It’s not Islam that non-Muslims distrust

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To some extent, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi is right to be saddened by the heated public discourse over the governmnent’s attempts to improve the legal system to uphold Islam. “We are very sad if there are those who question these efforts and those persons or groups are not of the same faith as us. We do not intend to touch on other religions,” he said in a recent speech.

Certainly, we have not had a proper civilized discourse over many issues, and that can cause misunderstandings or create a tendency in some people to jump to consclusions. These misunderstandings grate upon the foundations of our society, creating a background hum of discontent and frustration, and that in turn can lead lead to unnecessary confrontation.

However, Zahid, in framing himself and his co-religionists as the victims of non-Muslim misundertanding, forgets that the blame for the lack of understanding and, or couse, the lack of proper discourse, utimately lies upon the government.

Last November, he made the same plaintive cry, lamenting that RUU355 was misunderstood and promising that it would not touch upon the interests of non-Muslims. Yet, the revisions PAS is seeking are not limited to increasing the severity of punishments. What the bill is truly seeking is the empowerment of Islamic courts to order any punishment provided under shariah laws, except the death penalty.

The problem is that our society is not one that is disparate. Like it or not, what concerns one community is of concern to the others as there will be a ripple effect, regardless of whether the initial impetus was specific to one religion or not. An empowered shariah court could still touch upon the lives of non-Muslims because we interact with our Muslim brethren. We are not a segregated society in which what effects one community will stay insulated.

There’s also the question of trust. Our politicians act as if being elected gives them an automatic mandate, but the truth is the relationship between the public and power is much more complex. Like it or not, changes to religious law are of concern to all Malaysians, and whether warranted or not, we have become a people sceptical of the powers that be. We will always second guess the actions of the government, which we watch through our specific cultural lens.

Indeed, we don’t trust the government to do right by us. But who would be surprised? After all, four people have disappeared, including a Christian pastor, and yet all we hear seems like hemming and hawing when the situation deserves serious attention.

Yes, Zahid is right in saying that some of the criticism against RUU355 is unwarranted and maybe even paranoid. But the question that really begs an answer is, “Has the government done anything to prove to the non-Muslims they can trust it with such an important move?”

Scott Ng is an FMT columnist.

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