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Identity crisis of race and religion

INCIDENTS belying the fragile state of integration in Malaysia have dominated the news in recent years. A pattern has emerged strongly: we are trapped in a vicious cycle — one that, unless broken, will repeat itself for time immemorial.

Egg (© Sam Veres /
Of the significant incidences that have taken place over the last two years, an observer would document these: strong reaction to Article 11 (the group promoting religious freedoms); outcry over the bumiputera corporate equity report by the Centre for Public Policy Studies; demonstration against the Bar Council’s religious conversion forum; more recently, the Ahmad Ismail debacle; ISA arrests of journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, Seputeh Member of Parliament Teresa Kok (both have been released) and Malaysia Today editor Raja Petra Kamarudin; outcry over the azan and Jawi signboards; police report against Kok for insulting an egg; and Molotov cocktails thrown into the home of Kok’s family and the former residence of Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan.

All of these — and I would arbitrarily project all problems in Malaysia — revolve around the two pillars of “identity” and “weak institutional governance”. The latter serves the weaknesses of the former. Weak institutional governance includes the lack of transparency, accountability, a judiciary that is not independent, a politicised civil service, and a poor delivery system. All these are arguably birthed out of an identity crisis.

This identity crisis is one of both race and religion, where insecurities of one’s position vis-à-vis the “other” subsequently lead to suspicion and fear of this same other. This is the bitter root from which stem many, if not all, of Malaysia’s issues.

Breeding insecurities

Some may argue that the ideal is to move away from concretised identities, hence the criticism of the proposed Race Relations Act that would legislate categories of race; and worse, prescribe the ways in which different races relate to the other. Arguments along this line believe that there should be less emphasis on the notion of separation.

Birds of a feather (and more egg)  (© G & A Scholiers /
However, it is a natural expectation for humanity to react in an environment where there is diversity. Common behaviour warrants that people would seek out common ground among themselves, finding those who share similar interests and characteristics. Hence a group of people sharing common interests is inevitably born. The “birds of a feather flock together” phenomenon is not of itself inherently dangerous, or discouraged in society.

The result of formalised identities for each community is the creation of cultural norms within a group, as well as differences between these groups. That these norms and differences develop is perfectly acceptable; it only heads towards danger when they serve insecurities and fears.

These points of contention are unfortunately numerous in Malaysia. For example, it is inevitable that there are differences in cultural practices and languages between the Malays and Chinese. These are absolutely harmless, and add to the diversity, richness and colour of a country. However, they become fuel for discord once the contexts in which they exist breed insecurities.

In Malaysia, there are two such surrounding circumstances. First, the fact that race and religion are intertwined. The Federal Constitution defines a Malay as one who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language and adheres to Malay customs. Here, religion forms a fundamental element of race, resulting in some very interesting social outcomes.

The tendency of Islamic religious superiority (also displayed within Christianity, particularly within the fundamental Christian right) then feeds into the same tendency to assume racial superiority. It is imagined that one is as good as the other: the supremacy of Islam leads to the supremacy of race. Because the Malays understandably feel the threat of other races encroaching upon their economic share of the country, their retreating into ethnic bases then strengthens Malay identity, which in turn feeds the Islamic muscle.

Huntington, who theorised the clash of civilisations and
the West-Islam divide (Source:
Then, there is the global siege mentality that Islam is under severe attack all the world over. The West-Islam divide, highlighted by Huntington in his “clash of civilisations” theory, has been criticised because there are common values within each which are not necessarily “Western” or “Islamic”.

Nevertheless, it is true that many forces in the West have painted a despicably unfair picture of this beautiful religion. In its proper form, Islam stands for justice and peace. However, Muslims in Malaysia fear that secular values — inherited from the West — would eventually overshadow Islamic values. This complex situation hence exacerbates the identity crisis of fear and insecurity.

Religion is not monolithic

The problem with making concrete both race and religion is that we forget that diversity exists within each of the two categories. Religion for example is far from monolithic — meaning that there is a whole spectrum of different understandings and interpretations.

I was reminded of this in a recent conference on Sufism I attended, which highlighted the different schools of Islamic thought: Wahabiyah, Muhammadiyah, Sufism, and so on. Although Muslims in Malaysia look towards the Arab world to achieve a sense of Muslim identity, the reality is that Arabs, too, have varying viewpoints on Islam.

More intellectual exchange of ideas should be encouraged in Malaysia to promote diverse understandings. Non-Muslims would then also have the opportunity to learn of the rich traditions and history of this great religion.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in his speech at a recent dinner by the Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, called for open dialogue on religion in Malaysia. Unfortunately, this strikes many as hypocritical since not long after, Norani Othman’s book, Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism — which discusses problems faced by Muslims in light of worrying extremist trends — was banned.

Open dialogue should be promoted. Clamping down on discussion continues to add coal to the imagined fire of Muslim fear and insecurities. This does not help to promote healthy understanding between the races and religions, but instead douses any possible communication between already polarised groups.

If adolescents are said to go through a period of puberty and a loss of identity, the same can be said for Malaysia. Races and religions are stuck in a perpetual age of adolescence, accompanied by their many idiosyncrasies. As long as there remain insecurities and fears, the differences between groups will become contentious. One possible solution is to observe best practices from history.

Lesson from the Medina Charter

Prophet Muhammad, when governing the multi-religious, 10,000-strong city of Medina, produced a brilliant constitution: the Medina Charter. This charter is considered to be monumental in establishing the first modern nation-state in the world.

In this complex city-state lived a diverse group of communities — Muslim Arabs from Mecca, Muslim Arabs from Yathrib, and other non-Muslim monotheists from Yathrib — and yet all were considered to have equal rights and responsibilities. Every member of that Islamic nation was a citizen and accorded equal rights: Muslim and non-Muslim.

The beauty of this charter was the belief that peace and justice were for everyone, and that conflicts must be settled for the satisfaction of all: for example, the assurance that “social, legal and economic equality is promised to all loyal citizens of the state”, and that “peace must be concluded on the basis of mutual equality and justice.”

(© Oeugene /
Such a governance system was able to accord each citizen with equal rights, not focusing particularly on the insecurities of each of the religious groups. Perhaps our politicians should look at such examples to note that it is possible for different religions and races to co-exist with equal rights.

Unless Malaysia rids itself of these falsely created (which may have very well become real) insecurities of race and religion, this identity crisis will continue to plague the nation. Norms and differences will be used to polarise Malaysians. The same issues will emerge; the same explosives and hate mail sent.

Let us continue to encourage open and respectful conversation and recognition of diversity, in order to reduce imaginary fears of the other. The more I speak with my Muslim friends, the more secure we are about our respective races and religions. And it is then that our differences are embraced and cherished — the differences are not sources of conflict, but that which we bask in proudly.

Tricia Yeoh is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She believes that Malaysians should stop brewing racial and religious insecurities, and in so doing, differences can be celebrated.

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2 Responses to “Identity crisis of race and religion”

  1. Chandra says:

    It must be stressed that under the Medina Charter, a special tax was imposed on non-Muslims. Equal responsibilities but not equal rights.

  2. Your article is quite insightful. I agree that if you look at the Quran, you will see that it talks about respecting other religions.
    The following is an excerpt from my recent article on Islamic Negotiation.

    “To every People have we appointed rites and ceremonies which they must follow, let them not then dispute with you on the matter, but do invite (them) to your Lord: for you are assuredly on the Right Way. If they do wrangle with you, say, ‘God knows best what it is you are doing. God will judge between you on the Day of Judgment concerning the matters in which you differ’.”

    (Al-Hajj 22:67-69)

    Islam teaches tolerance and respect of all people regardless of colour, race or even religion. During the persecution of the Jews by the Christians, many Jews sought and received refuge in Muslim communities and countries.

    This view was shared by Pas Spiritual leader Nik Aziz, who said that under the eyes of God all are equal. The current crop of Umno leaders would be well advised to read this verse.

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