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Who is proselytising?

Purple-robed National Mosque visiitors (pic courtesy of Giles Goddard)

A FEW weeks ago, I took an English friend to visit the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur before the zohor prayers. At the entrance, my friend, a practising Christian from the Church of England, was given a purple robe to wear — I assume because he was wearing knee-length shorts and I was in full-length jeans. When we went to the main prayer hall, he was barred from entering. The sign read “Muslim only”.

Just outside the main prayer hall, a leading Malaysian Islamic non-governmental organisation (NGO) had books and leaflets about Islam on display. Among these were a pamphlet called The Truth about Jesus Christ. Something about the title of the leaflet, placed so prominently outside the mosque’s main prayer hall, made us want to leave quickly.

What do these rules governing behaviour at the mosque tell us about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia? What does it say about Islam in Malaysia that Muslims have the power to declare the “truth” about another religion,  yet non-Muslims are being accused of undermining their faith?

In the “Christian West”

And how do our local experiences compare to places of worship in other countries with religious diversity?


Westminster Abbey in London (© Eduardo Otubo | Flickr)

The first time I visited Westminster Abbey in London, I went for Evensong on Sunday. Even though I was studying the sociology and anthropology of religion, and this was a non-Eucharistic service, I wondered if it was wise of me as a Muslim. I think I saw a Muslim woman in a hijab going in and that relieved me a bit. Reading the service sheet before the actual worship began, I was moved that the Abbey explicitly welcomes people of all faiths to participate in the service or merely observe.

Clearly, there was no sign barring a non-Christian from entering the church. Additionally, there weren’t any Christian books or leaflets titled The Truth about the Prophet Muhammad, or The Truth about the Jews. It seems that in England, a country with an established church, the Church of England doesn’t need to assert its “truth” about another religion.

My purpose in sharing these experiences is not to judge one religious tradition against the other. That would be a trap too easy to fall into. Especially since Malaysia’s current social and political climate is as charged as it is now, what with public demonstrations and anxieties about apostasy among some Muslims and tense debates about hudud. Rather, I wonder if this is about the boundaries between religions in a diverse society, and how these are created, maintained or even dissolved.

Sharing or proselytising?

When I finally read the pamphlet, The Truth about Jesus Christ, I had no quarrel with it. It merely included Quranic verses relating to Jesus, who is a revered prophet in Islam. In fact, these are verses I have shared with my English friend, and we have had meaningful and affectionate exchanges about Christianity and Islam as a result. I guess one difference is that I presented these as Islamic perspectives of Jesus, rather than The Truth about Jesus.

Pamphlets from the National Mosque (pic courtesy of Giles Goddard)

So was the Islamic NGO presenting Islam to the world or was it proselytising to non-Muslims through its different pamphlets? Have I been merely sharing my faith with my friend or have I been proselytising? Yes, there are times when we know people are proselytising aggressively. “Accept Jesus as your saviour or you won’t get to Heaven,” I’ve been told by some Christians. But it can be subtler than that. So what is the boundary between sharing one’s faith and proselytising? Who determines when someone is proselytising? And in the case of Malaysia, where proselytising to a Muslim is a crime, who determines what constitutes proselytising?

And how was it that I did not feel proselytised at Westminster Abbey? There were clergypersons reading lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. There was a priest preaching at the pulpit. The Trinitarian formula was invoked, and the choir sang from the Anglican hymn book. The substance of Christianity and the Church of England’s worship style were on full public and active display. At the same time, I might not have felt proselytised at but would all other non-Christians feel the same way?

Boundaries and foreclosure

This is where the 22 Oct 2011 Himpun Sejuta Umat demonstration deserves scrutiny. Surely it is a group of Muslim citizens’ right to publicly assemble and express their anxieties about proselytisation and apostasy? And surely the state’s response — allowing the demonstration to go ahead and listening to the protesters’ demands — was also justifiable?

On another level, I am deeply alarmed by Himpun and the state’s response to it. What does the Barisan Nasional government hope to accomplish by endowing “apostasy” with such aggressive political meaning, and simultaneously whipping up fears about a monolithic “Christian enemy” in our midst? And what is the state doing, taking on Himpun’s demands without criticism or caution? Furthermore, the prime minister himself has justified the state’s amicable interaction with Himpun and compared it with the state’s antagonistic interaction with Bersih 2.0. We now get an idea of not only where several boundaries are in this country, but where they should be according to those who hold social and political power.

There are two big problems with this. Firstly, these particular boundaries around religion foreclose our ability, as Malaysian Muslims and non-Muslims, to think and act on our own behalf especially when it comes to something as private as faith.

Secondly, the state is itself actively engaged in drawing these boundaries for all of us. Ironic, given that Himpun Sejuta Umat only managed to draw a few thousand Muslims despite the absence of tear gas, water cannons and the threat of arrest.

“David Beckham people”

Masjid Zahir

Masjid Zahir (pic courtesy of Giles Goddard)

Not all is doom and gloom though. A few days after we visited the National Mosque, my English friend and I went to Alor Setar, Kedah, and visited Masjid Zahir. The security guard there, a nice Malay-Muslim Malaysian, handed my friend the customary robe. Pak Guard then welcomed us into the mosque. He even offered to take several pictures, including with us on the minbar where the imam delivers the Friday sermon.

When the grand imam walked in, Pak Guard wanted to introduce us, but the imam was in a hurry, and so only smiled and waved. Pak Guard even engaged my friend in conversation. “So, you are the David Beckham people?” My friend laughed. “Pi lah bawak dia minum teh tarik kat belakang! Mesti dia seronok,” Pak Guard said to me.

There are so many observations one could make about this special encounter. I prefer to just declare how happy my friend and I were after we left Masjid Zahir. He was even more enchanted by Alor Setar, and I was proud to be a Muslim born and bred there.

Was Pak Guard just being nice, or was he proselytising? Was it a bit of both, or neither? And if a Muslim were to be similarly welcomed into another religion’s house of worship in Malaysia, what do we think would happen?

Shanon Shah did his MA in Religion and Contemporary Society at King’s College London, and often maintains his anak Kedah boundaries in Kuala Lumpur and London.

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22 Responses to “Who is proselytising?”

  1. Iqraq says:

    Thank you for the interesting article. I would like to highlight two points which are pertinent to the discussion.

    All religions would like to have more followers, that is natural. Muslims also engage in da’wah. However, da’wah in Islam means telling people about the actual *message*, e.g. giving non-Muslims copies of the Holy Qur’an. You don’t have to read it but you can if you want to. It mentions several times that Islam is “for those who think/reflect”, so conversion is not an “emotional” decision.

    Muslims believe that “those whom Allah guides, none can misguide and those whom Allah misguides, none can guide”. Even the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), when he became frustrated that so many people were against his message, wondered if he was preaching the wrong way. Allah instructed him not to worry about it. Basically just pass on the message, whether a person’s heart is open or not has nothing to do with humans, that power belongs to Allah. So Muslims don’t feel this frantic pressure to convert people, we are only told to pass on the message. If hati terbuka, we welcome you as our brother/sister, if hati tak terbuka, nothing we can do, it’s not in our hands.

    Second point is that in Islam, there are concepts of ‘pahala’ (reward for good deeds) and ‘dosa’ (sin for bad deeds). On the Day of Judgment kita timbang and see where we will go. Hence one can perform charity with the intention of purely seeking Allah’s pleasure. No udang di sebalik batu. Christians not only don’t get pahala but have to tanggung all of mankind’s dosa from Nabi Adam’s time (pbuh). So maybe this is why evangelists are so aggressive to fulfill the ‘Great Commission’, I dunno. This is the main issue most rational people have with Christian missionaries.

    Muslims are not the only ones who sakit hati with evangelists who disguise proselytisation with charity. Buddhists and Hindus also sakit hati. So let’s all learn about each other and respect the boundaries which are important to us all.

    • Julian says:

      The truth hurts – maybe that’s why they sakit hati.

    • matthew says:

      Iqraq, I agree with your paragraphs two and three, and genuinely believe Christianity teaches the same message – it is almost impossible to deny that we fall into the family of the Abrahamic family of religion and hence share some common beliefs.

      But I may stand corrected with regards to the ‘tanggung dosa’, which I assume you mean Original Sin. Jesus by his death has forgiven all our sins, and hence sacrifices with slaughter are no longer practised (it doesn’t mean we can continue to commit sin and not be accountable for it). The point is though (and I say it without any judgment as I am still practising to be a Christian), I believe your impression of Christianity is incorrect.

      And yes, we should all learn from each other, however, no amount of knowledge will be of much use if we do not put into practice what we have learned from one another. No?

  2. senior kanchil says:

    This is nothing new. It has been going for ages, and what is worse is that the Malay leadership is encouraging this type of [way of thinking] … it is obvious that the Umno leadership is leading this type of brainwashing of the Malay masses. They want to keep the lid on the intellect of the Malay masses, and fear a challenge from smart Malays. They want to retain power at all costs, including suppressing the mindset of the Malays. This is the danger – incompetent and corrupt Malays running the country.

  3. farha says:

    This reminds me of my Ethics class in an international school many, many years ago. All the kids have different faiths, so they had the class to teach values inherent in all the religions (being kind/generous, avoid stealing, caring for the sick, etc). Sweet memories. Thanks, Shanon!

  4. Imaginer says:

    The 5-tonne elephant in fine-bone-china room is the constitution’s definition of a “Malay”, which is an artificial political construct.

    If we really want to break the toxic nexus between state-controlled religion and race, and religious-based parties that is the cancer ailing Malaysian society and its polity, we need to excise that definition in its entirety.

    If I could paraphrase John Lennon for a bit:

    Imagine there’s no Umno
    I wonder if you can
    Imagine no more PAS
    It’s easy if you try…

    Imagine no MACC
    It isn’t hard to do
    Imagine no more FRU
    Or PDRM too
    Imagine all our people
    Living life in peace

    You may say that I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And our world will be as one

    Imagine no more JAIS
    Is isn’t hard to do
    No one to sebat or hide from
    And no hudud too…

  5. neptunian says:

    All I can say is that Perkasa’s diatribe is given too much airtime. The only reason I can think of is that the current government is “rattling its sabre”.

    Thank goodness the average Malaysian, Muslim or otherwise, does not seem to [agree with the views] being spewed.

  6. Adam says:

    Proselytising is so subjective that any laws made to outlaw it would be very difficult to implement and would be very easy to abuse at the same time. Any action could be misconstrued as proselytising – from playing religious songs to speaking about one’s faith to even attending a religious event. To cover all angles, anti-apostasy laws are also made so that one party could be charged for proselytising and the other hauled up for attempted apostasy. How clever.

    However, little do the authorites know that such laws and rules would only kill the faith of their adherents and leave the religion open to ridicule and criticism. The only sensible way is to strengthen the faith of the followers, just as you would educate your children to face the world.

  7. ellese says:

    We’ve agreed that proselytisation among Muslims only is unconstitutional. We’ve agreed to uphold this value. Himpun and many others including PAS leaders and members hold on to this value. So juxtapositions and examples, especially those overseas, are not relevant.

    If you want to change this value, then you must convince and persuade others, for you are changing one of the essences of the freedom of religion in Malaysia. It’s unconstitutional. Mocking those who believe in it will not gain a single support from those who are for preservation of our constitutional value.

    • Farouq Omaro says:

      Proselytisation among Muslims is not illegal in Sabah and Sarawak, according to the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

      Article 11(4), which gives powers to state governments to prohibit proselytisation among Muslims, cannot be applied in these two states.

      So, if you are talking about “Malaysia”, please be specific!

  8. Bruno says:

    Dear Shanon,

    Thank you for this article. As an atheist foreigner posted here for the last three years your article strikes a chord. I have visited mosques around the world, but on the few occasions I have tried to enter a mosque in this country I have been barred. That’s three years of living in a country being forced to listen to the amplified noise from the local mosque which demonstrates no consideration to others, and then refused entry.

    The highly politicised nature of Islam in Malaysia makes it quite unlike other countries with a large Muslim population. There is deep insecurity with the religion here which portrays itself as aggression. This is supported by the Malaysian apartheid system, the firebombing of Christian religious houses, and the decapitation of cows at temples. Malaysia is a secular country, not an Islamic country, and yet unlike in other secular countries there is no freedom or religion here; and unlike at Westminster Abbey in your example, it is quite clear non-Muslims are very much not welcome. There is less religious freedom in Malaysia than in some Islamic countries. It is obvious as an outsider that religion here is used as a political weapon to divide the population, and the absurd one-way laws of proselytising show Islam as the weakest religion in Malaysia unable to defend itself, which is nonsense.

    My experience in Malaysia has dramatically changed my views on Islam, which I used to view with compassion as I am a passionate believer in freedom of religion, but ironically Islam is against this. Apostasy is rewarded by the death penalty, and people born to Muslim parents who like wine, eat pork, gamble or are gay live in terror of religious police seeking blackmail money. The religion is manipulated for political capital rather than a force for the good of the people. Again, it is used as a weapon to divide.

    Before I leave this country, is there a mosque in Malaysia which supports freedom of religion or offers what you experienced in London?

    • Kabir Orlowski says:

      Good to read your insightful comment, Bruno. I, too, am a mat salleh atheist, currently living in Thailand, but I like to visit Malaysia often – it feels good and KL is in many ways more relaxed than Bangkok. And, similarly to the writer’s friend, I was asked to leave Masjid Negara: first cordially shown the entrance by a friendly, baju-melayu-clad gentleman, then once inside (not having noticed the repellent notice at the entrance) I was chased after by a concerned lady, who politely asked me to leave. This was in stark contrast to places like Turkey or India, where, even as an atheist, I enjoyed having quiet pensive moments in a mosque, and nobody made a fuss out of it.

      As a side note, let me add, I used to be a fervent (and open-minded) believer in a “higher power”, and got interested in Islam when I made a Johor Malay friend back in London. His peculiar way of trying to convert me, though, made me question not only his propositions but even my old beliefs, as a result of which I have been a happy atheist for some years now – which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a very liberating experience!

      This (and many other stories I have heard or read about) makes me think, there is just so much weirdness with Islam in Malaysia (not sure about other countries), what with all the hypocrisy and double standards that are ingrained deep in many a Malay’s brain, of which I have personal experience. It actually makes me even more interested in observing and researching it.

      I would love to hear your stories and views, here or elsewhere.

      • Religion has always been used as political instrument of colonisation and domination. The Christian and Islamic faiths are the worst examples of how religion has been used as a reason to go forth, rape, plunder and colonise other countries.

        In 1963, this horror was re-visited in the British Sabah/Sarawak colonies when they were annexed by Malayan Umno in the “Malaysia Plan” to consolidate colonial interests in the territories. Umno’s cynical use of Islamisation to reinforce its Malay supremacist apartheid system has a dual strategy. The first arm of this strategy is the direct conversion programme in schools. This is forcible spoonfeeding of young minds in a “captive audience” classroom situation.

        In Sarawak the Umno government has used blatant tactics such a re-classifying native school kids as “Malay” and imposing Islamic faith on the young students.

        Umno has announced its plan to send 80,000 religious teachers to Sarawak. If this is not a mass proselytising plan, it is certainly a job creation plan for 80,000 Malayans. There is no plan to send 80,000 Christian teachers to Sarawak. This will be reinforced with mass transmigration of 600,000 foreign Muslim workers under the SCORE.

        Islam is spread with active suppression of Christian beliefs such as banning of the Malay Bible in Sarawak, attacks on Christian faith and burning of churches, Umno thug-like demands not to display Christian symbols or sing hymns. These are trademarks of religious fascism.

        The second is mass transmigration (mentioned above) using foreign Muslims to outnumber the locals as in Malaya and Sabah with instant citizenship seen in the widespread distribution of Mykad to Muslim refugees and illegal migrants.

        Both policies are designed to increase Umno’s electoral base and justify the claim that Malaysia is a “democracy” because you have “free” elections.

        Are you “free” when the electoral system is so rigged in favour of Umno?

  9. Farouq Omaro says:

    Dear Iqraq,

    Your comments reflect your ignorance of Christianity. I’ve encountered some Christian charity organisations, none of which tried to convert me to Christianity. And Christians do not disguise their evangelical works! However, the opposite can be said of many Muslims, where Islamic speeches are given in schools where there is a large non-Muslim presence. In fact, Islam is the only religion I know where many of them have to take potshots at other religions in order to proselytise. The way non-Muslims are portrayed by many Islamic teachers also take the human out of a non-Muslim in Muslims’ eyes. Labels like dwellers of hell, infidels, idol-worshippers are labels often used to describe non-Muslims by some Islamic teachers.

    Muslims speak of Christianiy, Judaism and the Bible as though as they know all, but the truth is, whatever they know comes from Islamic sources. As I see it, this will not change, until it explodes. And then only will Muslim governments decide to reform the teaching of Islam and reinterpret some traditional teachings. Yes, I said Muslim governments, because Islam is a top-down religion, as the Prophet Muhammad himself was a political leader, unlike founders of many other religions. Until that happens, non-Muslims will have to live with the hatred and suspicion that come from a growing ultra-conservative section of Muslims.

  10. Salam Dari Timur says:

    Kepada Saudara/Saudari ellese,

    Ulasan seperti yang anda nyatakan itu sangatlah memilukan hati golongan minoriti Orang Ulu Sarawak macam saya sebagai seorang rakyat Malaysia.

    Untuk pengetahuan anda, semenjak akhir-akhir ini, kami perasan banyak guru berkelulusan dalam bidang keagamaan telah diutus untuk datang mengajar di sekolah-sekolah dalam daerah kami, yang terang-terang majoritinya memang bukan seagama denganmu. Bukannya kami tidak tahu niat disebalik penghataran beramai-ramai mereka ke sini, selain mengajar di sekolah. Yang lagi mengguriskan hati adalah, apabila mengetahui bahawa anak-anak sekolah kami, yang sememangnya masih cetek akalnya dan lemah imannya, yang menjadi sasaran mereka.

    Tetapi, kami akan tetap akan menyambut tetamu-tetamu ini dengan hati yang terbuka, memberikan segala keperluan selama mereka di sini dan menghormati mereka, atas dasar kemalaysiaan dan kepatuhan kami kepada undang-undang. Namun begitu, kami akan terus bersatu dan bersama-sama berdoa agar Dia akan mengusirkan anasir-anasir luar yang cuba hendak mencerai-beraikan kesatuan dalam iman kami di sini dan seterusnya akan menguatkan iman dan taat setia kami dan anak-anak kami kepadaNya.

    Oleh itu, dengan mengatakan tindak-tanduk sesetengah pihak itu tidak ada unsur berperlembagaan adalah amat berat sebelah apabila tindak-tanduk saudara-saudari anda di sini juga menunjukkan mereka juga tidak berlandaskan perlembagaan. Terang-terang ini merupakan strategi terancang dan paling halus dari kerajaan pusat (yang mengwar-warkan kebebasan beragama tetapi bertindak sebaliknya) untuk menjatuhkan kedaulatan agama kami di sini.

    Dengan itu, apabila masalah timbul, daripada anda menundingkan jari telunjuk kepada seseorang, ingat-ingatlah bahawa 3 jari yang lain itu akan menuju kepada anda sendiri.

    Marilah kita bersama-sama berdoa (semestinya dengan cara masing-masing) agar kita dapat saling hormat menghormati dan terus hidup aman damai tanpa salah paham di dalam negara Malaysia tercinta ini.

    • Kong Kek Kuat says:

      Saudara/saudari Salam Dari Timur,

      Kalau tidak salah faham saya, bukan sahaja golongan Orang Ulu Sarawak yang sangat terpilu, malah golongan Dayak Sarawak juga yang terpilu dan memendam hati apabila mereka nampak Kerajaan/Negeri (Sarawak) di bawah arahan orang Melayu-Malaya, baikpun ketua-ketua pejabat-pejabat negeri Sarawak ataupun syarikat-syarikat Sarawak berkaitan kerajaan pusat (Umno). Ini nampaknya semata-mata sesuatu penjejahan Sarawak dan meninggalkan sesuatu rasa yang tidak sedap di hati. Apakah tidak ada rakyat Sarawak yang cukup berilmu dan lebih handal daripada “tetamu-tetamu” dari seberang Malaysia untuk mengendalikan urusan-urusan dan hak-hak (seperti yang diisytiharkan dalam Malaysia Agreement) untuk rakyat-rakyat Sarawak sendiri? Orang-orang Malaya seperti Ellese di atas tidak akan menjaga hak-hak orang-orang Sarawak dalam dunia yang terpencil mereka. Malah, Sarawak dianggap sebagai “a backwater state, but OUR oil, OUR natural resources, OUR fixed deposit.” Wahai orang-orang Sarawak, sedarlah.

  11. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    @ Shanon Shah

    Here´s an interesting fact: Islamic proselytisation is conducted via the Chinese radio broadcast ‘愛 F.M.’ with daily calls to prayers and weekly sermons IN MANDARIN. Now, I don´t know if the Muslims actually tune in to “… 有情有愛, 自由自在… 愛… F.M.,” but 愛 F.M. is exclusively a Mandarin channel, meaning to say that Amy Search´s “Dia Isabella” would turn ALL the listeners off.

    • Many Malays have learnt Mandarin … maybe it’s for their benefit? Let’s be positive: communication is two-ways. Perhaps this is also good to encourage Malays to listen in and understand the Chinese for a change?

      愛 FM could broadcast other positive community and environmental messages to the Malay audiences, such as ideas on the democratisation of our multicultural, multireligious and multilingual society before 1957 in Malaya and before 1963 in the Sabah/Satrawak colonies? Those were the good old days when under a different colonialism there was a margin of freedom of thought and religion.

      Now everywhere Umno tries to muscle in and impose its brand of religious fascism and apartheid system as seen through its commandeering of 愛 FM’s air space. Where has freedom gone? Umno is so cunning that it uses religion to terrorise both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It uses the “threat” against Islam to frighten Muslims to vote for them. It then uses the “threat” of PAS Islamisation to frighten non-Muslims into voting for them.

      Apparently religion has a very useful purpose other than the promise of heaven and eternity!

  12. senior kanchil says:

    All is talk of conversion of Muslims to Christianity is mostly hogwash. Muslims are being frightened into keeping their faith at all cost. From mosques to schools, the preaching of hate goes on. Anyone living close to a surau/mosque will attest to the lessons being preached – it is downright seditious. You don’t get this sort of thing from Christians/Buddhists/Hindus. Even if the conversions are true, why the fuss? If you have no faith in a religion, you can leave it. Muslims believe in freedom of religion ONLY if one converts to Islam, not the other way around. This statement comes IKIM, no less. So Muslims are like cats chasing their own tails, while the whole world progresses. When will they wake up and realise their predicament is caused by their leaders?

  13. Chandra says:

    The problem in Malaysia is that there is no freedom of worship for Malays. This freedom is, however, available for non-Malays. Is this not discrimination and denial of fundamental freedom? Malays usually have to go overseas to enjoy this right.

    On another point, the non-Malay (and by default non-Muslims) can be prosecuted only under civil law. But the Malays/Muslims can be prosecuted under both civil and syariah law.

  14. grace peace says:

    Dear Iqraq,

    Your comments reveal your lack of understanding and ignorance of Christianity. I would only single out one for correction of perspective: Christians do NOT have to “tanggung all of mankind’s dosa” as you have put it for not proselytising. That is NOT their motivation. They do it BECAUSE they believe their sins HAVE been dealt with, and they want to share with others out of a sense of gratitude for this rather than to avoid punishment for not doing so.

    So,it is NOT from the fear of God but the command to love that they do this. Indeed,In many parts of the world, when they would be much more safe and comfortable in their homes, they have elected to face opposition, persecution and even death for no other purpose than their conviction to share God’s love.

    Please don’t point out what the “Christian West” has done in Afghanistan and Iraq. The west is essentially post-Christian and agnostic/atheistic at its core. Any attempt to see this as a new crusade is tiresome, simplistic and naive.

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