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Freedom of religion is dead, let us not bury it

Published in The Malay Mail Online

 

We all know freedom of religion — and freedom from religion — has never been truly well and alive in this country. To borrow a Malay saying, it is “mati segan, hidup tak mahu”.

The decision of the Court of Appeal to ban a Catholic newspaper from using the word “Allah” on Monday might be one of the final nails in the coffin.

If you have some time, do read the summary of the decision and see if you find it as disturbing as I did.

In allowing the appeal to stop the use of “Allah”, the court has decided that its usage “is never an integral part” of the Christian faith. Cue cringes from Christians in East Malaysia, not to mention those in the Arab world.

According to the court, “Allah” was never historically mentioned in any Christian holy scriptures, hence the reasoning. With this, it was immediately clear that the court has never taken into account that religions should — and, indeed, have — evolved.

By the same token of logic, surely a lot of what many Malays practise as part of the Islamic faith today is “never an integral part” of Islam, considering these too were never in holy scriptures?

This line of argument showed a heavy bias in interpreting religion and theology through the lens of Islam, which imposes a strict adherence to only the holy book of Quran and the Hadith.

To stretch the argument further, this interpretation is similar to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative Islamic school of thought that bars anything new after the ancient times of Prophet Muhammad, calling them bid’ah, or “invention”.

In the same grounds of judgment, the court also explained that Christians should not use “Allah”, since it is reserved for Muslims, like how “Yahweh” is for Christians and “Vishnu” is for the Hindus.

“To refuse to acknowledge the essential differences between religions will be an affront to the uniqueness of world religions,” the court said.

This statement reeked of utmost hypocrisy, considering the state’s attempt to impose its Malay-Islamic hegemony on Malaysians, where only one religion reigns supreme, and only one version of the religion is counted as official.

The appeal to stop the use of “Allah” was just one of such attempts, and by allowing the appeal, the court had inadvertently refuse to acknowledge the differences that it had proudly espoused.

By doing so, the court had perhaps played accomplice to an institutionalised oppression against religious minorities, instead of protecting their constitutional rights.

It seems Malaysians just cannot get a break, when the government has taken into its own hands that it should decide how its citizens should worship their gods.

This is surely bad news, when Islamic authorities have constantly declared that they would not stand by the human rights fought for by “the human rights fought for by “the liberals”, believing that human rights is a “neo-colonialist attempt by the West”.

Nor will they accept that other religions deserve equal rights together with Islam. Not when the Islamic authorities vehemently reject what they call “pluralism”.

And they are certainly not shy about admitting that.

Quoting an acquaintance, let us be frank about what the judgment was all about: It was about the fear of Christians enticing the Malays into their faith.

It was about how Malays will be confused if Christians can use “Allah”. Even the court has admitted so in its judgment.

It was to protect the Malays. The oh-so-feeble, fearful Malays — trapped like goldfishes in their small bowl, as my fellow columnist Erna Mahyuni noted.

But let us not forget that the Catholics have not just suddenly decided to use the word in the last five years, despite what the religious right would want us to believe.

Christians in East Malaysia have been using it for decades — heck, the Christian Arabs have been using it since forever with no such fuss.

Let me tell you what I think the decision was really about.

It was about pandering to the religious right, to Islamic and Islamist fundamentalists, and to extremists.

It was about the fear that chaos will reign should the decision not go the Muslims’ way.

You could see it in the judgment, where it was decided that the use of “Allah” by Christians by Christians would threaten and harm the “safety” of the state and the public.

In deciding so, the court decided to interpret the part of the Constitution that said “other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony” to mean that any non-Islam practices should not threaten the sanctity of Islam.

To put it simply, the sanctity of Islam is supreme, and anything interpreted as a threat to it will be dealt with extreme prejudice.

It would be safe to say that such interpretation of the Constitution, heavily biased towards Muslims, will weigh heavily against non-Muslims who are already discriminated against, as it is.

I am heartened by the reaction from fellow friends, acquaintances, and many more who disagree with the decision.

There is so much to be done to prevent our rights — the freedom of religion, and the freedom from religion — from being trampled, and we can start by not being quiet about it.

This nation belongs to us, all of us. Not just to religious bigots.

Freedom of religion might be dead, but by pandering to religious bigots we would have buried it.

Published inMMO column
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