Religion in politics can be hopeful

malaysia religion

By Joshua Woo Sze Zeng

One distinctive feature about Malaysia is that religion is part of our politics. Ours is not like other countries where religion has little to no influence in politics. For this reason, religion is constantly being politicised.

Although Islam is the “religion of the Federation”, its politicisation has inevitably implicated other religions or non-religiosity in politics. The most recent example is the scapegoating of Christian evangelicalism as the political force behind the opposition political front.

Such intertwining of religion and politics has drawn various responses from the Malaysian public. Some desire to disentangle religion from politics. But given the reality of the country, this is rather too unimaginable.

If history has a discernible pattern, the disentanglement of religion from politics was only gradually achieved through long years of violent wars that had exhausted all parties of resources and human lives, like what happened in Europe’s Thirty Years War.

Then, after a period of hibernation, religion returned and took its place in the political arena again, as what is happening in the de-secularisation discourse in countries like Turkey and China today.

If religion and politics naturally attract each other, then perhaps it is only right for us to take this attraction into serious consideration in our nation-building effort.

So, how to do that given the mess and tension created by ill-willed political actors in the country for so many years?

There are at least two areas where constructive work can be done – inter-faith and intra-faith relations.

One of the causes of suspicion among various religious communities is the lack of honest face-to-face talk about religious teaching and interfaith issues.

Such a lacking has severely weakened Malaysians’ capacity to deal constructively with differences among religions as well as among various subgroups within each religion. Religions are not only distinct from other religions but also diverse within themselves.

Take for instance Christianity. Roman Catholics have their different religious orders such as Jesuits and Dominicans, the Protestants with different denominations such as Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, and the Eastern Orthodox with different orientation such as Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy.

The same with other religions. Islam has its four major schools (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali), and the unique Sufism, not to mention Shia and Ibadi tradition. Buddhism has its Theravada, Mahayana, Japanese, and Thai version.

Each religion has its own way to include while simultaneously recognise differences within. This inclusivity should be creatively extended from each religion to other religions.

Honest face-to-face exchange is necessary to build mutual understanding and strengthen social cohesion. Otherwise, our multi-religious society becomes vulnerable to propaganda and political exploitation, and thus gives way to unnecessary tension and stigmatisation of those who are different from us.

Engagement, programme, and co-curriculum

We can grow up in this multi-religious society without actually learning about our neighbour’s religion. It is not in our culture, community engagement programme, nor education system to encourage such interaction.

Many do not see the value in this learning. However, a look at countries that are currently plagued by communal violence should tell us otherwise. No nation can thrive when it is preoccupied by communal strife.

The government’s passivity to facilitate mutual learning means that non-governmental-organisations and the religious community need to step in to fill the gap.

Besides organising grand dinners, there is a range of ground-up initiatives, such as visitations, forums, summer school, charity work and retreats that can be organised by NGOs and religious institutions.

Special emphasis should be given to educate the religious public on how their own religion can be a source of inspiration for them to contribute to the common good of the society.

As reported, Prime Minister Najib Razak himself “urges Malaysians to go back to their faiths to make Malaysia a greater nation.”

Instead of tearing down the nation, religions have the spiritual resources to build it based on the principle of justice, welfare, and liberty.

Hope and pray

Despite the level of intense politicisation of religion in our country, there is still much hope abound. The best of religions not only teaches us to do good but also to inspire hope.

Malaysians can look into our own respective religion to discover such hope. while those who do not adhere to any religion can likewise provide thoughtful values and inspiration. Every Malaysian, regardless of their belief, has a place in this country.

There is much to be done. While we are at it, let everyone from all religions constantly pray that Malaysia will be a place where Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics, and everyone else be able to learn, love, and live with each other without having our religion or religionlessness being exploited for political gain.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is a municipal councillor with the Seberang Prai municipal council (MPSP) and an alumni of Cambridge University’s Inter-Faith Programme.

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