Beer festivals: Where does religion end and irreligiousness begin?

OCTOBER 6 ― The beer appreciation festival called Oktoberfest has created a great stir among Malaysians.

When DBKL refused to grant a permit for the Better Beer Festival last month, questions arose about the basic freedoms granted to Malaysians.

Are we really free as a modern democracy should be? Or are we under the care of a nanny state that intends to control our every move?

Worse still, are we pawns of political puppet masters who play off sections of the population against each other in order to score political points? Is any kind of alcohol-related festival prone to some kind of terrorist attack and thus too dangerous to be held?

However, the issue which interests me is the argument that Oktoberfest should be banned because all religions oppose alcohol consumption.

Religion is an important part of our national discourse. We begin with the constitutionally protected provision of freedom of religion.

Even our Rukunegara enshrines it as its first provision: “belief in God.” How does this provision feed into the Oktoberfest issue?

For a start, Oktoberfest is not meant for Muslims, like the Bible or gambling so Muslims are automatically precluded. But what about the others?

In the Oktoberfest related discourses on social media, those who are for the banning of Oktoberfest say that the others should follow the dictates of their own religions and thus avoid alcohol consumption. Is this correct?

A number of responses came from the non-Muslim camp. For a start, it is not true to say that religions other than traditional Islam prohibit alcohol consumption outright. 

Christians, for example, have not prohibited alcohol although examples of drunkenness are quite negative (as in the cases of Noah and Lot).

Certainly there is the ritual of transubstantiation in which the wine is symbolically or literally (depending on one’s denomination) transformed into the Eucharistic blood of Christ.

Having said that, some denominations believe that one should abstain from alcohol altogether.

Hinduism too has great latitude when it comes to alcohol. Ayurvedic medicine which is almost inextricable from Hinduism itself does acknowledge the value of alcohol as medicine but only with certain conditions.

Jainism prohibits alcohol due to microorganisms being involved in the process of fermentation as they are or meant to be strict vegans.

Buddism and Sikhism also denounce alcohol consumption although not in a legal sense.

In fact, in Islam itself, there are debates on the legislative nature on alcohol banning. While the Quran denounces consumption of alcohol in one context, it does not actually prescribe any punishment for the act.

Actually, in another context, it acknowledges the benefits of alcohol although it firmly says that the detriments outweigh them.

However, here is where we have to ask: when the federal constitution enshrines freedom of religion, does it also enshrine freedom of religiousness?

In other words, let us assume one practises a religion, does it necessarily mean that that person must be religious?

Many, if not most people, are relatively lax in their practice of their respective rules. The less than laudatory label “Sunday Christian” connotes a Christian who only cares about his or her faith on church-going days.

Does this make that person a bad person? Less observant perhaps but far from bad, in my opinion.

Oktoberfest must be thought of in these terms. Its implications against religiousness must be weighed against the fact that religiousness is relative to the individual.

Some people may choose the most conservative path within their religious tradition, others more liberal and still others somewhere in between.

It is their prerogative. Freedom of religion must include freedom of religiousness. If it does not, then it is simply not freedom at all.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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