Of idolatry and sensitivities

AUGUST 18 ― Religious sensitivity becomes a bone of contention quite easily in a multi-religious society such as Malaysia’s. And over the years, such sensitivity appears to have afflicted Malay-Muslims increasingly more than those of other faiths.

The recent incident of two statues being removed from a reportedly private Bali-themed park at Taman MBI Desaku in Padang Meha, Kulim is a case in point.

Not only that. The district office concerned also ordered the park to be closed and other statues in it removed by September 30th as an attempt to appease the easily-disturbed and distressed netizens who lodged a complaint about this matter.

And plans for new statues for the park, reminds the district office, must be submitted to the state Mufti “for consideration of its suitability.”

The religious authorities in this case appear to have overstepped their jurisdiction particularly when this involves a private property where the owner concerned should have the liberty to decide what is suitable or not suitable.

This action also indicates the disrespect on the part of the authorities concerned towards freedom of expression and also difference of opinions that are bound to occur in a society as diverse as ours.

Indeed, diversity should be celebrated, not frowned upon.

We are aware of the sensitivity of Muslims towards “idols” and, to some degree, statues as they are often associated with idolatry, which is proscribed in Islam.

But even if these statues in Kulim have some religious connotations and are revered by the believers concerned, Muslims have been warned by the Almighty not to ridicule the beliefs of others so that they would not, in turn, insult Islamic teachings and Allah.

To be sure, Chapter 109 of the Quran clearly states: “Say: O you that reject faith! I do not worship that which you worship, nor will you worship that which I worship.

“And I will not worship that which you have been wont to worship, nor will you worship that which I worship. To you be your Way (or religion) and to me mine.”

In short, Muslims are to respect followers of other religions (just as they should expect the same of others) and the diversity of faiths in this world.

The full weight of this Islamic injunction can be felt when we ponder over what had happened, for example, in Kampung Medan, Petaling Jaya in 2015 where there was a protest by a group of Malay-Muslims who were apparently troubled by a cross on a church building.

The church eventually decided to remove the cross, which is an important religious marker for Christians, in the face of this un-Islamic and unruly objection.

Besides, that’s not the way to treat religious and cultural minorities that are consonant with the teachings of Islam.

What happened recently in Turban, East Java where the stature of Chinese deity Guan Yu was forcefully covered amidst pressure from aggressive Muslim and nationalist protesters to tear it down or, worse, in the case of Afghanistan where the sacrilegious destruction of the statues of Bamiyan Buddhas was committed by the Talibans in 2001, should make concerned Malaysians be more vigilant against such religious radicalism so that diversity in our society remains protected and celebrated.

As things stand, it is already disconcerting enough that the action and attitude of the authorities in Kulim implies ― rather unfortunately ― a fragility of faith among certain Muslims; the mere presence of statues supposedly triggers some spiritual anxiety.

Obviously, this does not do the image of Islam and its adherents as a community any good.

Having said that, though, diversity of faiths in many other parts of Malaysia is still well received, jealously guarded and celebrated and one that contributes to our cultural enrichment and harmonious ethnic relations.

One only has to bear witness to, and cherish the existence of, the so-called Street of Harmony in George Town, Penang that stretches from the Anglican church, the Taoist Goddess of Mercy Temple, the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Taoist Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple until the Lebuh Acheh mosque.

Their coexistence is an embodiment of celebrated diversity and mutual respect among followers of various faiths.

There was suspicion that the supposed concern of certain Muslim groups (regarding idols and religious icons of other faiths) was calculated to appeal to, and exploit, the fears and anxiety of the Malay-Muslim constituency in the run-up to the impending general election in the country.

We hope that this suspicion is unfounded because it would needlessly smudge the good name of Islam if it were true.

Perhaps it would be more spiritually enriching and much in line with the Islamic teachings if those Muslims, who are easily disturbed by the presence of idols and statues, instead train their sight on certain Muslim individuals and groups who excessively idolise material wealth and political power to the extent that human dignity and the sanctity of Islam are sacrificed at the altar of vested interests.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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