily regime is more appropriately marked by the unleashing of boisterous fireworks!
It is also two days to the ninth anniversary of the suicidal attacks on the World Trade Centre (New York) and Pentagon (Washington DC) where some 3,000 individuals perished. This year, the commemoration of that tragic event has been compounded by a gun-toting American pastor’s publicly declared aim to burn 200 copies of the Qur’an. As Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Centre puts it, the Qur’an is supposedly evil because it does not reflect biblical truth. Moreover, it supposedly incites radical and violent behaviour among Muslims. So by torching the Muslims’ holy book, he wishes to send a clear message to “radical Islamists” that they must abide by the American Constitution. What irony!
If it was Pastor Jones’ intention to attract media attention to his erstwhile unknown local church by parading his version of patriotism through this outrageous gesture, he has certainly got it. Indeed, global media reporting has amplified the wider ramifications of his proposed action, and has churned up a range of agitated commentaries. US President Barack Obama has characterised this action as contrary to American values of religious tolerance and said it would become a “recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda”. General David Petraeus, the top-ranking American and Nato commander in Afghanistan said “images of the burning of a Qur’an would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan – and around the world – to inflame public opinion and incite violence.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair advised that “rather than burn the Qur’an, people should read it”.
Equally important, local religious leaders of Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations as well as non-religious civil society groups in the United States have rallied together to denounce this double act of desecration and incitement of religious violence. While Pastor Terry Jones’ expression is arguably protected by the First Amendment of the American Constitution – freedom of speech – many of his fellow Americans have counselled for good neighbourly sense to prevail instead.
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Lest we think we in Malaysia are immune to this kind of outlandish behaviour, I am reminded of similar recent episodes of various individuals and groups resorting to desecrating places of religious worship and mocking the sacred symbols of other religions in order to carry one’s offensive/defensive point across. There have also been attempts by certain quarters at “safeguarding” certain perceived sacred provisions of the Malaysian Constitution through the force of threats rather than through reasoned public debate and a respectful appreciation of difference.
Can discerning Malaysian citizens be blamed then for thinking whether there is any substantive difference between Pastor Terry Jones’s warped sense of patriotism and religious duty and those carried out on our own shores? In this state of wilful mutual incomprehension, is it no wonder that the agents provocateur of parochialism are having a field day in stoking the flames of fear, distrust and antagonism? Perhaps it is a truism that people like Pastor Terry Jones will never go away as long as there are inequities of all stripes in our society. But they should signal to us as well that the trendy “1Malaysia” we aspire to needs to go beyond flashy rhetoric. At the very least, it has to be exemplified on a daily basis by the force of ethical leadership by example and by reasoned moral persuasion from all Malaysians of goodwill.
Wishing all Muslims in Malaysia Selamat Hari Raya Puasa/Adilfitri!