SINGAPORE: Inter-religious harmony in Malaysia is being threatened by the assertion of a more exclusivist Muslim identity among the religious and political elite.
Taking Muslim-Hindu relations as an example, scholar Syed Farid Alatas says there is a need for Muslims in Malaysia to think more about who their Hindu countrymen are.
The associate professor in the departments of sociology and Malay studies at the National University of Singapore suggests they look for guidance from Muslim scholar Abu al-Rayhan Al-Biruni.
Syed Farid Alatas says this in an opinion piece in the Straits Times.
He says although Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, the understanding of many Malaysians since independence in 1957 was that the minority religions and races ought not to be made to feel threatened that they would not be able to maintain their respective identities and promote their cultures.
But this belief in the possibility of harmonious co-existence between the different communities in the country has recently been shaken by “the assertion of a more exclusivist Muslim identity among the religious and political elite”.
A case in point, he says, is the relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country.
“The decades of peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims are slowly giving way to a more intolerant stance taken by some Malays in which a Malay-Muslim identity is stressed at the expense of non-Muslims, sometimes resulting in the denigration of their ethnicity and religions.”
He goes on to relate some of the incidents where Hindus have been targeted, even denigrated.
This includes the Islamic and Asian Civilisations module of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia which contained false facts and derogatory remarks about both Hinduism and Sikhism, and five recent cases of Hindu temples being vandalised in Perak and Penang.
“While these are all isolated incidents, they have led many to wonder if this is the beginning of the onset of mistrust and intolerance between Malaysia’s different racial and religious communities,” he says.
To better understand the Hindus, Malaysian Muslims should read the writings of Abu al-Rayhan Al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar who was an authority on the religions of India, he suggests.
Al-Biruni travelled to India with the troops of Mahmud Ghaznavi (979-1030), and lived there for years, during which time he mastered Sanskrit, translated a number of Indian religious texts to Arabic, studied Indian religious doctrines and wrote several books and treatises.
He refrained from making value judgments about other religions from an Islamic perspective and considered dialogue with Indians as crucial.
“He was the first scholar, in the Muslim world as well as the West, who approached the study of Indian religions objectively and avoided treating the Indians as mere heretics,” says Syed Farid.
Syed Farid notes that while Malaysia is, generally speaking, a harmonious society, political developments of recent years have seen an unhealthy development of identity politics in the form of, among other things, reckless statements made by politicians, religious leaders and educators.
“The worrying trend in Hindu-Muslim relations suggests that there is clearly a need for dialogue between the Hindu and Muslim communities of Malaysia. The purpose of this dialogue would be to examine the commonalities in values, beliefs and culture that exist between Hinduism and Islam and to reaffirm the commitment that the two communities have to peaceful co-existence.
“It is vital, for the sake of maintaining mutual respect and tranquillity in this country, that the political and religious leaders continuously speak out against bigotry and violence in the name of religion.
“Muslim leaders have a particularly greater responsibility in view of the fact that Islam is the religion of state in Malaysia. This means that the Muslim political and religious elite should not merely tolerate the presence of non-Muslim minorities but actively protect their rights and property,” adds Syed Farid.