KUALA LUMPUR, March 16 — Malaysia is a country of theists. The rising number of believers and increased religious consciousness cannot be ignored. Religious camps and workshops for the young, religious retreats and lectures for the adults.
Facebook, on a daily basis, overwhelms me with status updates of friends attending usrahs, church, temples, sharing religious quotes and verses. People text Bible verses and Quranic quotes to each other. Religion is bowling us over.
But are Malaysians really becoming more conscious of their faith? What is making them more religious?
As Gregore Lopez, a political scientist, who commented on an earlier article of mine, said: “In my opinion, the debate on Allah is because there are two countervailing force of equal strength (Umno vs PKR/PAS creating space for conservatives and liberals/progressives) — that’s why there is a debate.
“When Mahathir was strong, there was no place for anyone, but also a place for everyone, below Mahathir of course. But now that Umno is weak, everyone has a place and almost equally including Umno. Umno now have to make their case especially to gain political legitimacy.
“I think in Malaysia, greater religiosity (ritualistic rather than spiritual) came in the mid-‘70s, and with Mahathir’s push in the ‘80s, and of course that of AI (all responding to global and domestic waves).”
Is Lopez correct?
Religion is a hot topic in Malaysia. There’s always an issue: mosque speakers blasting the azan to the point of bothering the neighbourhood; conversions and inter-faith marriages; can a non-Muslim family host a Muslim family for dinner and must they buy new cutlery?
However, some feel that we need to take a step back and observe the phenomenon. Professor Yusoff Ismail, a retired anthropologist, was circumspect.
“Religiosity is something not that easy to measure. What Gregore Lopez says is too simplistic. You need to look at the bigger picture. Just as we see many people, regardless of the religion they practice, are becoming more religious by attending religious activities, there are quite a large number that have turned their back away from religion.
“How do you explain this? Religious activities are very much heightened nowadays because of the social and material wealth we now have, especially among the nouveau riches. Take a look at the simple majlis berbuka puasa, which nowadays are turned into prestige-enhancing events, with five-star caterers attending to a crazy array of food. Going by the amount of money they have to pay, this must be very, very religious indeed!”
The debate on Islam between the political parties has been going on for a long time; not just recently, he said. “Remember the case of ‘solat dua imam’ and ‘aku tak makan lembu yang kamu sembelih’?” The debate today is still the same, but the intensity has been increased by the availability of the Internet, social media and numerous ceramah agama over television.
Regardless of whatever government Malaysia has, religious debate will go on, either within the same camp, or between opposing camps. For some believers, the reason why people are turning to religion and not just Islam is because secularism has failed them. Material success has not brought that happiness they sought.
Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal is a post-graduate student at the Centre of Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation. He is also a research fellow at Assembly of Intellectual Muslims (HAKIM).
“Not only traditional religions like Christianity, Islam are being revived but also others like Scientology are becoming popular. The missionary works done by preachers of each religion and the abundant religious materials that can be easily accessed contribute to such progress,” he said.
Wan Ahmad Fayhsal is thoughtful when asked about whether politics helped or damaged the position of religions in Malaysia.
“I think my generation is tired of this old drama between the elders of both sides. I foresee a reconciliation rather than division. For that to become a reality, a strong intellectual tradition of Islam must be re-embedded into our social fabric. And I can see the progress is certainly promising with the rise of new leaders not just in politics but in all other dimensions of a civilised society.”
Do the Christians agree?
What do young Christian professionals think of the scenario?
Many (as many other young Muslims say too) feel that religion has been politicised. In some ways, it has made many turn to the holy scriptures of their religions to find out more about their faiths.
Collin Nunis, a Malaysian based in Australia, believes that Malaysians are religious primarily because of their upbringing. “Religion has something to do with our culture and upbringing, irrespective of our ethnic and religious backgrounds. However, we should be quick to distinguish between being religious and actually living by it, as even the most nominal adherent of a given religion can have some strain of religiosity in them.”
However, with the recent developments taking place in the country (mostly because it involves religion) Nunis noted many people are revisiting religion because they are curious, and are looking for answers. For some, it might be their pathway in life, whereas for some, they are looking for answers to disprove or to prove an argument.
“I agree that it has to do with politics, but I don’t think that is all. As Greg points out, politics gradually influenced greater religiosity among the Muslims, and to some extent how Islam is practised. In a way, it gives context to Islam in a Malaysian society, but it also an Islam that is confined to how our authorities and perceive it to be, and not as Islam perceives Islam to be.”
Maturity among ourselves should be the main key here. We should agree to disagree, without having to result to flaming, taunting, and ridiculing. It is ridiculous, to say the least, when politicians, and grassroots Malaysians on both sides of the political divide, get petty when they disagree about something. This does not reflect well on a developing nation.
Nunis’ sentiments are also shared by other Christians.
Politics, a keen desire to embrace one’s faith in a material and secular world, and perhaps social media have popularised and created a new breed of believers.
The two cynics
Meet Desmond Ong and Nik Yahya Nik Mahmud. The former is a devoted atheist (“I’m a humble infidel,” he chirped) while the latter is a card-carrying member of PAS. Ong is in his 40s and a corporate high-flier while Nik Yahya is recently retired and spends his time attending all the opposition rallies.
When Ong was asked what he thought of the increasing number of Christians and Muslims in the country, he scoffed.
“I say it’s networking, not faith per se. Have you ever been to one of these Christian meetings? There are a lot of promised rewards which are delivered solely on the power of a wing and a prayer. And all the people are nice and helpful. They’re like a social support group. It becomes part of your lifestyle and soon you can’t separate yourself from the group or the religion. But here’s the clincher — it doesn’t hurt, it’s not unpleasant and you’re not asked to hate anyone or blow them up or get angry over the loss of a piece of dessert you’ve never seen. It’s all fun and games and camaraderie. The religion isn’t presented to you in the form of a list of ‘thou shall nots’ but ‘thous shall haves.’ From my humble infidel perspective, it’s actually quite fun and feels as normal as walking around a shopping mall on a public holiday.”
Nik Yahya? He snorted. “There is NO rise in faith... just that people are chattering more due to Internet, Facebook/blogs/Twitter etc... that’s why it seems so. Even people who don’t practise feel that they are experts in religious matters,” he wrote in an email.
Perhaps they are correct. And perhaps, Malaysians are indeed becoming more religious.