(© Wong Mei Teng / sxc.hu)THERE were a couple of Christmases, as a teenager, when my family did not put up a Christmas tree. I’d like to claim that we were opting out of the crass commercialism of garish ornaments and plastic trees. The truth, however, stood a little more to the right of such enlightened social consciousness.
I was born into a Catholic family, which, as practiced by my extended Eurasian Malaysian family, was a syncretic amalgamation of Catholicism, Asian mysticism and local superstition. Drinking, partying and gambling were not incompatible with being a devout Catholic. So long as you were baptised, attended Mass every Sunday, went to confession, and had an altar — with empat ekor lottery tickets under the Sacred Heart statue — in your house, you were getting into those pearly gates.
By the time I was 10 however, my family of six was born again and had become members of a fundamentalist evangelical church. Our church was part of a large American denomination, our Malaysian pastors as influenced by its theology as by the stylistic tics and mid-western accents of visiting pastors from the mother church.
Fundamentalism advocates a return to the fundamentals of something: cooking, exercise, accounting. When applied to religion it is usually characterised by a strict, often literal interpretation of sacred texts. With the case of fundamentalist Christians, anything not found in the Bible was suspect.
In the Malaysian context, this led many new converts, formerly Hindus or Buddhists, to change their “Hindu” or “Buddhist” names to biblical ones. Along with the Rebeccas, Elizabeths and Johns, there was also an equal number of Dianas and Irises. Apparently, pagan gods of the Greek pantheon passed the heathen sniff test.
I spent my teenage years feeling guilty as I watched Top of the Pops and MTV because popular music was “worldly”. Even worse, the sinister art of backward masking made it potentially satanic — the Beatles’s Revolution No 9 anyone?
From Duran Duran’s (relatively) recent concert in Toronto, 2005 (© Samira Khan / Flickr.com)
My sisters solemnly removed posters of their favourite bands because, clearly, “Thou should not put graven images before you” was a direct commandment against Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran on your bedroom wall.
Hence the great Christmas tree standoff. The Christmas tree was not Christian at all, but a pagan tradition. From Germany. Therefore, it had no place in a good evangelical home, or church. We kids were crushed by the decision, but a couple of Christmases later, the old plastic tree with cotton “snow” found its way into our living room again, as it did into our church sanctuary. You can fight the devil, but you can’t beat Hallmark.
Despite this, I can truthfully say that joining the church improved the quality of my home life unequivocally at the time. The unhappiness that was a large part of our family life abated somewhat, as we all embraced the ideals of Christianity and strove to become better people. There was an emphasis on love, humility and forgiveness by a majority of the pastors and members that has left a lasting impression on me.
While I am no longer part of that church, I know that I have been shaped by my early encounter with the positive power of faith. I am equally who I am today because of my experience with the corrosiveness of religious zealotry.
Fighting with fire
I’ve been researching and documenting arts censorship for over five years now, and my interest can be traced to the warnings against music, films and books that were part of my formative years. I am fascinated by the way radical Christian fundamentalists in the United States were able to organise themselves. What was a marginal spirit-based movement transformed itself into a highly effective force against artists in the 1990s, enacted within a wider movement that became known as the Culture Wars.
There was a nurturing at grassroots levels of evangelical Christians who were taught to accept their leaders’ literal, and extreme, interpretations of the Bible. A sense of impending danger was created, but not only of fear of the afterlife. Followers were constantly warned of the evil in the here and now — secularists and “nominal” Christians who were there to undermine their faith, and corrupt them.
A more militant mind-set developed. Instead of retreating from all that is worldly (code for demonic), some fundamentalist groups purposefully entered the fray — the biblical den of lions — to do battle for God. It did not matter if one was ridiculed as backward, ignorant or an extremist for railing against art works, music, films, books and homosexuality. For radical evangelicals, these labels were a badge of honour.
Thus, what began as a movement of spiritual revivalism and faith morphed into a political agenda that combined religious zealotry with political activism. The Christian right co-opted the strategies of the civil rights movement and other counter-culture movements. They cast their demonstrations, lobbying, civil actions and law suits as defensive measures against others who were not only attacking their personal faith, but were trying to supplant the Judeo-Christian principles of the nation.
Badge of honour
Statue of Siva performing Yogic meditation (© Deepak / wikipedia.org)
As the yoga ban makes the international news, I find myself fielding questions from American acquaintances about Malaysia and Islam. For many, it only confirms their prejudices about Islam as a backward, closed religion, incompatible with modernity. I try to make the point that there is very little difference between one fundamentalist group and another. The reasoning behind the ban on yoga for Muslims by Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council is in spirit, identical to the prohibition against yoga I learnt from my spiritual leaders 20 years ago. Islam has no monopoly on zealotry.
This is our version of the Culture Wars, only messier, thanks to our unique mix of geography, race-based politics, class, colonialism and a multi-religious and multi-ethnic polity.
Many of the blogs and articles by Malaysians — Muslim and non-Muslim — reacting to the ban have expressed anger, embarrassment and fear at this latest salvo against the historical openness of religious practices in Malaya/Malaysia. We’ve accordingly labelled these groups as reactionary, ignorant and extremist.
We perhaps overlook the way these edicts are part of a performance, a call-and-answer game, that serves to boost the credentials of the leadership of these movements. And in doing so, we miss the full implications of the role we play. Like the Christian right, mockery, anger and challenges by “outsiders” legitimise them as the spokespersons for the only view of Islam that “real” Muslims must adhere to.
Furthermore, it elevates these organisations and individuals into heroes. If a yoga ban in a small, geographically insignificant country makes it to the BBC news ticker, these leaders must be doing something bold and important. It places the ban, and its perpetrators, within a larger international movement. It presents itself as a response to centuries of Western imperialism, and oppression of Muslims, as well as to the tyrannical rule by ungodly Muslim dictators.
(© Sachin Godke / sxc.hu)
Here comes the tide
Where are we heading? The tide does, with some qualifications, seem to be turning against the fundamentalist Christian movement. In the US, criminal and civil investigations into the business and ethical practices of some of these far-right organisations revealed a decidedly unholy union between money, sex, and power, robbing them of their moral high ground.
The debacle of the Bush administration, aided into office by the Christian right, has disproved its principal argument that bringing Christian values into the White House was God’s will. Many Christians have questioned the rhetoric of hate and damnation put forth in the name of their God. They are advocating a return to a more personal practice as opposed to an embodied performance of faith in the public sphere.
In Malaysia, it’s certainly easy to fall into that pre-assigned role of denouncer. It’s a clear-cut role, no improvisation or inventiveness required, and it always gets the applause — you’re speaking out against the bad guys! It’s even been proven to work in several instances. But as the US example shows, change comes often out of a confluence of personal actions, global shifts and political activism.
For now, I’m going to work on the Christmas fundamentals that matter — love, hope, peace and a plastic Christmas tree.
Kathy Rowland is the co-founder of www.kakiseni.com. She has been involved in arts advocacy and freedom of expression in the arts for over 15 years. Her articles on the politics of culture have appeared in publications in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. A native of Petaling Jaya, Kathy is currently based in Miami.