Religious leaders in Asean

We once showed the world that Malaysia was a model modern Muslim country. Why can’t we do it still?

Zaid Ibrahim, TMI  

In Myanmar in the past year alone, more than 450 Muslims have died and 250,000 have been displaced, losing their homes because of religious-inspired violence. But Myanmar is not alone.

In the eastern part of Java, members of the Ahmadiyya community – a sect that the majority of Muslims do not regard as true believers – were hunted and their homes burnt down. They had to confess to their errant ways and renounce their “false beliefs” if they were to be allowed to return to their homes unharmed.

Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali did not find it necessary to defend the right to religious freedom or to condemn the atrocities committed by Muslims against the Ahmaddiya.

Now, the notion that Indonesia is a modern Muslim country is beginning to be questioned by many observers. It is possible that this haven of religious tolerance will become like many other Muslim countries where sectarian violence and internal strife are commonplace.

In Thailand, the war between Muslim separatists and the mainly Buddhist Thais never seems to end, with brutal killings from both sides that invariably cause the loss of innocent lives sparing neither women nor children.

The political issues involved in southern Thailand are much more complex than the problems in Myanmar and Indonesia, but here too there is a lethal mix of politics, race and religion. Indeed, it seems that these three factors play a major role in the Asean region today.

In Malaysia, we fare no better. Although our religious authorities have lately limited their activities to monitoring and arresting Shi’ites and banning concerts and books, there have been enough signs of a growing intolerance that will endanger the wider public space with grave consequences.

The dispute over the use of the word “Allah” shows the lack of willingness on the part of many of Malay-Muslim leaders to lead by example and to exercise restraint, and these leaders appear to have been eager to inflame the situation for political gain.

The demolition of a surau because it was used (just once) as a place for meditation by some Buddhists is an example of high-handed action perpetrated by those in authority to show that they are prepared to be “drastic and uncompromising” when religious matters are involved – but the matter that led to the dispute was actually a small one that could have been easily resolved without drama and public recrimination.

All countries in Asean are pursuing economic growth and we all are in a race to be the richest and fastest-growing economy. And yet, we have paid little or no attention to the violence that will erupt and destroy us soon if we keep doing nothing.

If religious conflicts are not attended to firmly and quickly, and if governments do not make sure that those in charge of security, such as the Police and the Army, enforce the law impartially, then we will see turmoil on a scale unknown to us.

Elements in the Government of Myanmar seem to be encouraging the religious bigotry of the monk Ashin Wirathu, whose vigilantes are roaming the provinces provoking and looking for Muslims as their next victims.

In a BBC interview, Wirathu said that Muslims were dangerous and like attack dogs, and that Myanmarese women were not safe when these Muslims are around. When a Government approves of such hate speech from a community leader, the country will break down sooner or later.

In Malaysia, the Prime Minister must not let his Ministers and Muslim leaders behave like Wirathu. Leaders must not condemn other religious practices and show utter disregard for the rights of others to believe and practise their faiths.

Speech and action motivated by hate must be dealt with promptly by the Police, who must not be seen to be biased. As a country that is quickly developing, Malaysia must set good examples for other Asean countries. Global indices relating to tolerance and community harmony are just as important as those dealing with competitiveness, economic growth and good governance.