An Arabic word has once again rocked Malaysian headlines.
The Malaysian government decided to favour the Bornean people whose faith expressions depend on that word. And groups with political aims baulked at this seemingly disturbing outcome.
Yes, it’s utterly disgraceful when the government recognises a minority religion – morally reprehensible even. Who do these Christians, who make up 9% of the Malaysian population, think they are? Equal citizens of this country? Good grief!
This whole thing was a non-issue, to begin with. It was merely a question of a contradiction between government directives.
Let’s pretend there isn’t a Malay/’non-Malay’, Muslim/non-Muslim divide haunting the nation’s psyche. Let’s pretend that at some point, some religious buildings were not torched when the High Court ruled in 2009 that the Ministry of Home Affairs’ ban on the Herald’s use of the word Allah in its Malay section was illegal, null and void.
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Sarcasm aside, those events took place several years ago. But I’m sure Malaysian Christians haven’t forgotten about the ensuing ugliness.
It is easy to subjugate a group by claiming they need protection. As gender theorist Judith Butler puts it, designating a particular group as having “unchanging and defining vulnerability” makes it easy to justify paternalistic forms of control and protection.
Butler discusses how a paternalistic model operates in such a way that feminist activism involves petitioning paternal authority and other paternal powers, usually involving powerful men.
This model reinforces women’s powerlessness and the powerful position of paternal state structures. It overlooks women’s potential to empower themselves, for example, through shelter homes for battered women run by women NGOs.
In Malaysia, I argue that “unchanging and defining” vulnerability is designated to many who are rendered dependent on state powers that dictate their religious autonomy.
Malay Muslims are portrayed in dominant discourse as being easily confused, as if the inability to discern and evaluate their faith and spirituality plagues an entire people. Visiting other places of worship becomes problematic.
The “Jom Ziarah” (Let’s Visit) project, affiliated with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which aimed to promote interfaith understanding by taking youths to various houses of prayer, triggered an uproar from the Malay-Muslim-based opposition coalition, Perikatan Nasional, in March.
And let’s not forget what it was like for non-Muslims when this Arabic word was first problematised by extremist groups many years ago. Like how a swim float refuses to sink even if one shoves it underwater, this issue of a word or, depending on which part of Malaysia, a non-word resurfaces, reminding us of unpleasant truths.
Dr Sharon A Bong, author of In the Name of Allah: The Containment of Trauma and Memory in Malaysia, discusses the social contract between the Malay-Muslims and the ethnic minorities in Malaysia.
Premised on equality as difference, this contract illustrates a “visible gap” between the ethnic Malays’ unique position and the ethnic minorities. The ideals of nation-building, harmony and progress shape the two groups’ differential treatment.
The contract, in effect, socialises the two groups into maintaining a fiction of unity with “unified” and “fragmented” Malaysian subjects.
The “unified” Malaysian subject is defined by sameness, essentialised as peace-loving and desirous of national unity. We are peace-loving Malaysians, regardless of race and religion.
The “fragmented” Malaysian subject is marked by racial and religious differences. The Malay/’non-Malay’ and Muslim/non-Muslim binaries exist prominently. Straddling two contradictory ‘positionings’ in maintaining a fictitious unity requires sustained work by Malays and non-Malays as signatories to the social contract.
Maintaining this fictitious unity also requires what’s termed “epistemic ignorance”. The Malay-Muslim is the normative Malaysian identity, even though Malays and non-Malays are mutually constitutive. The social contract’s affirmative action policies for Malay-Muslims require non-Malay complicity in privileging Malay-Muslims and de-centring the non-Malays.
“Epistemic ignorance” is also reflected in Malaysia’s Islamisation, the nation being ‘secular’, despite Islam’s constitutional status as the state’s religion. This has led to systemic infringement of ethnic and religious minorities’ rights regarding conversion and children’s custody, burial rites and places of worship.
Presently, the official state discourse surrounding the Allah conundrum reveals this “epistemic ignorance”, describing in a blasé manner conflicting laws, the “streamlining” of rules “for non-Muslims”, and “amending or removing parts of the old regulations”.
The state-driven narrative explains that this matter of an Arabic word is ‘technical’.
We know it’s more than that.
It’s the performing of a social contract that requires our participation as Muslims and non-Muslims. “Old regulations” may be “amended”. But ‘old’ ideas and practices persist. The social contract continues to take effect, maintaining a fictitious unity, a wilful and institutional forgetting.
After last November’s general election, I wrote about the discomfort concerning liminality, the transitional state juggling the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, the past and the present.
We voted for the current government because we wanted transformation. A chapter in our nation’s history drew to an end, but things haven’t entirely changed. The ‘new’ seems to have not wholly supplanted the ‘old.
The “unity government” and the people of Malaysia grapple with ethnic and racial baggage, trauma we inherited from our colonial masters. And recovery from trauma isn’t a straightforward process.
The disappearances of Pastor Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat. The unilateral conversion of Loh Siew Hong’s children. The LGBT+ community, raids of rainbow-themed watch stores and conflation of mental illness. These are the lived experiences of the people, dismissed and forgotten, highlighted in the media. I’m sure there are many other stories hidden from sight.
As Malaysian Muslims and Christians, we pray to God and dress up to attend services at the mosque and church. We play the game of religion well. We put on our best behaviour, read our religious texts, and praise our faith; we assume ours is “the best and only religion”.
But do we want a real relationship with God and each other?
We would rather ignore the other person that professes a different faith (because, seriously, they’re on the wrong path), a gay bullied child and the transgendered sex worker, the homeless man with a greying beard lying on the bench of a bus stop, and the gradual degradation of the environment.
It takes our participation as ordinary people to galvanise fundamental change, to push for change and to refrain from regressing to ‘old’ habits ourselves. Conversion is not the mere movement of lips and a profession of creeds. Ironically, this topic of conversion is sensitive and potentially confusing.
But from what we know in the respective faiths we subscribe to, conversion is metanoia, an ongoing process of improvement, a turning away from ‘old’ ways of solipsism to love and compassion.
Let’s be brave. Let’s open our hearts. Let’s ask God to show us the fixed mindsets we’ve harboured and the religious and racial others we’ve wounded.