Create Space Where All Faiths Can Hold Open Discussions

Religion has become a non-issue for me over the years. I usually don’t take positions defending any specific ones or their adherents
However, recent events have piqued my interest in this matter with the now infamous incident of controversial Islamic preacher Muhammad Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu insulting Hinduism
This is unsurprising as the man has Zakir Naik as a mentor - the tiresome so-called scholar of "comparative religion" whose handling of other religions is laughably mediocre with the sole intention of making Islam seem superior
Zakir, the medical doctor, and his protégé are obviously interested in one thing only - proselytisation
Normally such matters of religion would not interest me; the usual understanding that everyone is free to choose whatever religion they want to follow is enough for me. However, I can’t help but feel there is some level of inequality here
In Malaysia, according to the Federal Constitution, Article 3 (1) states that, “Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation”
However, Article 11 (4) states that “state law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya, federal law, may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam”. From that, 10 out of 13 states in Malaysia have state-level enactments to control the propagation of non-Islamic religions to Muslims
For the Federal Territories, section 5 of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act, 1997 (Act 559) makes it an offence for any person to proselytise non-Islamic religion to a Muslim
The logic for this is usually that the religion of Islam is the religion of Malaysia and so occupies a higher stratum in society. Perhaps this is enough. However, I believe that the fact that Islam is the religion of Malaysia is not enough to justify this inequality
Giving the privilege to Islamic preachers and proselytisers to convert anyone not in their faith whilst taking away the same power from non-Islamic ones pushes other religions to be in such a vulnerable position that it is akin to oppression
In fact, the freedom with which Muslims may talk about the advantages of their religion compared to others may lead to casual situations which may cause mental stress to non-Muslims as the reverse is rather illegal
For example, most non-Muslims would have found themselves in a situation where a Muslim acquaintance will casually suggest to them to convert to Islam. Usually, the acquaintance would play on the non-Muslim exhibiting extraordinary knowledge of Islam, showing romantic interest in another Muslim individual or simply a personal gathering of friends usually in residential schools
The non-Muslims in this scenario would usually awkwardly smile and change the subject. This may be a minor matter but small incidents like this build up a lot of resentment within the non-Muslim community, which then manifests itself as a general annoyance towards Muslims. The scary thing is - I am not at all being Islamophobic - all of this is real. Can we imagine a situation where the reverse is possible? Say, if a Christian were to suggest to a Muslim to convert to Christianity. This would be illegal and prosecutable. We live in a country where putting the word "Allah" in the Holy Bible is disallowed even for communities that have been using the term to refer to their God (the god from the Bible) for as long as they can remember
However, when it is Zakir or Zamri Vinoth doing the proselytising, this is deemed kosher. Why this privilege is acceptable is beyond me. Surely, if there is such a thing as fairness amongst religions, either all proselytising would be allowed or none would. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that dakwah (specifically Islamic preaching or proselytising) is an important part of the Islamic faith. Zakir’s handling of other religions is often egregious. His modus operandi is to memorise religious texts to quote in his speeches that give him an air of authority when presenting his arguments or analysis on them
However, he usually takes them out of context and reinterprets them to suit his own narrative. There are speeches he has given where actual practitioners of other faiths present counter-arguments that are dismissed by Zakir with no rebuttals except that he knows more. Zakir is supremely confident that his congregation will never fault him
The Zamri Vinoth video shows what can happen when out-of-context plucking of religious facts are made. For instance, he states that there are 330 million gods in Hinduism in a derisive manner.What Zamri Vinoth fails to understand is that a cursory reading of Hinduism would reveal in what context the 330 million gods was put in. They are the manifestations of the Ultimate Reality called Brahman. Hinduism can even be said to be monotheistic (although even this is not very accurate as Hinduism allows for various interpretations of theism, and even some atheistic elements as well)
The congregation cannot see these nuances because they have accepted the speaker as an expert in the matter (Zamri Vinoth is a recent convert from Hinduism into Islam whereas Zakir exudes expertise through his impressive memory)
Then again, this isn’t much different from certain non-Muslims. There are ignorance and suspicions enough to go around, especially when it comes to conversion when it comes to marriage
Whatever of this that we see with Muslims is reflected on the non-Muslim side, make no mistake
However, whereas non-Muslims are barred from talking so openly about their skewed views on Islam, Muslims are not. They are presented with arguments against other faiths with the security that their religion is untouchable. Psychologically, this elevation creates a sense of privilege where one’s conviction in their religion is cemented to such a point that the supposed silliness of other religions is a matter of fact
What we really need within our society is a proper understanding of beliefs. It’s not my business to instruct anyone on how to form beliefs, but I feel there is a real inequality between how Islam is differentiated from other religions. There is some hope when most Facebook comments on Zamri Vinoth’s video from Muslims were disapproving of his behaviour. It is heartening to see that ordinary Malaysians are willing to call out his hypocrisy
The inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims in terms of how their religions are treated needs to be addressed. We need to create a space where open discussion between faiths can happen without anyone trying to capitalise to pull more supporters towards them
If we are being honest, the way the state propagates this has to change as well. Perhaps all proselytisation needs to be banned. Perhaps none should. Perhaps there is a third alternative. I don’t know
What I do know is, as of now, what we have is rhetoric-filled Muslims with the sole intention of converting non-Muslims without much intellectual honesty. This is not to say that non-Muslims would be any better if they were allowed to proselytise Muslims as similar ignorance can be seen in attempts to convert other non-Muslims from one faith into another
However, with state power backing Muslim proselytisation, I believe we need to take a step back and address the inequality for the sake of preserving unity between religions in Malaysia
The writer, Arveent Kathirtchelvan is chief coordinator at Liberasi, an organisation committed to revising outdated perceptions on certain social issues. - Mkini

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