We now need to teach ourselves and one another about the importance of solidarity in appreciating diversity, writes Mary Chin.
My earliest notions of openness while growing up as a child were about people going for non-halal stuff. People doing the forbidden were said to be open.
I grew up to discover how wrong that idea was. Being open has nothing to do with what one does him or herself. It is all about how one perceives what others do or don’t.
Whether a Catholic eats meat on Fridays tells us absolutely nothing about his or her openness – as much as whether a Muslim eats char koay teow with those crispy goreng bits.
It is when we can’t imagine how this fellow helping himself with meat can possibly be a good Catholic or how that fellow helping himself with this and that can possibly be a good Muslim that our narrow-mindedness and small-heartedness manifests itself to the full. No matter how open we claim to be, we are far from that.
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I have been taught that a person’s conscience is God’s dwelling place which I must not intrude. Khairy’s are words of wisdom, “It is compulsory (wajib) for you to observe the five pillars. It is not compulsory for people to catch you not doing it.”
I guess the problem is some find it hard to observe the five pillars once they stop catching people who don’t. Some find it hard to stay in faith without ridiculing others’. Some find it hard to keep the flood gates shut once the beer festival is approved. Some find it hard to resist the moment they stop condemning the LGBTQ. Some find it hard to refrain from adultery once they stop throwing stones.
Our openness, their extremism. Our cleanliness, their dirtiness. Our holiness, their debauchery. Here we are, a nation suffering from the disease of self-righteousness, as we race to brainwash each other. Many like to think of themselves as cleaner, more open, more enlightened and less racist.
In fact, most have a long way to go despite all the exposure we claim to have gained from education and travels abroad. Many remain katak di bawah tempurung even after visiting all those sites that are worth a thousand selfies, all those hotels which merit a thousand Facebook check-ins, and all those dishes which warrant to-the-minute social-media updates.
Lost in glamour, we are far from being an open and progressive people.
Handwashing after toileting
Singling out Chinese as people who do not wash after going to the toilet is a biased, targeted attack. But there are similar biased, targeted prejudices against migrant workers too. Many Malaysians seem to find Zamihan more attractive, hence the persistent interest. After all, who finds interest in migrant workers except human traffickers and officers out to cari makan?
No one seems interested to acknowledge that after-loo hand hygiene, lost in the news sensation, is indeed a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
In Europe, we had compulsory and regular hand-washing training. We were told to wash our hands the best we could and present ourselves for assessment. Colleagues can recollect for the rest of their lives how the dirty bits on their hands glowed under the UV kit no matter how hard they tried to wash. Embarrassing, but they all swear they did their best — to the extent of scrubbing off their skin.
Comparing notes, we found that nobody’s hand ever not glowed under that UV kit, but the exercise did a great job drilling into our minds the importance of hand hygiene.
Why is there such training? The training wouldn’t have been carried out had it not been for some horrific discoveries of even some doctors not washing their hands before emerging from the loo.
Who is dirtier?
Perceiving others as dirty is part of our middle-class syndrome. We seem to have this mutual feeling that the other is dirty. A housing agent recommended a unit to me, citing that the owner was “Indian”. That information was quickly backed up with the assurance that that particular Indian family was unusually clean, unlike normal Indians. By the same token, not a few Chinese associate Malays with a heavy body odour.
The question is whether we are mature enough to acknowledge (rather than to censor) this open immaturity of our society? Take the bull by the horns; don’t sweep it under the carpet.
Malaysians have so far been taught tolerance as the key to keeping conflicts at bay. We now need to teach ourselves and one another about the importance of solidarity in appreciating diversity.
Who is holier?
Muslims are not the only ones to see kafir in others. Let us put this in context. Many vegetarians and vegans claim moral superiority over others too. Many born-again Christians see others like their old self before being born again, a sinner destined for hell. We meet such people all the time.
A pair of shorts in Kota Baru splashed the headlines; still others didn’t. In Penang, the island of openness where unending fireworks illuminate the night skies, we find certain churches imposing strict limits — to the exact inches and centimetres – of permissible sleeves, collars, trousers, blouses and shirts allowed on their premises. So, we have a God holding a measuring tape in his hands? Extreme preaching can abound too.
Such details are the least of our worries; we let go the moment we notice them. If we get the point right, we would have neither the energy nor the time to focus a magnifying glass over people’s attire.
No one can contaminate me except myself. That others contaminate us is one of the most toxic religious ideas. The other toxic religious ideas seek to rule over others and to wipe out others.
A friend once insisted on joining our Christmas dinner with a professor who was British. He prevented his fellow Muslim colleagues from bringing (and exposing) their wives but he couldn’t bar the professor from having wine at the Christmas dinner. So, our table must not be in contact with his. We must introduce a gap between the tables, but how many inches should that gap be? So, God does seem really busy with measuring tapes? Perhaps pestered by Christians, Muslims and God-knows-who-else.
The alcohol item must not appear on his bill, as if God is going to investigate the technicalities of how the waiter manages to trick the electronic billing system?
Azan call to prayer
The Azan call to prayer has been my mother’s most faithful, lifelong alarm clock. A simple, neutral fact. It is not formulated to convince anybody that she is not racist. It is not an attempt to decorate a dislike which was supposed to be tolerated. No irony whatsoever.
I see the azan call to prayer alongside temple gongs and church bells.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village we got accustomed to an hourly bell at which we had to freeze no matter what we were at – whether eating, walking, talking or whatever. It was a call to mindfulness.
Many of my European friends who have left the church hate church bells around Europe. A hatred forgotten the moment they set foot in Asia, where they find open expressions of piety such a novelty and treasure. (Just don’t remind them of their criticism of their parents’ piety.)
Bring those Malaysians who are allergic to azan to grand churches abroad; they’ll find the church bells so awesome that these warrant a thousand Facebook broadcasts.
It’s all about ideas, prejudice and glamour.
Where I stay I get multiple azan calls, sometimes better phased, other times out of phase. Almost thundering, certainly too loud for any conversation. Every visiting friend who gets worked up and tells me off for my poor choice of abode happens to be avid Bersih campaigners denouncing the BN as racist.
I explain that I like those azan calls and I look forward to them. In fact I will miss them when I move. Does saying so make me less clean and make me a BN lackey?
See how confused we are with cleanliness and racism?
On the other hand, if one says that as a kafir I’m not allowed to tumpang that call to prayer, that I contaminate the sacred sound space if I take the opportunity to pray along – then I have nothing to say.