THE recent azan controversy was a missed opportunity for the Barisan Nasional (BN) to show how it can be a government for all Malaysians. It could have been a chance for the BN to lead instead of react, by fostering dialogue, understanding and respect among different ethnic groups and religions.
But the government and some groups in recent years have had a peculiar way of handling inter-ethnic and inter-religious controversies. They’ve reinterpreted “compromise”, “tolerance” and “mutual respect” to mean “don’t question” and “don’t raise sensitive issues”; and “dialogue” or “open discussion” to mean “seditious”. The government, meanwhile, spends billions of taxpayers’ ringgit on development and transformation plans, but fails to exercise courageous leadership in building bridges among communities.
The azan issue was just yet another episode that proved that the BN has become incapable of exercising leadership when racial and religious matters are involved.
A confused apology
How was the azan controversy a missed opportunity for the BN? Let’s first look at MCA lawyer Ng Kian Nam‘s apology for the furore that followed his complaint over the azan volume in his neighbourhood.
Coming in the wake of a protest where his effigy was burnt, Ng’s explanation seems like a cop out. For one, it’s hard to imagine that a born-and-bred Malaysian would be unable to tell the difference between the Muslim call to prayer and other readings or sermons at the mosque.
In fact, Ng’s explanation confused things further, and raised more questions. If he had been living in Pantai Dalam for the past five years, why did the volume of the azan from the Al-Ikhlasiah mosque only recently become an issue for him? This has not been satisfactorily explained.
If he didn’t know the difference between the azan and a sermon, then which exactly did he initially complain about to the Prime Minister’s Office? Was it actually the azan, which would have been too sensitive for him to admit to? Or if it was the sermon, why didn’t he just say so?
And if his complaint was actually about the volume of the loudspeaker, and not the azan or the sermon, why didn’t he also just say so? What might have been a legitimate complaint about the level of noise in a shared public space was overlooked just because it involved a religious obligation. After all, there are permissible levels of noise in public spaces that are regulated by the Department of Environment for the safety and comfort of all citizens. And while the call for prayer or the broadcast of a sermon, whether from a mosque, church or temple, may not be covered by the law, clearly it can constitute noise pollution if the decibels are uncomfortably high.
Hence, wouldn’t mature Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians be able to distinguish the nature of the complaint from the trumped-up charge of “insulting Islam”?
With Ng’s confusing apology, the matter is now deemed closed. But in being so quick to bury the episode, further discussion, too, is closed despite the offer of some reasonable ideas on how we could have addressed the issue. One was MCA vice-president Senator Gan Ping Sieu‘s suggestion that the government use the opportunity to set clear guidelines on the volume level for loudspeakers at all places of worship.
Notice the ensuing silence following his suggestion.
The second was the concurring views of two scholars, current Perak mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria, and former Perlis mufti Assoc Prof Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. Both agree that only the call to prayer, and not other readings, lectures, or sermons, need to be broadcast. Mohd Asri goes further to cite various hadiths to support this position.
The response from the Malaysia Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), however, has been to brush the views of these scholars aside. The Jakim director-general declared that restricting the use of loudspeakers to the azan only was overboard and malicious. In a subsequent public statement, the Jakim head said there was no need for guidelines because Islam was the country’s official religion. He also cited a 1982 fatwa which proclaimed that broadcasting the azan was not a disturbance to non-Muslims. And so the matter ends there.
If one were to follow Jakim’s logic, does this mean that other religious communities can also blare their call to prayer and sermons loudly and expect others not to find it inconsiderate? Is Jakim also suggesting that just because of Islam’s official position in Malaysia, this accords Muslims more rights than non-Muslims? If that were the case, what a far departure it is from what Malaysia’s founding leaders planned for this nation when the constitution first stipulated Islam as the nation’s official religion.
A government that leads
How would taking the statements by Gan, Harussani and Mohd Asri up for further discussion be helpful?
Firstly, it should be recognised that the volume of mosque loudspeakers is an issue for multiethnic and multireligious communities, even if complaints are rare. Whatever the findings that formed the basis of the 1982 fatwa, there are private complaints that volume levels seem to have grown louder over the years. From anecdotal accounts, the complaint is not so much what is being broadcast, but the volume at which it is broadcast. After all, Malaysians of all faiths have been living side by side long enough not to be bothered by hearing one another’s prayers, chants or hymns.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine why many prefer not to complain aloud. One could be targeted and threatened in the same way Ng was. In our hypersensitive society, it would be too easily misconstrued as an attack or insult on Islam. And we all know the ensuing threats of violence or charge of sedition that will follow once someone is labelled as insulting Islam.
But if the BN government were courageous and fair – and you would think that the non-Malay Malaysian component parties should be playing a more meaningful role in such matters – it would take the lead on finding ways to prevent the silent build-up of small grouses such as these.
In my imagination, the Jakim director-general could have acknowledged Harussani’s and Mohd Asri’s views for further discussion. Or minister in charge of unity Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon could have pursued Gan’s proposals. Or that invisible special cabinet committee to promote interfaith harmony would have said something.
Courageous leadership would bring all communities together in honest, rational dialogue, instead of pretending to be “tolerant” by telling everyone to shut up. Or having a complainant apologise publicly for what may have been a legitimate grouse. But racial politics, I suppose, instead of courageous leadership, won the day.
Deborah Loh thinks good leadership unites people through dialogue and acceptance, and not through slogans that merely pay lip-service to diversity.