KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 21 — Against a tide of growing religious fundamentalism, a group dubbed the “25 prominent Malays” has emerged to express concern over the pervasiveness of religion and its rules in the lives of Malaysians.
In a country where the lines between religion and authority are increasingly blurred, their call for the government to reassert the supremacy of the Federal Constitution over the gradual creep of Islamic law and influence of religious authorities is both courageous and appropriate.
Brave because it comes at a time when anything and everything is considered seditious or insensitive, when people go out of their way to see offence where none is intended or, worse, exists.
Already, there is — and will continue to be — the inevitable backlash from the self-professed defenders of Islam and Malays.
Appropriate because there are sections of the country that appear intent on embracing ever more strict rules on religion for hardly pious reasons and without regard for the possible consequences.
Here are three things we learned from the emergence of the 25 “prominent Malays”.
1. If you start, others will follow
Every time intolerance or bigotry raises its head, apologists and deniers will claim that these are isolated events perpetrated by a minority, not representative of the country in part or as a whole. They will claim that there is a “silent majority” who do not subscribe to such hate and odium.
Yet it cannot be that this majority remains ever silent. Keep quiet long enough and people will cease to think you exist, and once that happens, even if you do speak up, people will no longer think it matters.
Now that the silence has been broken, the moderates need to show that they — and not the strident right, despite all evidence — are indeed the majority.
What is heartening is that, while nowhere near demonstrably the majority, the 25 have found quick and easy support among Malaysians exasperated by the ugliness that has become the norm in daily discourse.
Leading the support are #Iam26 and #KamiJuga25, two groups seeking to let Malaysians resonate with the call by the 25 for sense and rule of law to return to how the country is governed.
This is not to detract from all those who have spoken up before in the name of a more sensible Malaysia, often at great personal risk, but sometimes people just need a bandwagon.
2. All sides or no sides
More important than having jump-started public discourse on how the country’s laws and administration are being increasingly influenced by religion, however, is to prevent the dialogue from being swayed or dominated by political interests.
All too often, promising movements make great strides before biases and prejudices begin to show, either because they were never neutral to begin with or they were co-opted by one side or the other.
It is disillusioning to see when this happens, as it taints all that was achieved previously and colours all that such groups seek to achieve, however noble the goal.
The same goes for the “25 prominent Malays” and those who support their call. It is inevitable that both sides of the political divide will want to clamber on, especially after seeing how the call has resounded with the public.
Some will do so out of genuine support, but many more will join out of political expediency, hoping to share in the glow from the halo of the group’s apparent moderation.
Politicians will be politicians.
3. It is not about religion
The biggest upshot of the group’s strongly-worded letter to the government is the use of religion as a tool of control. When coupled with laws on sedition and blasphemy that prevent disputes against Islam, authorities have a virtually bulletproof method to regulate public opinion and speech.
What is most at stake are our rights and liberties, enshrined within the Federal Constitution, but treated as though they are privileges granted at the pleasure of those in power.
When it comes to government, religion is rarely just about religion. If you distil it enough, even religion is not entirely about faith. As a means to unite and control a populace, there are fewer things more powerful than belief.
Since racial politics have fallen out of favour — or at least is no longer considered politically palatable — religion has surfaced as an alternative and even better platform to curry favour with voters.
What is worrisome is that despite the incendiary nature of religious conflict, politicians are all too ready to exploit it to either win support or attack rivals.
Of even greater concern is that there are those who think politicians spewing religion are genuinely interested in protecting it.
Governments have no interest in anybody’s soul, and never will until the day souls can vote or pay taxes.