31 August 2013

The voiceless and powerless are further discriminated by divisive issues.

SOMETIMES we need to look at our country from a long distance to truly see it as it is.

I have been travelling for the past two weeks and while it is nice to totally switch off news from home, occasionally I can’t help it.

Predictably enough there is hardly ever any news that makes me homesick.

Instead, there is only news that makes me sick at heart.

The whole resort surau (place of worship) issue blew up right after I left and honestly reading about it from afar makes me want to shake my head at the ridiculous lengths our politicians will go to supposedly garner popularity.

I won’t repeat the numerous sensible arguments so many have put forward against taking punitive action against the resort manager for what is at worst a naive mistake.

When people have apologised, magnanimity requires that we accept it. Not accepting apologies reeks of arrogance. After all, even God accepts those who repent.

In fact, the one striking thing about the recent many occurrences of the ease of offendedness was not only the sudden thin-skinnedness of politicians and religio-politicians but also the audience for this.

When it comes to religion, we are always exhorted to do everything for God.

Even given that some people actually think getting offended is a good thing, I have to ask: are we doing this for God or simply for other human beings, especially those whose votes we need in the coming elections?

If it is the latter, then we are already wrong. If it is the former, then why would Almighty God not only choose to speak through the Home Minister but choose the taking away of permanent residency as His chosen form of punishment?

Nor is the destruction of places of worship something that is sanctioned by the God some of us purport to represent.

As many have pointed out, places of worship often go through various incarnations.

The Kaaba itself was once a temple of idolatory until Prophet Muhammad cleansed it of its idols. Today, it is Islam’s holiest site. If the Kaaba can be so easily converted as a holy place from one faith to another, what more a humble resort surau?

Honestly, from afar, our politicians and their band of followers simply look stupid.

There are far more important things to worry about than whether rooms can be used for one faith or another, or who one calls God or whether everyone fits into one uniform faith box or not.

All over the world people are dying from hunger and war. How does the destruction of one surau help them?

In Britain, everywhere I go, I see posters gently requesting people to donate to causes in developing countries, to help people have clean water, simple medical treatment or for children to go to school.

The football association has just started a campaign for tougher penalties against racism, sexism and homophobia.

These are all positive things to do because those who are voiceless and powerless will feel more protected.

In contrast, in our country, every day we only see more calls for the voiceless and the powerless to be even more marginalised and discriminated against.

And the worst thing is, not only do we think this the right and – gallingly – the religious thing to do, but we are actually proud of it.

If we only read our religious books, then we would know that we should actually be ashamed.

17 August 2013

FIRST of all, let me wish everyone a Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, maaf zahir batin.

This year, the idea of forgiveness seems more poignant than ever, given the rancorous Ramadan we just had.
I don’t recall a month more full of anger and tension than this year’s fasting month, ironic given that it is a month when believers are supposed to exercise restraint not only from food but also in thought, word and deed.
But the beginning of the month of Shawal gives us an opportunity to press the reset button.
We ask for forgiveness from our parents, family and friends for whatever wrongs big or small we may have done them in the past year including harsh words and rash deeds, and we forgive those who may have wronged us as well.
I was quite touched reading on Facebook the many status updates asking for forgiveness at Hari Raya by and from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Malaysians seem to understand the spirit of the Raya season very well, regardless of their religion.
In fact in spite of the many upsetting events during Ramadan, there was still much that we can celebrate as Malaysians.
One was the #Fast4Malaysia event organised by some friends of mine and I to foster unity through a common experience, fasting. On that one day, July 31, non-Muslim Malaysians all over the country and even overseas fasted in solidarity with Muslims to understand what it feels like to not have any food or water from dawn to dusk.
About 60 of us woke up at 4.30am to gather at a 24-hour eatery in Bangsar to havesahur, the pre-fast meal. Many of us knew one another but it was heartening to see people we didn’t know join in.
One young Chinese man came alone and was immediately invited by a young Malay family to sit with them. Another young woman drove all the way from Shah Alam to join in. Two Indian women happened to walk in the same restaurant without knowing what was happening but decided to join in when they learnt why we were there.
There was a sense of camaraderie among us that was truly unifying.
Some first-timers were nervous about how they would cope but everyone else assured them it would be fine. All day on social media like Twitter, people encouraged each other.
Many young Muslims were thril­led and fascinated that their non-Muslim friends were joining them in the fast that day and gave many tips on how to manage the hunger.
Non-Muslims chatted all day about their experience. They uploaded photos of what they ate at sahur and then later on photos of themselves breaking the fast with family and friends.
Some people organised special buka puasa gatherings at home, in their offices and restaurants.
Many blogged about their experience which was overwhelmingly positive. One teacher was at first greeted with incredulity by her fasting students which then became respect that she was joining them for the day. There were even some who continued to fast even after July 31 because they enjoyed the experience.
Even overseas Malaysians joined in. New Zealand was the first to sahur and break fast while Norway was the last. Thus, we were connected through this experience not only with our immediate friends and family, but also with those overseas – Malaysians linking hands around the world.
It’s a pity that such a unifying event got so little coverage from the mainstream media and no mention at all from our leaders except for a few young Opposition politicians.
Perhaps they should look up the #Fast4Malaysia Tumblr site to see how civil society can unite Malaysians in the sort of organic way that politicians cannot. There were no financial inducements, no sponsorship, no T-shirts involved.
People went Dutch at sahur and buka puasa although some generous people hosted meals in their homes for their friends. Many made new friends along the way.
The main outcome was something no politician nor even religious leader could have engendered, mutual respect. Non-Muslim Malaysians, having fasted themselves, renewed their respect for their Muslim fellow citizens who do this for a whole month each year.
Muslim Malaysians, in return, gained a new respect for their non-Muslim compatriots for attempting something which they had no obligation to perform. Both sides experienced something very precious for one another, empathy.
Of course, as is typical, there were detractors and cynics.
Some questioned why fasting should be the experience we used, seeing it as an attempt to impose one religion’s obligation over non-adherents.
This was an ironic question given that the organisers came from all faiths. But we simply took the opportunity of Ramadan to respond to the many upsetting events during the month. If anyone has other creative ideas that can also unify people in the same way, then they should also do it. God knows we need many of these.
Many asked if we would do this again next year and every year. The answer is we don’t know. This was an attempt at uniting Malaysians at a time when there was much that was (and still is) divisive.
We hope that there will be no more need for it in the future. But if there is, then we might. Or we might think of something else we can do that can bring us all together.
Ultimately it is a citizen initiative to bring peace at a time when our leaders fail us. And the more they fail us, the more ordinary Malaysian citizens need to find creative ways to keep us together.

10 August 2013

We have to stop falling for ploys that divide us and resist by coming closer together to be more united.

FROM age three until I was 15, I went to a Convent school in my hometown, Alor Setar.
There, both nuns and lay teachers taught me and the few other Muslim girls in the school, perhaps four or five in each class.
As far as I know, every single one of them has remained Muslim to this day.
Our school building had a large cross on the roof and photos of Jesus on the walls.
At school assembly, we listened quietly as other students sang the Lord’s Prayer.
The nuns were covered head to toe in white and we liked some and feared others because of their strictness in class.
But mostly, we were used to them and didn’t have much curiosity about their lives.
We did not, however, grow up totally devoid of our own religion.
We had compulsory Ugama classes and on Saturdays, we had Quran-reading classes.
This was in addition to whatever classes our parents might arrange for us at home.
Nobody ever accused us of being less than regular Muslims, with less religious education than those who went to other schools.
And we got on with everyone.
If I went to a birthday party at a non-Muslim friend’s home, they made sure the food was halal.
During Ramadan, we still went to the canteen but simply did not eat.
None of us looked in envy – or resentment – at our friends eating. For that month, that was just the way things were.
I don’t remember that we had to be protected from the sight or smell of food.
Our parents had taught us that what fortified us on those hot days was our faith and our niat or intention in fasting.
Nor do I remember any of our friends trying to tempt us into breaking our fast by dangling food in front of us.
I wish I could recall what we did on the days when we couldn’t fast.
Did we simply go to the canteen and eat?
Could it be that in the years since I was a child, despite being subjected to more religious education, our faith is on more shaky ground than before?
That it needs to be protected by indestructible walls built by the state because none of us can be trusted to believe on our own?
Today, everything is apparently a threat to our faith, from yoga, dressing in non-gender-specific ways to seeing people eat when we can’t.
Nobody has any faith in faith any more.
Fasting, for example, is hard only for the first few days.
After the body, and more importantly, the mind, adjusts, life goes on as normal.
There is no necessity to constantly guard against temptation unless we want to imply that we are weak creatures and it won’t take much to make us fall off the wagon, so to speak.
There is, therefore, no need for the astonishing amount of grumpiness from all sides this Ramadan.
Instead, we should be endeavouring to make things light and easy for everyone, do charitable work and bring people together.
Yet, we see the opposite happening, whipped up by some of our leaders, including religious ones who really should know better.
I think it is time we built a resistance to the false causes that our leaders sometimes impose on us.
On a day-to-day basis, we all get along, just as we did in my childhood.
Yet, things have also changed a lot, and it is understandable that many of us get frustrated and furious with it.
But as that old adage goes, “don’t get mad, get even”.
We should get even by resisting being manipulated into the fears that our leaders want us to feel.
We should refuse to fall for any of the games that they play, which result mostly in making us feel more angry and fearful.
We have to stop falling for ploys that divide us and resist by coming closer together to be more united.
There are plenty of ways in coming together if only we thought more creatively.
This week, many of us Malaysians of every race and religion got together to spend one day of fasting together.
Muslims who are fasting anyway reached out to their non-Muslim friends to share in either having the pre-fast meal or in the breaking of the fast together.
Non-Muslims joined in fasting to experience what it feels like to not have any food or water from sun-up to sundown.
It is when we share an experience together that we are brought closer together.
Today there are so many ways in which we are far apart, that we don’t understand one another any more.
We need to take action to change that. We need to resist.