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Religion is a personal matter

  • The local authorities have made it as though Islam is a rigid religion with its long list of dos and don'ts.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department in charge of Islamic affairs, Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki alleged that the freedom of religion in the Federal Constitution, which guarantees the freedom to worship, does not include the freedom to not believe, as he claimed that atheism is a "dangerous" ideology.

I quote, "We have to understand that in the Malaysian context, our Federal Constitution states that the freedom of religion does not mean freedom from any religion because that is unconstitutional… This means we cannot incite someone to leave a religion or promote not having a religion. We cannot order or promote a belief of not having a religion, that is against the Federal Constitution."

As a pluralistic society represented by the variance formed during the British colonial era, Malaysia demonstrates a great deal of diversity among its population. Malaysia is often related to as a moderate country as it is mainly peaceful and prosperous. But, time has changed and ask ourselves, are we really living in a country of moderation, as the world perceives?

From Oktoberfest to Muslims-only laundry and now tudung issue, religion is unfortunately an issue that never goes away. Now, we even have a deputy minister who said atheism is unconstitutional. Year after year, we continue to face insensitive racial and religious remarks made by fellow Malaysians. With a long list of debates that are ongoing in the country, it shows us that we live in the age of uncertainty where radical elements and belief in society happen because there is lack of national direction on where we are heading.

Whatever it may be, we should avoid the development of religious politics. Race and religion have always been two prominent features in Malaysian politics, and this does not at all bode well for us. The ugly truth is that, race helps bolster certain parties' power. Very often, however, politicians themselves are the "real" culprits as some of them manipulate the sentiment of national unity for their own political advantage. When opinion fails, and when the administration is challenged, we see politicians use the religious rhetoric for political goals.

In Malaysia, there is a common misconception that Islam is a Malay religion. But, we should all realize that Islam should not be based on ethnicity. Islam is a universal religion and more importantly, religion is personal and that is the only way to keep the freedom of religion for all. What's dangerous is that a religious institution becomes a political organisation when it incorporates politics into its identity. Religious authorities are exceptionally vocals nowadays, acting as the "defenders" of the so-called "true" Islam.

Such a phenomenon is indeed worrying and contradicts the image of Malaysia as a modern and progressive country. The local authorities have made it as though Islam is a rigid religion with its long list of do's and don'ts, although Islam itself should be flexible.

The voices of moderation, coexistence and tolerance are critical as foundations for building mutually acceptable relationships in a multi-racial and multi-religious society like ours. It is extremely important that an open, rational and moderate attitude be embraced by all quarters to more effectively address the diverse nature of Malaysian society. The best way to approach such a challenge is to celebrate our differences.

But then, moderation can only exist if more Malaysians are willing to come out and speak up against extremist views. Extremism breeds more extremism and this widening polarization need to stop. That being so, let us take a proactive stance to stand up against extremism before it is too late.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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