Who’s Afraid of Harmony Street?

There is a street in Georgetown, Penang that has been affectionately dubbed “The Street of Harmony”. Once officially known as Pitt Street, it is now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. Along the axis of this street, there are three mosques, two churches and several Hindu and Chinese temples, all of them within easy walking distance of each other.

Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling isn’t just a showcase of Penang’s rich cultural history, shaped tangibly by migrants of all creeds and nations who were drawn to this former trading post. It also represents more than 200 years of peaceful ethnic and religious co-existence, and continues to be a reminder of the immense possibilities of which our country is truly capable.

Early this year, the street was adopted by the Penang Global Ethic Project — which comprised several events that were launched by various dignitaries including the Governor — for a world religions walking tour.

In May however, the State Education Department stopped students from taking part in the World Religions Walk, Penang that passes this street, apparently because it would involve Muslim students visiting places of worship of other religions, and that was deemed not right, even un-lslamic.

In tune with the fervent score of Malaysian politics today, the street of religious harmony has become symbolic of the hostile struggle to redefine Malaysian culture, history and identity. And it is by no means an isolated incident.

Two months earlier, a request by the Penang Global Ethic Project to permanently set up the internationally­ acclaimed World Religions-Universal Peace-Global Ethic exhibition at the Penang Heritage Centre, aiming to showcase the commonalities among nine religions representing the diverse cultural life of Malaysians’ faith, was also rejected.

In a letter dated March 13, Penang state executive councillor for housing, arts, culture and heritage Syed Amerruddin Syed Ahmad, told the project coordinator that the exhibition could not be set up at the Penang Heritage Centre on Lebuh Acheh because it went against Islamic faith and principles.

In fact, if a July 27 press release by the anti-interfaith group known by the Malay acronym Badai is accurate, the Majlis Agama Islam Pulau Pinang or state religious council has sent out a directive to all its agencies that the Global Ethic Project is a threat, presumably to Islam. (Badai is the same group that, through mob rule, disrupted an Article 11 forum in May in Penang that was aimed at raising public awareness about the rights already guaranteed for all Malaysians by the supreme law of the land, the Federal Constitution.)

There are two significant points here. First, that there is a growing view that diversity is incompatible with Islam. This is puzzling, since Islam, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad to correct the injustices before that, was not meant to snuff out difference and diversity. In fact, the height of Islamic civilisation coincided with times when Muslims lived in pluralistic cosmopolitan societies, such as during the period of the Moghul Dynasty, Ottoman Empire and Spanish Caliphate.

Second, that our nationally elected leadership increasingly appears to respond to these minority voices. If both state and national leadership can succumb to the pressure of groups, which are unelected and unaccountable, and who act in ways that undermine the shared values of all Malaysians, then Prime Minister Abdullah’s promises of an efficient, transparent and accountable public delivery system is fast failing even before it gets off the ground.

How have some Malaysians — including those who hold public office — come to believe that the Global Ethic Project is a threat to Islam, Malay cultural identity, and Malaysia?

The Global Ethic was first introduced by Catholic priest and theologian Prof Hans Küng.

Following two years of interfaith dialogue and consultation, it was adopted in the form of the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic by the Parliament of the World’s Religions on Sept 4, 1993. Prof Küng , in fact, was following in the example of the Prophet Muhammad who we know, regularly used the Qur’anic principle of shura or consultation in resolving differences.

The Declaration is indeed significant in that it is the first ever agreement in human history reached by representatives of the different religions on a set of common moral values and ethical standards which are shared by all faiths.

Muslims have signed the Declaration, among them notable Malaysians such as Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid and Datuk Dr Ismail Ibrahim. The Malaysian Interfaith Network, led by Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal, is also instrumental in promoting the Global Ethic Project in Malaysia.

In fact, Malaysians of any faith would be hard-pressed not to support the Declaration which has the following principles for the Global Ethic:

  1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
  2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.
  3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness.
  4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

The intrinsic values in these principles, either whole or in parts, can be found in our Federal Constitution, Rukunegara, Vision 2020 and other national policies and campaigns.

The Global Ethic Project, including the World Religions-Universal Peace-Global Ethic exhibition and the World Religions Walk, Penang serve to reinforce the shared values and ideals of all Malaysians. In fact, they uphold the Islamic principles of peace and justice.

How did Malaysia’s multifaceted cultural identity, its deeply diverse national heritage, and its immense ability to resolve issues by turning to the richness of our collective psyche, get hijacked by groups who use the politics of hostility, aggression and antagonism in the name of Islam?

Surely this is in direct conflict with our Prime Minister’s promise of Islam Hadhari — a civilisational Islam that would uphold the spirit of a great religion with an enduring tradition and history of accepting diversity. Yet, how is it that the PM himself appears to be swayed by this politics of fear, leading him to call for a halt of all public discussions about race and religion?

This culture of fear is further fuelled by the fact that transparent and accountable due process, again as promised by Abdullah when he became Prime Minister, is no longer the name of the game.

As Malaysians we should all, regardless of ethnicity, or religion, be very fearful that we can no longer trust in legitimate and lawful due process to ensure our cultural rights are protected.

This culture of fear that is being cultivated is, of course, in no way new to us. In fact, it coagulated under 22-years of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s premiership. This fear has the all-too familiar smell and feel of an old lover, especially when those in the present leadership issue irrational threats to the media, citing May 13 and Operation Lalang.

These two incidents, though unrelated chronologically, have one thing in common. They are the quintessential panic buttons to push in a Malaysian society raised and fed on fear. How can we better understand what games are currently being played in the political arena to forcefully reduce Malaysia’s multicultural identity to a frighteningly chauvinistic and singularly obnoxious one?

Perhaps the most important question that needs to be asked before Malaysians allow fear to become a habit — and one that we cannot break — is: “Who’s afraid?”

If we are to be able to break the habit of fear, let’s ask ourselves and our leaders now: Who’s afraid of rational, peaceful dialogue? Who’s afraid of our Federal Constitution? Who’s afraid of inter-faith initiatives to promote harmony and understanding?

Who’s afraid of accurate information spilling out into the public domain? Who’s afraid of listening to people’s real concerns and fears about what’s going on in this country?

And, who’s asking, no, telling people to be afraid?

Fear is an easy and available commodity that is being used to dictate to us what we can and cannot discuss as a nation, what we can and cannot write about as a people, and perhaps, very soon what we can and cannot perform as a democracy.

Fear is the rule of the game. Create enough fear — fear of riots, fear of communal tensions, fear of losing one’s brother or sister to another faith, fear of an unarticulated threat — and a less-than courageous government will resort to using fear as a chip in the game themselves.

Let’s also ask, who are these people who resort to fear to reconstruct our history and our current reality through misinformation and gag orders and threats of hostility?

We all have a stake in this country, in our shared cultural heritage and our common future.

Will we let fear be the brush that defines the shape of Malaysia to come? Or will we paint our country with courage, respect and love, until harmony chimes on every street?


First Published: 11.08.2006 on Kakiseni

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