We know that religion is a funny thing.
It evokes potent feelings of compassion, affection and altruism, but it can also be contentious, divisive and cause strife.
Recently, In Malaysia, a woman was told to dress conservatively to be granted medical treatment at a hospital.
A security guard barred a woman from entering the upper-levels of a city council because her dress was perceived as ‘see through’.
And a teacher told a student to convert his religion to increase his chances of success as a footballer.
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And then, in Terengganu, a march with participants carrying weapon-like objects as part of a religious gathering, was seen as permissible by some politicians and authorities.
All these instances have in some way ‘wounded’ others who read about them.
At some point, some of us in Malaysia have wounded others of a different religion due to our enthusiasm to impose our beliefs or views on others.
According to Malaysia’s Department of Statistics, 63.5% of the population in Malaysia are Muslims, 18.7% identify themselves as Buddhist, 9.1% as Christian, 6.1% as Hindu, 1.8% as having no religion, and 0.9% as belonging to a category of “other religions”.
Yet it seems, we are disabled from discussing matters of religion with any healthy curiosity and mutual respect. We seem to leave these matters to narrow-minded politicians with little intelligence or knowledge.
And so, I find myself now reflecting on the ‘sins’ we all commit in the name of religion, especially when we take ourselves and our own opinions too seriously and too absolutely, to the exclusion of others.
I wasn’t born a Christian, but I became one, for many personal reasons. At that time, I thought (as many others do) that it was my God-given right to tell others how to think, feel and be.
For instance, I once told a Christian friend who was dating an ‘unsaved heathen’, ie someone from another faith, that she was, ‘unequally yoked’ and should think twice about her romantic relationships. And with that, I ruined a friendship!
But in hindsight, I realise now that my own fervour had made me intolerant and prejudiced. In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, ‘less certainty’ on my part would have been better.
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion explores this well – why people develop clear notions of who is ‘in the fold’ and who is not.
But religion is made real by the people who live and interpret and enact their own religions, in their own way. It then becomes alive in the collective memory of the people and in the history of its traditions. Malaysia should not be any different.
Questioning and learning new ways to view life should constitute part of our vibrant national spirituality, and this includes matters about God, religion and ourselves.
The discussions we should have, should also explore the lack of religion, since some of us identify as atheist, agnostic or agnostic-atheist.
Some may view this as offensive, because they may think that this is a product of ‘Western’ liberalism and postmodernism. But that’s OK, and that is the point.
This idea of what seems ‘Western’ is itself worth exploring. What is deemed Western or foreign usually translates to the ‘blurring’ of our tight cultural and religious boundaries and identities. This is often viewed as a threat.
But the blurring of boundaries is closer to home than we think. It’s part of our history.
Farish Noor, in his book What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell you, discusses cultural borrowing and cross-fertilisation of cultures among the Peranakan Chinese, Peranakan Indians, Peranakan Arabs and other communities before modern colonial rule. Our boundaries were already blurred.
The colonial census, however, categorised and compartmentalised different cultural and racial groupings into exclusive spaces. Any possibility of intercommunal cooperation amongst Asian populations was to be reduced as much as possible because to divide and conquer was the way to go.
And so, different peranakan communities with different hybrids of people, Chinese and Malay, Indian and Malay, Arab and Malay, European and Malay, were forced to choose to be Malay, Chinese, or Indian; Muslim, Buddhist/ Taoist or Hindu.
Imagine having your values and beliefs, family traditions, and reverence for your ancestors erased for your oppressor’s needs.
Christianity too worked hand in hand with colonisation and the colonial prejudice of Asian ‘idolatrous’ and ‘superstitious’ practices and traditions. To keep Asians subjugated to the religion, all sorts of pagan and heathen cultures and religions were eliminated. This meant adherents of other cultures and religions in Asia had to be converted.
However, I wonder if our current politicians have inherited this colonial mindset?
When I left the church some years ago, I wanted to see how my other religious brothers and sisters imagined God to be. Were the other religions indeed ‘different’ from my religion or inferior?
I visited various places of worship, listened to the azan (the call to prayer), looked at worshippers’ faces, eyes shut in prayer, hands clasped, heads bowed. I gazed at burning joss sticks and god-figures covered with flower garlands.
I don’t think doubt, disbelief or questions about God or life should be portrayed as dangerous or conflated. The earnestness to find meaning is more common and as significant. We may all be searching for the same truth in our different ways.
So, how now?
What if we could learn lessons from different beliefs, traditions and cultures, and engage in mutually influential dialogue where no one party tries to one up the other, where there is no clear winner or loser at the end?
Celebrating diversity and friendship means recognising our vulnerability. Vulnerability is a shared human trait.
What if we could discuss or debate with mutual respect, with a handshake or a loving hug at the end? What if it is done with the affirmation that it is OK even if we disagree, we can still be good friends?
When I bow my head and put my hands together to greet another with “peace be with you”, I think of namaste “the light in me sees the light in you”, and I think of “Assalamualaikum”, which means peace be upon you.
I think of how we are part of a bigger body of Truth. And this Truth compels a reverent bow to the God of all creation and of all creeds.
Karen Armstrong, a former nun who had suffered epilepsy and had to adjust to life outside the convent upon her exit, once said: “Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”