FEB 2 — How it began.
“I am sorry. You cannot join us.” Mrs E sounded quite apologetic over the telephone.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Ah… because our Constitution says that Muslims cannot attend Buddhist retreats.”
“But your flyer does not say that it is one. It says it is a mindfulness seminar.”
“Aahh. But you see. Our Constitution says that Muslims and Buddhists cannot…”
“Are you talking about our Federal Constitution? If you are, allow me to explain. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, but we are not an Islamic state. At least, not yet. “
“Aiya! (Pause) I am talking about our organisation’s constitution! No Muslims allowed!”
“But your flyer said that it’s about mindfulness and deep breathing! Why can’t I come? I can do deep breathing, I do it for stress management!” By then I was getting quite frustrated.
“Miss, we do Buddhist chants after the breathing exercises.”
“I can keep quiet while you chant. I can zikir my doas while you chant!”
I imagined the woman tearing her hair out over the conversation.
“Miss, don’t you see? If you come, we’ll lose our licence. This is not like other countries, you know? In other countries like Indonesia, America, Muslims can attend. I know you want to learn how to be mindful but, aiya, this is Malaysia.”
I tried another trick.
“I read Thich Nhat Hanh!”
“So many Muslims read about our Master but I cannot allow you to come.”
“Are you rejecting me?”
“I’m afraid so.”
There was silence on both ends.
“Miss, why do you want to come?” she asked.
“To understand you. Just like how you don’t understand us Muslims. So that I get to know your goodness like how you can get to know ours.” I explained to her that I wanted to conduct a comparative religious observation on faiths in Malaysia.
She coughed. “Miss. This is Malaysia. Cannot.”
That one telephone call on that particular morning depressed me for a good few days. Mind you, I had barely started on this new project. Yet I could understand her. I could empathise with her.
Muslims in Malaysia perplex friends who eat pork and partake in so-called haram food and activities. Even among the more enlightened of us, we confuse our friends. We intimidate them. We anger them. We may be the most populous faith in this country but we are not well-liked.
Incidents such as Ikim’s forum on pluralism which denounced religious commonalities and discouraged Muslims from participating in non-Muslim religious celebrations fuel the fire and deepen the divide among Malaysians.
Although the Perlis Mufti, Dr Juanda Jaya made a strong case against the forum’s proceedings, he may just be a lone voice among the renegade conservatives.
One must not forget the Al Islam debacle when it sent undercover journalists to investigate conversions of Muslims into the Catholic faith which happened last year.
Are we Muslims not curious about our friends? Christmas gifts and muruku be damned, surely we would want to know more about the religious histories of this country?
Are we so shallow in our faiths that we cannot entertain the idea, the curiosity about each other? And are we that insecure about ourselves that we need to berate other faiths?
A Muslim friend sent me an email today. She had organised a leadership workshop, which featured videos of Jamie Oliver cooking. Yes, there was wine and bacon shown, but the point of using the videos was to demonstrate Oliver’s leadership skills.
There was a hullaballoo in her office, for not using Muslim icons instead. And showing alcohol and pork to her colleagues — this was blasphemy of the highest order!
She wrote in the e-mail, “Those snippets were probably 10 seconds vs 25 mins of good leadership sharing! (Management) suruh HR consider guna local videos la, Islamic icon and so on. I told them noted, but we don’t have those right now, and we wanted something out of the ordinary ie a chef teaching leadership.
“I agree that the ustaz brought it up, sebab it is his job to menegah kemungkaran. But am I wrong for thinking we are all adults, and can bezakan mana buruk and baik?
“Does watching an orang kafir (in her words) drinking wine make the managers go out and drink wine and ignore 90 per cent of the learnings in the video about leadership?
“Are we not supposed to live in the real world, where not everyone is Muslim and we need to embrace differences? And we are not saying he is an icon, but simply learn some of the basic leadership traits he had in teaching his chefs?”
We forget that over the many thousands of years, we have learned from each other. It is not just values we have gained from each other, we learned trade.
We learned about gunpowder and the production of paper from the Chinese and Mongols, when both parties explored each other’s countries seeking fortune and territories.
We have also forgotten that in our Holy Quran, there is a verse in Surah Al-Hujurat: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”
Lest we forget, this is Malaysia.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.