Once again Muslims and Christians in Malaysia are at loggerheads. This time the clash is over a state-sanctioned seminar that seemingly cast Christians as a threat to Islam. There has been a barrage of criticism ranging from the less than tactful seminar title to the state’s involvement in the seminar. While these criticisms are understandable, considering the constant attacks Christians in Malaysia have been facing, not all are completely justified when considered in light of Malaysia’s constitutional arrangement. Angry Reactions The seminar on March 30 was acrimoniously entitled: “Strengthening the Faith, the Dangers of Liberalism and Pluralism and the Threat of Christianity towards Muslims.” It was jointly organised by two agencies in southern Johor state – the Johor Mufti Department and the Johor Education Department. The seminar targeted 300 Muslim state school teachers who teach Islam to Muslim students in national schools. Not surprisingly the event drew immediate condemnation by Christians even before it took place. The Council of Churches of Malaysia said the seminar would sow suspicion and hatred, and expressed disappointment that the state would consider Christian citizens a threat to Muslims and Islam. The political opposition jumped on the condemnation bandwagon with its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, calling the event “a disgusting political maneuver to use religion to frighten people.” Scores of Malaysians have chalked their displeasure on various blogs and websites, where the issue has been sizzling for the last two weeks. A quick analysis of these criticisms reveals they fall into one of three categories. Off-limit Topics The first is along the lines that such a seminar, which addresses a “threat” posed by one religion to another, should never be organised in a multi-religious country like Malaysia, because it would serve as a potential flashpoint for religious disharmony. I find this a little hard to accept. Every faith considers itself to be sacred and true. Thus, when one faith is seen to be having influence over the adherents of another, regardless of whether that influence is real or perceived, religious leaders of the affected faith will want to talk about it and find ways to deal with it. This is done all the time – even in Malaysia. Muslims do it. Hindus do it. Even Christians do it. Christians have organised seminars, talks and camps to deal specifically with the issue of their children embracing Islam, especially when these children enter public universities or the uniformed services, where the propagation of Islam is said to be active and real. We ordinarily treat such propagation activities as a threat to the faith of our children. In fact, we all know of Christians from one Church considering Christians from other Churches or denominations a “threat.” So, blindly asserting that such seminars should never be organised per se is hypocritical. Instead, let us try and understand that preventing our children from leaving the faith of their birth is something most religions work naturally to discourage. State involvement The next kind of criticism, though not entirely divorced from the first, censures the state for being involved in such a seminar. This criticism has some validity. The state purports to represent the interest of all citizens, so identifying one section of its citizens as a “threat” is hardly in keeping with its role as a unifier and peacekeeper. However, things are never so straightforward in Malaysia. Under the Malaysian Federal Constitution, Islam is the official religion of the state. This means that the state is legally permitted to put in place governmental structures and bodies that promote and uphold Islam. One such body would be the Johor Mufti Department. One of its roles would be to defend the Islamic faith and see to its propagation as well. In that sense, the department had the right under the constitution to organise the seminar. But what about the state education department? Surely its role is secular in nature -- to promote education of all Malaysians instead of dabbling in Islamic matters. Again, things are not that straightforward. If the mufti department was going to organise an event involving teachers in public schools, it would have to work with the education department. So, objectively speaking the criticism against state’s involvement cannot be properly sustained. Christians are not a threat The third type of criticism is probably the most cogent and arguable one. Basically, it says the seminar is not justified because it was premised on a falsehood -- that there exists a Christian threat against Muslims. The pertinent question is: Has such a threat ever existed and does it exist now in Malaysia? To say there are no Muslims converting to Christianity would be patently false. Several high-profile cases of Muslims going to court to assert their right to become Christians have graced our newspapers before. However, such incidents are few and far between, and there has never been evidence suggesting there is a concerted, organised and large-scale conversion campaign by Christians against Muslims. Hassan Ali, the sacked state executive councillor of Selangor state, has recently been at the forefront of such claims, but when asked to produce proof, he cites things like hand-held solar-powered talking Bibles and conversion testimony video clips that are either non-existent or at best dubious both in source and content. Since there is no proven threat of Muslims in Malaysia converting en masse to Christianity, clearly the topic of the seminar in Johor was unwarranted and irrational. It smacked of ignorance and prejudice that only served to divide an already divided and nervous nation. To this end, the disappointment expressed by the Christian community is justified and appropriate. What is worse is that precious public funds were wasted tackling a non-existent problem. Motivations If the raison d’etre of the seminar was false, then why was such a seminar organised? The most plausible explanation is probably politics. The ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is frantically fighting for its survival in the impending general election. UMNO has adopted a strategy of posturing itself as “more Islamic” than the opposition in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the majority Muslims in the country. Could this have been the motivation for such a discourteous seminar? Considering that Johor is an UMNO stronghold and also the home state of the education minister, such a base motivation cannot be dismissed. It is vital that as Christians living in modern Malaysia, we identify and isolate the issues that confront us clearly and objectively in light of our unique constitutional make up. In this respect, state agencies charged with Islamic affairs are clearly exercising their lawful right to organise seminars that serve to preserve Islam, the faith of Muslims or even to deal with any problems associated with the propagation of other faiths among Muslims. Let us not begrudge that. But the demand that such seminars be organised with some tact and sensitivity towards other faiths is a legitimate and necessary one. Further demands should be made that scarce governmental resources are used to deal with real national problems rather than those based on colorful fairy tales. Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has served the Catholic Diocese of Penang for more than 10 years. He is chairman of the Malaysian bishops’ Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants.
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