JANUARY 18 — Considerable controversy has broken out over a building in Jelutong, Penang whose lights seem to show a large cross — inciting once again debate about religious harmony.
This issue is not one connected to theology or truth, such as is discussed at length by scholars like al-Imam al-Ghazali or St Thomas Aquinas. In fact, this controversy is about perception and misunderstanding.
When some Muslims express discomfort about this huge cross on the side of a building, it does not mean that they are spiritually weak or lack confidence in their faith, and it certainly does not mean that they are afraid of the cross.
This phenomenon happens because of prejudice, combined with internal and external factors — a negative narrative towards other religions (social), and a tendency to wear the hat of exclusivity (psychology).
The more accurate term for this phenomenon of prejudice is xenophobia. This is a complex emotional phenomenon based on a suspicion towards “the other”.
What is the right approach in facing xenophobia? And what is the best way to face the issue of crossphobia in a fair and just way?
Islam and the rejection of xenophobia
Contemporary scholar, Muhammad ‘Imarah through his book al-Islam wa al-Amn al-Ijtima’i (Islam and Social Peace) explains that one of the most important social maqasid (objectives) in Islam is the preservation of peace. And among the elements of peace is the upholding of the rights of each citizen, regardless of race, skin colour, gender and religion.
We should understand the diversity that exists and accept the reality that this country is not inhabited only by Muslims, but also by our friends from different religions. We need a big heart to go beyond superficial tolerance, and accept as well as celebrate diversity.
Allah Ta’ala has made the element of understanding as a condition for spreading peace in society. In the Quran, surah al-Hujurat verse 10 which encourages al-ta’aruf (knowing one another) looks directly to close the doors that lead to xenophobia.
The Prophet (pbuh) also worked to erase this tendency in early Muslim Communities by writing the Madinah Charter, touted as the world’s first constitution. The Madinah Charter recognised and upheld the rights and responsibilities of Jewish and Christian communities, and created a sense of togetherness that characterised the entirety of the community as the Madinah ummah.
The cross is also not entirely alien in the Islamic legal framework. Scholars and students of Islamic jurisprudence are eminently familiar with the discourse of cross in Islamic criminal law. As has been mentioned in surah al-Ma’idah verse 33, in the case of armed robbery, the criminal is liable to be punished by crucifixion.
It is true that the cross has been regarded as the sacred symbol of Christianity by convention. However, it should not be thought of as something alien or unusual for Muslims, as it has been discussed extensively by Muslim scholars in the Islamic tradition.
Lessons from the West
Today, Muslims living in the United States and the European countries are having a hard time practicing their religion. They are discriminated in various spheres, ranging from their attire, rituals, and even in discussing ideas concerning Islam, as has been reported in several universities.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has reported an escalation of 65 per cent of Islamophobia cases between 2014 and 2016 in the United States. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, it is reported that anti-Muslim attacks have increased up to 26 per cent in the year 2017.
Be it in schools, offices or neighbourhoods, a part of European and American society has expressed their scepticism and hatred towards any Islamic ideals upheld in public by Muslims.
A prejudicial approach is never a healthy element for a civilised nation. It tears apart social fabric, destroys solidarity and threatens social stability.
The xenophobic tendency portrayed by some Europeans and Americans towards Islam should not be mimicked by the Muslim community in Malaysia.
If we wish our Muslim brothers and sisters in the West to live in peace, we need to practice the same by eliminating the elements of distaste towards other religious communities. In this case, we may show that a Muslim majority country is able to practice a more inclusive approach than the West.
Understanding the criticism
The xenophobic tendency towards other religions is a social phenomenon which must be corrected through education and religious institutions, in accordance with Islam’s call for providing a peaceful society.
But in this case, several individuals have come forward to criticise the developers, using xenophobic arguments, including Kepala Batas MP Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican and PAS information chief Nasrudin Hassan.
Even though the criticism comes from the Opposition, we cannot dismiss criticisms on the basis that “this issue should not be politicized”.
It has always been the role of the government and the authorities to respond to any issues that arise, and they should do so objectively, without relying on excuses. We should thus engage with the issues and accusations head on.
Displaying the cross itself is not a form of Christianisation, as has been claimed by critics. Christianisation involves the process of conversion by non-Christians into Christianity. So far, there have been no reports of anyone converting into Christianity at the sight of the cross.
Thus the misuse of the term Christianisation has, in one way or another, contributed to the creation of negative perception between different religious adherents.
Understanding the social reality that not every individual thinks the same way, the sensitivities of religious elements should also be considered by the developer.
In each community, there is sure to be some who are still xenophobic. They should not be punished. The road to neutralisation is through dialogue and rationalising education, whether formal or not.
As for the federal, state and local governments, the freedom that should be given must be balanced with the right responsibilities.
The suggested approach is to initiate dialogue to get an explanation from the developers as well as to propose the best ways to take into consideration all the relevant sensitivities. Perhaps this approach is better than one based on compulsion and punishment.
At the same time, in the long term, the Education Ministry should also engender a curriculum that better reflects the diversity that exists in Malaysia. The subject of comparative religion should be expanded to school level, in order to cultivate respect and appreciation towards other cultures.
This will create a compassionate society that celebrates diversity, and also appreciate the boundaries of religious sensitivities.
Education to counter xenophobia and education to develop religious and cultural sensitivities must be pursued in tandem. If we do so successfully, Malaysia can grow to become an exemplary nation for multicultural societies around the world.
* Hilman Fikri Azman is currently a Research Assistant at Emir Research. He is a graduate of International Islamic University Malaysia in the field of Theology and Comparative Religion.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.