After a rather lengthy delay, the Malaysian government finally agrees to set up an interfaith panel to promote religious harmony and understanding between the various faiths in the country. Such efforts are critical in light of recent events in the country, in particular on issues pertaining to the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims, religious conversion, child custody and inheritance. These efforts have hit a couple of snags though, within days of its announcement. It’s received a lot of criticism from conservative Muslim groups, as reported in the Malaysian Insider:
The idea for an inter-faith panel was first mooted in the early 1980s but was spiked following objections from Muslim groups such as the Islamic Development Department, better known by its Malay acronym Jakim. According to sources, the objection was because an inter-faith council would place Islam, the nation’s official religion, on equal footing with the other religions. This was the same objection put forward by Malay rights group Perkasa yesterday. Perkasa has demanded the Najib administration places its new inter-faith panel under the national Islamic Affairs Department, saying it rejected the entity in its current form. Perkasa blasted the idea of the inter-faith panel as a “subliminal attempt” by “certain quarters” to place Islam on the same par as other religions. But the DPM shot down today the allegation made by Perkasa and said the committee will not touch on Islamic matters.
I understand Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, but what is wrong with coming together with other faiths to meet them on a level playing field? To make matters worse, it has been reported that the Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) of Malaysia has sought to appease these groups by remarking that the panel members were only ‘small fry’, which hasn’t gone well with representitives from the other religious groups. The Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has issued a press statement expressing their displeasure and seeking to clarify matters:
The Emergency Meeting of the MCCBCHST Executive Committee held on 12 April 2010 wishes to register our displeasure and disappointment at the recent remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin referring to the status and members of the recently established Committee on Promoting Interfaith Understanding and Harmony under the Department of Unity and National Integration as “small fry” as quoted in Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider dated 12 April 2010.
It is unbecoming of a Minister more so the Deputy Prime Minister in the government to look down on leaders of the other religious communities in the country. The various religious representatives of the MCCBCHST are committed to sincere and frank dialogue between different faiths as equals at the table. It would be difficult to proceed with the stated goals of the Committee on Promoting Interfaith Understanding and Harmony if this matter is not clarified. We hope the Minister responsible for the Unity and National Integration will clarify this matter so that the work that the Committee has set before itself can proceed with credibility.
The Malaysian government has had the tendency to bow down to extremists, rather than making a stand. In 2007, the then Malaysian Prime Minister cancelled at the last minute a ‘Building Bridges’ interfaith forum to be held in Malaysia after pressure from Muslim groups. This was an international forum organized by the Archbishop Rowan Williams and involved participation by Muslim and Christian scholars worldwide. An interfaith forum in the state of Penang ended prematurely at the request of the police after demonstrators threatened to barge into the venue in an attempt to stop the event. The government shrugged it off and blamed the organizers for raising sensitive issues.
While this governmental inter-faith panel continues to be politicized and the government remains in flip-flop over it, reasonable Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Taoists and Sikhs from all over the country continue to come together in good faith to understand each other through forums, dialogues, and discussions organized at the grassroots level by various NGOs and religious groups. In fact, they have done so for ages. Perhaps, it is efforts like these that will show the government and those who harbour reservations about such activities, that such a thing is not only possible, but can be fruitful as well. They are the ones who hold to key to the future for interfaith dialogue in the country.