30 January 2015

The idea is that young children will become used to diversity naturally and hopefully grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

FOR three consecutive years I’ve been invited to speak to a group of Norwegian students visiting Malaysia about the work that my colleagues and I do on Muslim women’s rights.

These students are learning about different faiths in order to be better able to teach comparative religion back home in Norway.

Instead of merely learning about all these religions in theory, every year, their university organises a trip for them to visit various South-East Asian countries to observe first-hand how these religions are lived and practised.

In Norway, every child learns about comparative religion from the age of six with the idea that they will grow up understanding the diversity of faiths and beliefs in their society and the world today, and respecting all the faiths equally.

The books they use are vetted and approved by the respective religious authorities, so, for example, the Norwegian Islamic authorities approve the books on Islam.

The students who came to listen to me will eventually become the teachers of those Norwegian school kids.

Lest anyone think they only get to listen to “liberals” like me, they also meet and talk to all sorts of people with knowledge on the religious landscape in our country, including in our universities.

This is to ensure that they get a balanced picture of things in Malaysia.

I was really impressed by this approach by the Norwegian government to address potential issues in a rapidly diversifying society.

Obviously, one of the ways to avoid conflict in society is by ensuring that everybody understands each other.

Including comparative religion in their school curriculum from the earliest years means that young children will become used to religious and cultural diversity naturally and hopefully will grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

In a study comparing the English and Norwegian comparative religious curriculums and how schoolchildren reacted to them, most of the students viewed the classes positively, with one student saying, “It is important to understand religions in order to understand humans, sort of improving our social intelligence a little.”

It is interesting that Norway, with a population of under six million people, 82% of whom are Lutheran Christian, is so concerned about the possible conflict that ethnic and religious diversity might cause that from 1997 the country decided to educate people on other religions.

Undoubtedly, the concern was well-founded when in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-confessed fascist and hater of multi-culturalism, murdered 77 people, blaming Norway for allowing immigrants into the country.

Norway, too, is home to many right-wing groups claiming white supremacy and that Muslims are taking over Norway, despite being all of 3.6% of the population.

Perhaps it is in the nature of supremacist groups everywhere to make up stories about threats to their people without the need for supporting evidence.

Still, the policy of educating children about religions other than their own is a step in the right direction.

And bringing students to countries where those other religions are the faith of the majority helps to humanise those faiths, and prevents the stereotyping that extremists like to do.

It’s too bad that if anyone were to raise the issue of including comparative religion lessons in our schools, our own religious supremacists would undoubtedly go ballistic, claiming that this was a plot by a Muslim-majority government to Christianise their people, as ironic as that may sound.

Obviously, supremacists all work from the same manual.

There is no evidence that learning about different religions in school, with each (including atheism by the way) given equal weight, has led to the conversions of anyone to another religion.

It does, however, based on my experience with these Norwegian students, lead to far more intelligent questions than from those of my own faith.

Meanwhile, few people here in Malaysia are coming up with any bright ideas on how to reduce the polarisation that everyone acknowledges is a growing problem in our society.

The best that anyone can come up with is putting everyone in the same school, which would be a good solution if the standard of education in those schools was higher (as measured globally) and if everyone was taught to respect differences.

But the way they are now, even many Muslims do not want to send their children there if they can afford it.

Our children live in a multi-religious society where they won’t be able to avoid noticing that different people worship differently.

If they ask questions of adults around them, do we take our inability to answer as a personal affront or as an opportunity to learn?

The former is the arrogant way while the latter is more humble.

Which should we choose if we genuinely want peace and harmony?


15 January 2015

While some claim freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, others claim such freedom of speech led to the violence in Paris.

JUST when we thought the year might get off to a good start, Paris happened. In three days, 20 people were killed; 12 in the original attack, five hostages in two related incidents and three of the assailants. By any measure this was a terrible tragedy, causing pain and suffering to all the families of the dead and injured.

Sadly, it will also cause lasting pain to the French Muslim community, in particular, and all Muslims elsewhere, in general, because once again, the entire community has been linked unjustly with extremism and violence.

Debates now rage about the value of freedom of speech. Some people say that in any democratic society we must have freedom of speech including the freedom to offend. Others say that it is that very freedom of speech that has led to this violence.

Like most things in life, the answer probably lies in between. Some commentators have pointed out that while satire is certainly part and parcel of a democratic society, it is usually aimed at the powerful as a way of pointing out their foibles and abuses. True satire that aims to bring justice in society never targets the weak and marginalised, voiceless people who look to others to bring their problems to society’s attention. As one tweet brilliantly put it, “I think satire should be a punch aimed up at the powerful, not a blow rained down on the weak.” I wonder sometimes what would happen if some of our rabid supremacists decided to launch a satirical magazine to draw cartoons of minorities in this country.

On the other hand, there are comments from some people that events like Charlie Hebdo “prove” that we need the Sedition Act. This is simply another way of saying that those journalists deserve to be killed because they were asking for it. If France had had a Sedition Act, they reason, then the magazine would have been stopped much earlier from drawing those cartoons, and the French Muslims would have been happy, despite being marginalised, suffering from poverty, unemployment and all the other things that generally breed disgruntlement. We seem to have a propensity to blame the victims for their troubles, much like we blame women who get raped for the way they dress or for being out at night.

I’m not sure how the Sedition Act that targets people talking and writing about local issues is going to stop Malaysians from going to join the Islamic State, arguably the most serious danger we now face.

Perhaps some people did not notice that the first policeman who was killed, brutally shot in the head as he lay wounded, was a Muslim called Ahmed Merabet. In a moving tribute to his dead brother, Malek Merabet said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims…Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

More than anything, Ahmed Merabet underscored what this was really about. That this was a killing of French people by French people, not of non-Muslims by Muslims. Just as, at one time, Northern Irish people killed other Northern Irish people. Undoubtedly one set of people felt disgruntled by treatment from the other and a small number decided that violence was to be their response. To then tar an entire community, as if every single member is a likely killer, is surely compounding the injustice.

Framing this tragedy entirely in Muslim/non-Muslim terms is of no use when life is much more complicated than that. Not only was one of the murdered policemen Muslim, so was one of the employees of the Jewish grocery where two gunmen held hostages. Lassan Bathily was hailed a hero for saving the lives of several hostages by hiding them in a freezer room. Malek Merabet made the same point: “I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites. One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither colour or religion,”

Which is a really pertinent point. Only mad people think that the way to solve problems is to gun down a bunch of cartoonists. On the other hand, it is also not reasonable to clamp down on people who are already downtrodden, or who already have no outlet to air their grouses and not expect some form of reaction. We should perhaps be thankful that in our country this reaction only comes in the form of peaceful demonstrations, articles and Facebook comments.

The real lesson to be learnt from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that inequality has consequences. But that may be lost on some people.

02 January 2015

I WAS afraid that this first column of the year would be a depressing and doleful one. 2014 had been remarkable for its sheer awfulness, with not one but three plane accidents in the region, the worst floods in our history and any amount of angst among our people due to the words and actions of various groups. Would 2015 be better or worse?

But for every action, there is a reaction and happily these reactions have also been unexpected and gratifying.

In January, when a church was a possible target of violence, a group of people turned up to give out flowers to churchgoers and did much to ease the tension of that day. That was the birth of a group called Malaysians for Malaysia (M4M) that set out to promote unity and harmony among their fellow citizens.

M4M then went on to organise the Walks in the Park in several cities that gave Malaysians the opportunity to simply gather and do things together.

When MH370 and MH17 happened, M4M was on hand to unite Malaysians with the Walls of Hope that allowed thousands of Malaysians and others to pour out their grief and hopes for the safety of the passengers of the former and prayers for the souls of the passengers of the latter.

M4M is certainly not the only group that sprang up to bring Malaysians together, not just in grief, but also in volunteerism.

When there was a threat to shut down soup kitchens, KLites banded together to keep them going and even started new ventures to support the existing ones.

Various individuals and groups have formed to do all sorts of charity work to help the poor, the marginalised, disabled and even animals. Civil society has stepped up and is going from strength to strength, a healthy sign.

Then when the worst floods ever in our history turned several states into exact replicas of countries far less developed than us, with people stranded and starving, Malaysians truly showed how generous and kind they can be.

Collection centres for relief goods were set up in various neighbourhoods and when the calls for volunteers spread through social media, dozens showed up.

I visited one and was truly moved and heartened by not only the number of people lending their time and energy to the effort to pack and send off the goods but how diverse they were.

They were young, old, male, female and represented every ethnic group including expats. And they worked side by side and took instructions from supervisors cheerily. There are even people who have organised convoys of cars and trucks to try and reach the stranded folks on the east coast with tonnes of food and other essentials.

Nobody told them to do it, nobody ever paid them to do it. They just did it because their fellow citizens were suffering and this was the right thing to do.

You have to wonder where those self-proclaimed champions of race and religion are in these times and what they would say about these multiracial, multireligious efforts to send aid to flood victims.

Indeed one of the happiest things that has happened in 2014 is the emergence of voices calling for more common sense in the way we discuss things in our country. The Group of 25 has been a pleasant surprise and has inspired more people to speak out against extremists and racists.

Young people especially have welcomed this new development, having previously despaired of a positive future in this country.

They have responded by organising petitions and writing articles of support for the G25, most notably by a multiracial group of 33 prominent citizens and a group of young Islamic Studies graduates from Middle Eastern universities.

These developments have really brought hope to many concerned Malaysians.

So perhaps when you look at it from this perspective, things were not so bad after all in 2014, despite the major tragedies.

While we mourn those we lost, and sympathise with those who are suffering in the floods right now, we can also rejoice in the fact that 2014 was really the year that The Malaysian Citizen showed that their natural kindness and generosity enabled them to respond much faster and more efficiently than any politician can.

This is truly community leadership at its best.

For 2015, perhaps we can put our hopes in The Malaysian Citizen and therefore be more optimistic about the coming year.

Their sense of unity that arises out of a sense of fairness is fully developed.

What The Malaysian Citizen has shown is that there is no law needed to foster unity. They will unite naturally against suffering and injustice.

The only proviso is obvious: keep the politicians out of it.

22 December 2014

Trying to determine if a TV programme is threatening to one’s faith can be a real challenge.

YOU can read very interesting things in the news these days, some of which can be rather puzzling. At a conference on entertainment and Islam recently, a paper presenter said that many people have asked him how to tell if a TV programme is threatening or not to their faith.

I really had to wonder who these people were and why this was such a problem. Most people can tell within five minutes of watching a programme whether it’s any good or not.

Perhaps it is harder to tell if an interesting programme, say about the mating habits of bees, will shake your faith but what most sensible people do is to see if it makes them feel uncomfortable or not.

If it does, then their faith is probably shaky. And the most obvious thing to do is naturally to switch it off.

I don’t particularly like scary horror type programmes not because I think they would shake my faith but because I don’t find them enjoyable. So I switch channels to something more innocuous like Downton Abbey.

Apparently in Victorian times, nobody ever does any public displays of affection so I reckon that’s pretty safe for anyone.

But the paper presenter actually spent a lot of time thinking about these questions from people presumably without on/off buttons on their TVs nor channel-changing remote controls. So he then proposed that all TV programmes should carry halal and haram certificates.

OK, all those who volunteer to certify the haram programmes, please put up your hands!

What would probably happen is that 90% of the programmes will wind up in one way or another with a haram certificate while the rest would be deemed kosher.

That is probably because the criteria for halalness is going to be very strict and long. How long should the tudung be? How tight can her sleeves be? How many sequins is too much? Is that a hipster or a halal beard? These are all questions to be decided by arguably the least hip people in the country.

But the scenario that plays in my mind is this.

Here is a Muslim household where the head of the family, a man of course, is sitting in front of the TV feeling somewhat guilty about the choice of channels he has before him.

He thinks he should just watch the religious programmes but really he would rather watch the hot Indonesian or Latin American actresses on all those never-ending soap operas. But no matter what he does he keeps being tempted to switch back to those channels.

He sits there chained to his armchair unable to move from in front of the TV, hapless at all the choice in front of him. During the Olympics the problem is worst. There’s women’s beach volleyball, women’s swimming, women’s gymnastics. What threats to his faith!

Of course women are not so threatened by this terrible dilemma because they are busy cooking, cleaning, helping the kids do their homework that they simply have no time to watch the TV.

Besides they’ve already been warned that during the World Cup they are not to watch any matches because the sight of those nice athletic long legs might do something bad to their insides.

Still, wives have been blamed too for not switching the channels for their husbands from women in swimsuits to women in hijab.

But the men, seated with their t-shirts pulled tight over their big nasi-lemak-filled bellies, are at real risk. They are helpless.

They cannot get out of their seats and go do something else, like go for a walk, play with their kids, help their wives with the washing up. They are stuck and therefore their faith is endangered. Hence, the need to have a whole conference to discuss this.

Meanwhile there is a huge financial scandal that is threatening to turn the entire population into paupers, climate change is causing floods, mudslides and turning people out of their homes by the dozens, there are hungry and homeless people in our streets, more and more poverty in our faces today. And the siege in Sydney means yet again Muslims are going to be stereotyped as terrorists.

But none of these are as important as which TV programmes will get us to heaven and which will not. And whose fault it is really for producing programmes which put us on the fast-track to hell.

I’m going to spend my time either reading, watching good dramas on TV and going out to visit friends for Christmas. In fact the only thing worth watching is actually my waistline.

Meanwhile may I wish everyone Merry Christmas and a new year that is more hopeful, joyful and peaceful than 2014 was!


04 December 2014


I AM often asked if there will ever be a woman Prime Minister in this country. My answer to that is always no. The current system is stacked against women, regardless of whichever party they might be in. It is difficult for women to become Prime Minister on their own merit.

But it is interesting to me that people, many of them men, should keep asking me this. I think it is because people are so tired of the lack of talented leaders in this country that they want a different type altogether. And it might as well be a woman.

We only have nominal leaders, not real ones. We have people who are put in positions of leadership whether they have the talent for it or not. And unfortunately, most of the time they are decidedly talentless.

For instance, true leaders would have some vision of where they want to take the country. But more importantly, they would be able to articulate that vision over and over again so that people know that they are consistent and committed to it.

Instead, not only do we not know what the vision of our leaders are but they remain completely inconsistent, chopping and changing as they please. This confuses people, and yet they have the gall to blame others for that confusion.

Real leaders step up to the plate when things go wrong. They have personal values and principles which drive them and they are not afraid to stand up for themselves.

Thus, if anyone says or does something which they find abhorrent, they will speak out, even when the offender might be someone on their side. To them, when something is wrong, it is wrong, regardless of who does it. It is not wrong only when people they don’t like do it, and right when people they like do it.

Sadly, what we often see are leaders without principles, ready to follow wherever the loudest voices are. They actually believe that loud is might and soft is meek, and therefore are ready to sacrifice the majority for the interests of a few. Over time their consciences become hardened until they sleep soundly at night despite the many wrongs they are committing daily.

A true leader speaks no words but his own, because those are the only ones that are authentic to him. He will not speak the words of others, especially without vetting them first. He has no need for disturbing visuals, as if he was speaking to a class of illiterate schoolchildren who would not understand a single word he said otherwise. He would be wise enough to know that to manipulate people’s emotions through images is the lowest trick in the book.

No leader worth his salt believes his own public relations or basks in false glory, boosted by artificial means.

A leader needs to be clear-eyed about his own popularity, and to be humble about it. There is nothing more grotesque than a leader puffed up with pride and hot air.

Such a leader would get away with it if there were nothing to compare him with. Unfortunately within his neighbourhood he has counterparts far more visionary and certainly far more humble than he.

Unfortunately too, we live in an age where we can follow what other leaders do very closely. And then we find our own wanting.

Leadership by example is not a new concept. But what examples are our leaders setting? When they can be humble, they instead have hubris. When they can be kind, instead they are uncaring especially of the poor and marginalised. When they have the opportunity to do the right thing, they don’t. When they can be gracious, they are not.

Is it any wonder then that people learn from these examples to be arrogant, uncaring and even corrupt? When we look at the number of incidences of people being simply unkind to each other, sometimes violently, doesn’t it make us wonder why it is happening?

Could it be that unkindness is all that they see from our leaders and they therefore equate that with power over others? Rather like abused children who become abusers themselves, abused citizens are just as likely to do the same.

It is totally weird logic to say that violence in the form of draconian laws is the only way to ensure stability. This is a bit like saying that if we beat our children every day, they will become obedient. They may indeed cower in submission. But they will grow up twisted and unhappy.

Perhaps it is time we abandoned the colonial system of having our leaders chosen by only a few and chose them directly instead.