ARSONISTS attacked eight churches
Musa Hassan (Pic by Ridzuan Aziz / Wiki
commons) between 8 and 11 Jan 2010 all over Malaysia — something unheard of in the country’s history. And yet, on 9 Jan, Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri Musa Hassan advised churches to tighten security at their premises because there were not enough police officers to guard them.
On 11 Jan, 130 Muslim non-governmental organisations volunteered to work alongside voluntary corp Rela to prevent further attacks. Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM) executive secretary Datuk Nadzim Johan said, “We wouldn’t want our Christian brothers to be in danger. This is an offer of peace and goodwill.”
Yet, PPIM’s 2 Jan press statement “strongly objected” the High Court decision to allow Catholic publication Herald to use the word “Allah”. PPIM said it was worried the decision would “spark chaos in the country due to the sentiments of Muslims who were sensitive with issues that touched on their faith”.
What is the picture that emerges after we put together the IGP’s stand and the stand taken by these Muslim NGOs? Firstly, our official law enforcers have abdicated responsibility in a moment of crisis, the moment law enforcement is urgently required. Secondly, this state-created vacuum has been filled up by special interest groups. In other words, the very people steadfast against Christians in Malaysia exercising freedom of religion are promising to “protect” them.
It could well be that the Muslim NGOs have noble intentions and might guard churches effectively. But this doesn’t change the fact that the state has inadvertently given the green light to vigilantes to take the law into their own hands, even if this is framed as a neighbourhood watch-like effort.
Seriously, how hard would it have been for Musa to have said, “The police force is committed to upholding the law and protecting those who are most vulnerable to attacks in these difficult times”?
Perhaps there is just a sense of incredulity in the air — church burnings are alien to Malaysia, supposedly an oasis of diversity as per the government’s oft-repeated 1Malaysia slogan. And after all, didn’t the first prime minister of Malaya and then Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, say that we would be “forever a sovereign democratic and independent state founded upon the principle of liberty and justice”?
Tunku Abdul Rahman (Public domain) But just because Tunku promised us a diverse and peaceful nation doesn’t mean we might not go down the path of sectarianism and violence. After all, the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, also said to its Constituent Assembly on 11 Aug 1947: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
But in August 2009, a Muslim mob entered a village in Gojra, Punjab, and torched Christian houses there. The violence erupted because of unconfirmed rumours that Christians had desecrated the Quran. Eight Christians were killed. Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti himself visited Gojra after the violence, and accused the police of negligence even after the government had asked for Christian minorities to be protected. Then in September 2009, a Muslim mob set fire to a church in Sambrial, again due to unconfirmed reports of desecration of the Quran by Christians.
What happened in the space of 62 years in modern Pakistan’s history? First of all, the country’s constitution was abrogated after a military coup in 1958, during which General Ayub Khan assumed presidency. Pakistan returned briefly to democratic rule in the 1970s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became president. But he was then deposed by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in yet another military coup in 1977.
Zia then introduced a wave of Islamisation measures, including legislation outlawing blasphemy subsequently used to target Christians and Ahmadiyah. Also introduced was the Zina Ordinance, which introduced lashing and stoning as punishments for adultery. At the same time, Zia was a US ally and fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Much of the violence against Christians in Pakistan has since stemmed from both legal and extra-legal attitudes towards the crime of “blasphemy”. For example, in May 1993, Christians Salamat Masih, 12, Manzoor Masih, 37, and Rehmat Masih, 42, were charged with writing derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad on a mosque wall in Gujranwala. The three were actually illiterate. In April 1994, after their court hearing, they were sprayed with bullets from individuals riding on two motorbikes. Manzoor died almost instantly.
In February 1995, Lahore High Court Judge Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti threw out the prosecution’s case and acquitted Salamat and Rehmat. In October 1997, the same judge was shot to death in his office. To date, his killer and Manzoor’s killers have not been brought to justice. Salamat and Rehmat have since gone into exile.
Demonstrators against the “Allah” ruling, at the National Mosque on 8 Jan
What the example of Pakistan demonstrates is this: proclamations of peace and respect for diversity become meaningless if the state abdicates its role to uphold peace and diversity. And the state can abdicate its responsibility in many ways. The executive might decide to disregard the constitution, or allow unelected institutions such as the police and army to abuse their powers, or refuse to protect and respect the judiciary’s independence.
True, extremism and bigotry among certain sectors will always be a problem. But the nature of the public is that there will always be a diversity of views and beliefs. Take the Muslim NGOs who protested against the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims after Friday prayers on 8 Jan. The NGOs claimed to represent “Islam” in all its glory, and yet the demonstrations were not well-attended even by fellow Friday-prayer congregants.
We need to hold the right individuals and institutions accountable. At this juncture, we must ask the IGP what exactly he means when he says the police are unable to ensure the security of churches in Malaysia.
We must tell him that his explanation is unacceptable to peace-loving citizens in a “sovereign democratic and independent state founded upon the principle of liberty and justice”. And we must make sure he understands that Malaysia should learn from the experiences of countries like Pakistan and not repeat their mistakes. This can easily be done — after all, he has given us his mobile phone number.
For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Political Islam