Restrictive guidelines for non-Muslim places of worship ridiculous

prayingBy Carol Ng

I’ve travelled to various parts of the world and wherever there are impressive places of worship, I try to make it a point to visit them.

For example, in November 2014, I visited the stunningly magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the largest mosque in the UAE.

More recently I got the chance to visit the Chengho mosque located in Palembang, Indonesia, which is much smaller but interesting because it is a mosque designed to look like a Chinese temple.

In August 2012, I visited Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, as well as various massive temples in Cambodia, while in September 2016, I got the chance to explore the Buddhist temple, Borobudur, as well as the Hindu temple compound of Prambanan in Indonesia.

In January 2016, I took a trip to Cebu and Bohol Island in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. I visited as many historical Catholic churches as I had time for, including the Basilica del Sanyo Nino, Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, and my personal favorite, Santo Niño de Anda Parish Church.

I took many photos and marvelled at the intricate architecture of all the sites I visited as I tried to imagine the amount of time and effort put into creating these sites and monuments of worship.

My travels to various countries and worship sites has increased my appreciation for different cultures. However, I myself do not follow any religion.

I have a Christian background, having grown up Catholic, diverting then to a Baptist church, eventually deciding (for personal reasons) that religion was not for me, although I still am open to the existence of God. Hence I have been happily agnostic for at least 5 years now.

Recently, some interesting recommendations in the third Selangor Manual Guideline and Selangor State Planning Standard came to light. The recommendations include the following:

  1. New non-Muslim places of worship must not be built within 50 metres of a home owned by a Muslim;
  2. Planned non-Muslim places of worship in areas with a multi-racial community require the consent of residents within a 200-metre radius before it is built;
  3. New non-Muslim places of worship cannot be built in commercial areas; and
  4. New non-Muslim places of worship must be lower than the mosque nearest to it.

These restrictive guidelines on non-Muslim places of worship apparently managed to get into the approved manual (meant to be applied from Jan 1, 2017 onwards) due to an oversight by the Selangor State Executive Councillor Teng Chang Khim. He has since apologised for the oversight and pledged to review the manual.

I appreciate Teng’s admittance to the error and pledge to review the document, hence I do not see the need for him to voluntarily resign or even be pressured to do so.

There are far worse offences committed by politicians in this country, including corruption, for which the offenders should have resigned but have not done so.

Nevertheless, my contention is with whoever is the unknown person who came up with such recommendations in the first place. What is the justification for having such recommendations?

Since there is no ‘official’ justification, and probably never will be, allow me to break down the implied intentions of these recommendations and why such intentions are ridiculous and abhorrent.

1) New non-Muslim places of worship must not be built within 50 metres of a home owned by a Muslim.

Given past incidences such as outcries at a church putting up a cross on their building at a Muslim area, I suppose this is an effort to ‘protect’ Muslims from either the slightest twinge of desire for apostasy due to regular exposure to non-Muslim activities or the sight of non-Muslim religious symbols.

No doubt the few individuals who have participated in such outcries must have so weak a level of spirituality that the slightest form of exposure to other religions would sway their faith. This continued attempt to ‘protect’ Muslims from exposure to non-Muslim activities implies that the authorities have absolutely no trust in the level of Islamic education in Malaysia, that even after years of daily study, fellow Muslims can still be so easily swayed.

I believe the majority of Muslim Malays are more intelligent than that and I wonder why the authorities continue to treat them like fragile dandelions whose faith will crumble with one puff of breath.

If indeed the mere sight or sound of other religions is enough to make one want to convert, pray tell why is it the daily sounds of mosques all over the country have failed to sway me and other non-Muslims from converting to Islam?

Is the faith of non-Muslims, or even lack of spirituality of agnostics such as myself, stronger than the faith of Muslims?

2) Planned non-Muslim places of worship in areas with a multi-racial community requires the consent of residents within a 200-metre radius before it is built; and 3) New non-Muslim places of worship cannot be built in commercial areas.

If the intent is to reduce disruption to the lives of residents due to “noise” from the activities of such places of worship, as well as the traffic caused by worshippers in residential as well as commercial areas, then this would be a fair reason to impose this guideline… if they were being fairly implemented for all places of worship.

Which isn’t the case, as these rules do not apply to Muslim places of worship.

There is no logical reason why they shouldn’t, as it can’t be denied that congested parking on roads near mosques on Friday afternoons is common, while sounds, which some may interpret as noise, are a regular feature of all mosques and surau, every day, even in the wee hours of the morning.

Please do not misconstrue this. I am not complaining about the sounds. I fully respect the practice. I live in the heart of Shah Alam, where I regularly listen to the call to prayers from at least three different surrounding mosques without issue.

I am merely stating the fact that the Muslim call to prayer is much louder and more frequent that whatever sounds are produced from churches or temples.

Hence there is no reason why residents must give consent only for non-Muslim places of worship, which will in any case be fewer than Muslim places of worship, given that the Malays are in the majority.

What if a particular community is dominantly non-Muslim and yet their houses of worship are not approved because there is no consent from a few Muslims? How is this fair?

Allocation for houses of worship should instead be done fairly based on actual population demographics rather than flimsy human opinions.

4) New non-Muslim places of worship must be lower than the mosque nearest to it.

This one really amazes me. How does the height of a place of worship in comparison with another have any effect whatsoever on anyone’s ability to worship or their level of spirituality?

I have no issue with the construction of huge mosques. As I mentioned at the start, I greatly admire the architecture and work that goes into huge mosques such as Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

But while it is fine that such grandeur comes from the desire to honour the God you worship, this does not give anyone the right to simultaneously belittle or undermine the Gods or spiritual beliefs of others. This is exactly the implied message behind this ridiculous and insulting recommendation.

After almost 60 years of independence as a multicultural country, it is a big shame that there are people who are not only unable to encourage or appreciate the rich architecture of other cultures or religions, but can even resort to creating rules that undermine them.

As a non-religious person, the size and number of places of worship is of no benefit to me.

So why do I speak out?

I speak out because such rules are not only discriminatory, but they infringe on a basic human right, which is freedom of religion and the right to have adequate access to places of worship.

I speak out because I empathise with fellow Malaysians who are subjected to such rules although, if Malaysia aims for developed status, minority religions should be offered more protection, not less.

Such understanding of basic human rights and empathy should supposedly come naturally to followers of religions, as it is commonly purported that all religions teach their followers to be good.

Hence to the person or people who came up with these recommendations, please be ashamed of yourselves that it takes a supposedly less moral non-religious person to explain human rights and empathy to you.

Carol Ng is an FMT reader.

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