Temple destruction a loss for Malaysian identity
by Dr Farish A Noor
The bottom line is that the Hindu temples of Malaysia are and have always been part of the Malaysian cultural landscape. Hinduism is one of the Malaysian faiths. It has been rooted in the culture of Southeast Asia for more than 2,000 years. If anything, its long historical embeddedness shows that it deserves more than a token mention in the history books.
Religion’s entry into politics often leads to its politicisation and loss of its core spiritual values. This is painfully obvious to the scholars who have watched the rise of political variants of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism the world over. This has led many an analyst to the somewhat depressing conclusion that despite its lofty ideals religion has yet to develop immunity to the temptation of power. Since every religion is understood and judged by the actions and behaviour of its adherents, it is clear that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists are often themselves the reason why these religions get such bad press these days.
Given the aggravated tensions, the contradiction becomes all the more blatant in the context of multi-confessional nations where the battle for hearts and minds often leads to a competition for converts. Being perhaps one of the most multicultural and multi-religious countries in the world today, Malaysia, is a good starting point. Since the advent of the ‘Islamisation race’ that took off in the 1970s, there has been a sustained campaign to win over more non-Muslims to Islam, and vice versa. Only recently it was revealed that in the northern state of Kelantan, ruled by the Malaysian opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the state government will offer cash and other rewards to Muslims who marry non-Muslim aborigines and convert them to Islam. One wonders where this will lead. Perhaps multiple conversions ‘bonuses’ for Muslim men who take several non-Muslim wives.
To complicate things, there is a simultaneous neglect of other faith communities and their places of worship and congregation. Over the past two decades a long list of complaints has been compiled by representatives of the Christian, Hindu and Buddhist communities: Permits for the construction of churches and temples have often been delayed, if not denied. On top of that there is the complaint that Hindu temples have been demolished, often on the pretext of ‘development’ but also because they were ‘too small’ for sizeable congregations or there were not enough Hindus living nearby to justify them. One wonders if the same line of argument would be used by the (mostly Muslim) officials in cases of isolated mosques not close to large Muslim settlements.
Malaysia’s Hindus are one of its many doubly disadvantaged communities. First, they belong to the Indian minority, marginalised for a long time on account of its so-called ‘immigrant status’. (This is discriminatory because most Malays also have ancestors who came from places in Indonesia or Thailand.) Second, many of them belong to the poorer section of the Indian community, having been brought to Malaysia during the British colonial era as plantation workers and labourers who helped build the railway system that today connects much of the country. It is sad that this community has been relegated to the margins and remains on the threshold of Malaysian citizenship and national identity. Hinduism is recognised as one of the faiths in Malaysia, yet the plight of so many Hindu temples goes unrecorded in the country’s media, save for a few independent newspapers like Malaysiakini.com.
Fortunately globalisation may stand in the way of the rampant destruction of Hindu places of worship. While such demolition may have gone unnoticed in the past, today the Malaysian Hindu community is wired up to the global Hindu Diaspora. Since the beginning of this year, representatives of various Malaysian Hindu organisations have started seeking help from Hindu communities overseas. The Internet and other tools of global communication have helped ensure that the destruction of temples does not go unnoticed. Thus far, the response has been impressive, with Hindu organisations in Europe and other parts of the world appealing to the Malaysian government and the prime minister to do something to stop the march of the bulldozers.
The onus for living up to its image and slogan as a country that is ‘truly Asia’ lies with Malaysia. Under the banner of ‘Islam Hadari’, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has projected a vision of Malaysia as the bastion of moderate progressive Islam. The emphasis of this school of Islamic norms and praxis has been on bringing to foreground the civilisational aspect of Islam as a way of life that is tolerant, plural, dynamic and sensitive to the needs of the times. Perhaps the time has come for the ideologues of the Malaysian state to put their words into practice and show just how tolerant and pluralist this vision of Islam is.
The bottom line is that the Hindu temples of Malaysia are and have always been part of the Malaysian cultural landscape. Hinduism is one of the Malaysian faiths. It has been rooted in the culture of Southeast Asia for more than 2,000 years. If anything, its long historical embeddedness shows that it deserves more than a token mention in the history books. Most importantly it has to be remembered that in the constitution of the Malaysian nation and its identity, Hinduism is not something ulterior, alien or foreign to the country. The Hindu temples of Malaysia are part of the things that make Malaysia what it is. For that reason Malaysians of all races and religions should decry the demolition of these buildings as destruction of their culture. Those temples are not from Mars or another world: they are Malaysian, down to their foundations.
Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin
Source: Daily Times