THERE is a new threat against Muslims in Malaysia and its name is pluralism. No less than Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself has flagged pluralism as an “enemy of Islam” and grouped it together with the other bad words, “LGBT” and “liberalism”.
Not to be outdone, some Muslims, who have been described as scholars, recently declared the spread of pluralism in Malaysia as “worrying”, as if it were some kind of pandemic that needed to be controlled. Even popular Bollywood star, Datuk Shah Rukh Khan, has been accused of promoting pluralism through his rather inspiring and endearing movie, My Name is Khan.
But just what kind of threat does pluralism pose to Malaysian Muslims? And if it’s such a clear and present danger to the majority of the population, what are other nations, which also experience cultural and religious diversity, doing about pluralism that we may learn from them?
Just what is pluralism anyway?
According to Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, there are four components to pluralism. Diana L Eck writes that diversity alone is not pluralism. There needs to be an “energetic engagement with diversity” for pluralism to exist. “Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement,” she writes, adding: “Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.”
Second, it’s not about tolerance, which is tenuous, but “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference”. Eck argues that tolerance “does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another” and warns that in today’s world, “our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly”.
Thirdly, pluralism is not relativism. Rather it is the “encounter of commitments”. What does this mean? It means that proponents of pluralism don’t need to leave their identities and commitments behind. It’s about “holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.”
And finally, pluralism’s foundation is dialogue. That means both speaking and listening in a way that involves “give and take, criticism and self-criticism” so that the process can reveal both “common understandings and real differences”.
More sheep than Muslims
Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that institutions such as Harvard University in the US have embarked on initiatives to promote, rather than reject, pluralism. Indeed, the motivation for undertakings such as the university’s Pluralism Project has been the radically changing religious and cultural landscapes that have emerged in the US because of immigration. The project’s mission statement is “to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity”.
The US isn’t the only place in the world where a predominantly white, Christian population views diversity as a gift that can be channelled for greater good by promoting pluralism. In a country where there are likely more sheep than Muslims, Helen Clark’s administration lent support to a project by the New Zealand Diversity Action Programme that resulted in the Statement on Religious Diversity. Among others, the statement “encourages education about diverse religious and spiritual traditions, respectful dialogue, and positive relationships between government and faith communities”. And just like in the US, New Zealand was spurred by the increasing religious and cultural diversity arising from migration from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
More Muslims than sheep
In Malaysia meanwhile, there are clearly more Muslims than sheep. In fact, the Malay Muslim population in Malaysia is what the white Christian population is in countries like the US and New Zealand. More importantly, unlike the US and New Zealand, we’ve always lived with religious and cultural diversity. Our society didn’t suddenly see a dramatic shift in demographics that led to citizens feeling befuddled about the appearance of mosques, temples, gurdwaras and churches.
And yet, what do we do about our plurality? From prime minister to so-called religious scholars to Muslim youth groups, we hear a clear and resounding rejection of pluralism. Here’s what they’re saying when they cast pluralism as the new bogey in town: “No” to engagement. “No” to dialogue. “No” to active understanding. “No” to equal and respectful relationships with others.
In other words, “No” to what we’ve been historically and culturally since, at the very least, Malacca became a trading port in the 15th century. And “No” also to what we have already achieved which developed countries are only now trying to acquire. In fact, let’s just demolish one of the bedrock of Malaysian life.
Seen in this light, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that there were attempts to denigrate Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim through the distribution of leaflets in Slim River this month that condemned the Opposition Leader as a believer of religious pluralism. He’s not the only one. Two years ago, PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat was attacked at an Islamic seminar for attending a function at a Buddhist temple.
Superiority over diversity
Opponents of pluralism declare that any attempt to recognise other faiths on a level playing field, even if it’s a Muslim protagonist marrying a Hindu in My Name is Khan, is confusing to Muslims. It’s dangerous, they say, because it will undermine Islam by placing other religions on an equal footing with Islam. In actual fact, what the opponents of pluralism are saying is, it’s offensive and wrong to make all religions equal because Islam, and by extension Muslims, are superior to all others.
What does this do? It sets the stage for the predominantly Malay population in Malaysia, by virtue of the fact that constitutionally they can’t be anything else but Muslims, to be superior to and dominant over all other citizens.
Pluralism isn’t a threat to Islam because Islam, for example in Spain between the eighth to the 15th century, thrived because of pluralism. If pluralism is a threat to anything, it’s a threat to the dominance of one race over all others in Malaysia. If everyone is equal regardless of faith, how then can those who want to see Malay-Muslim pre-eminence justify their dominance over Malaysian political, cultural and economic life?
The tragedy of this lies not in the fact that this is happening in Malaysia, with the explicit support of the prime minister himself. The tragedy is that while other countries grapple and draw on the gift of diversity, in Malaysia, there are those who would denounce and destroy it. In their plot for Malaysia, diversity is an inconvenience, and pluralism an evil against having the upper hand. Indeed, if one doesn’t want to share power and resources fairly and equitably among all citizens, what better way to justify one’s position?
Jacqueline Ann Surin was never once dissuaded from her own culture and faith, or had her identity threatened, just because she listened to the azan, burned joss sticks at temples, dated a Muslim, watched a Hindu rite, attended a service at a gurdwara, or prayed in a Protestant church.