OCT 21 — When a Malay wedding is over in some kampungs in Malacca, the custom is to welcome the groom into the family by placing charcoal on his face, thereby marking the conclusion of the groom’s journey. He is now part of the family and no more boundaries exists between the groom and the family.
So, it was interesting to see the reverse in action in a city like Shah Alam where, with one simple act in response to the proposal to relocate a Hindu temple, members of an entire community were made to feel unwelcome.
In place of the charcoal, there was a cow’s head and in place of an act to mark the removal of boundaries was another act that created boundaries instead of removing it.
Apparently the residents of Section 23 were unhappy and their unhappiness stemmed from a number of things, such as:
- the relocation would create traffic congestion as there was only one major exit from the neighbourhood to the highway;
- the temple was not in the plans when some of the residents bought their houses; the temple was being relocated to a predominantly Malay Muslim area;
- a protest memorandum had been sent to the Wakil Rakyat for the area pointing out that the temple would be 160m from the houses, 50m from a playground and 150m from Surau Al-Jannah coupled with a request for a public hearing but the same was turned down on the basis that the area was industrial land.
In other words, the impression given was that non-Muslim religious structures should be placed a suitable distance away as somehow such structures could be spiritually subversive.
This could not be further away from the truth and one needs only to look at how things were before to ascertain this. Take a look at:
- Pitt Street in Penang which boasts of having a mosque (Masjid Kapitan Keling), a temple (Goddess of Mercy Temple) and a church (St. George’s Church) all on one street;
- Jalan Tukang Emas in Malacca which boasts of having a mosque (Masjid Kampung Keling) and a temple (Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple) all on one street with another temple (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple) a mere stone’s throw away.
For that matter, take a look at the Old City located in Jerusalem. The entire area is no bigger than 0.9 sq km. Yet, it houses a number of iconic religious structures for those who subscribe to Judaism (Temple Mount and the Western Wall), Islam (Masjid Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock) and Christianity (Church of the Holy Sepulchre).
Clearly, in the past, Muslims never took the view that there was anything spiritually subversive or abhorrent about non-Muslim religious structures being built in the vicinity of a mosque or a predominantly Muslim residential area. Not if we go by past evidence.
Today, it seems some Malaysian Muslims are suddenly uncomfortable with the idea of having non-Muslim structures close by. The incident in Section 23 Shah Alam was not an isolated event.
There was a prior incident which took place in 1998 in Kampung Rawa, Penang. There, the issue was about a temple built supposedly too close for the comfort of some Muslims.
Yet, even when the Kampung Rawa temple was moved to accommodate some of the objections, a couple of thousand Muslims from the mosque still decided to confront a few hundred Hindus at the temple. Apparently, the peals of temple bells were still considered disruptive to prayers being held in the mosque.
All of this supposed discomfort or issues are puzzling from a religious standpoint as it stands in stark contrast with the Quranic position on the issue.
The Quran affirms clearly that non-Muslims have the liberty of conscience. [Two verses in particular come to mind: If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed, — all who are on earth! wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe! (10: 99) and Let there be no compulsion in religion. (2: 256)]
However, it pays to keep in mind that liberty of conscience is interlinked with the liberty to practise whatever is permissible within the chosen religion. This without a doubt includes the right to go to temple or church.
So can any Muslim worth his salt truly deny a non-Muslim from going to his temple or her church?
Of course, some might say in response: “None of the residents are actually disputing the right of Hindus to practice their faith. The real dispute is whether Hindus should be able to practise their faith in a temple located within a Muslim majority area.”
The problem is one can’t quite look at the issue as if it was a numbers game. After all, Malaysia is a Muslim majority country and if we accept the “numbers” argument as a valid premise to determine location of temples, some Hindus might suddenly find themselves being “spiritually displaced” with temples being located far from a Hindu’s place of residence. Surely, this can’t be appropriate.
That said, it must also be pointed out that it is not as if there is an absolute absence of reason in the protestors’ actions. Some of the grouses such as the one about traffic congestion are legitimate complaints from a planning law perspective and as such, need to be dealt with by the authorities appropriately.
However, the real quarrel is not so much against anyone pursuing whatever legal rights they believe they are entitled to but more against the head of a cow, an animal considered sacred to Hindus, being used during the course of the protests. More so when the protests were over the relocation of a building meant to cater to the needs of the Hindu faithful and when it is kept in mind that resolving a planning dispute normally requires things other than a cow’s head.
Whatever the case, it is likely that Malaysian Hindus are in a state of unease. The fates of their temples appear uncertain under both Barisan Nasional (think Kampung Rawa) and Pakatan Rakyat (think Section 23).
Clearly the authorities need to reconsider their approach and engage the relevant stakeholders BEFORE emotions come to a boil. Much like the Malay proverb: ibarat menarik rambut dari dalam tepung, rambut seharusnya tidak putus dan tepung tidak berselerak.
Where religion is concerned, diplomacy and cautiousness certainly seem warranted.
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