The cross-eyed people in our midst

It marks a challenging time for some Muslim groups when symbols or pictures can affect their mental well-being.

Like waking up in the morning, staring at your French windows and seeing the sign of the cross in the window frame. Like playing tic-tac-toe with your children and seeing the crosses instead of the noughts, or like seeing the cross on your computer keyboard when it’s really just a plus sign.

Like seeing pictures of Wagyu beef in an airline’s in-flight magazine and thinking that it’s pork. Like reading Hannah Yeoh’s book on her faith and feeling the urge to be converted to Christianity. Like looking at Auntie Anne’s hotdogs and thinking that you are actually eating dog meat.

Only in Malaysia can a person’s faith be tested by symbols and pictures, or just by reading a book.

My doctor friend thinks that these people suffer from strabismus, or being cross-eyed, a condition in which the eyes do not properly align with each other when looking at an object; or pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists. Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations.

It is still an untested theory that if you look at crosses frequently, you will be converted to Christianity, or when you look at pictures of Wagyu beef and think that it’s pork. Our local universities should conduct an empirical study on pareidolia with the department of health as it appears to have a direct impact on our multi-religious society and mental well-being.

Having strabismus and pareidolia is a deadly combination. The recent case in Penang is a good example. Pictures of a high-rise building with lights along the common areas forming a cross went viral on social media, triggering an outcry among some Muslim groups.

Penang mufti Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor joined in the fray, calling on the local authorities to instruct the developer to change the position of the lighting so that it does not resemble a cross when viewed from afar. As a former developer myself, I know how difficult it would be to shape condominium lights into a half crescent moon and stars. It is cheaper and easier to arrange them in straight lines.

Wan Salim said the issue should be handled carefully so as not to aggravate the situation and destroy harmony in society. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mujahid Yusof Rawa, trying to make sense out of the nonsense, said the incident should not be sensationalised.

Sometimes I wonder whether fear of conversion is real or imagined, and whether it’s down to people making a mountain out of a molehill to gain political mileage and sow discord.

The fear of religious conversion is not confined to Muslims. It is explored in the play, “The Fear of Conversion to Islam” in Daborne’s “A Christian Turn’d Turk” (1609), which focuses on the conversion of Captain John Ward (1553-1622).

If symbols and pictures are causing pareidolia and uneasiness among some people, the state mufti and Islamic bodies must address the question of faith. Why is it that people of other faiths do not fear conversion when they see the moon and the stars in the skies, or on mosque minarets, or when the mosques speakers blare five prayer times a day at high decibels?

Organisations like Jakim spend billions on religious education and programmes but the question of weak faith still remains if symbols, pictures and books can easily spook some Muslims. Does pareidolia only affect some Muslims groups?

I would like to believe that this situation is confined to West Malaysia. But the recent fuss in Tawau over a Christmas celebration indicates that the disease is being imported into the state. On the whole, though, Sabah is lucky because we have fewer cases of strabismus and pareidolia.

In terms of interfaith relationships, Sabah leads the way. We don’t condemn the legal fraternity having fun dancing on stage. We don’t condemn the strong visibility of Jesus dying on the cross in many areas and districts.

You can see huge crosses in every corner of Sabah, especially in Penampang and the Kenigau Tambunan road. While driving up to Mount Kinabalu, I used to count the number of Catholic churches and memorise the names of the saints – St Pious, St Mary, St Joseph and so forth. I can remember these so well, but have yet to be converted to Christianity. It’s good to know that you don’t suffer from pareidolia.

During the last Kota Kinabalu Christmas celebration, at Padang Merdeka, Shafie Apdal, the chief minister of Sabah, said most of us today are of mixed race and ethnicity, and the mutual respect of our religions makes the people of our beloved state of Sabah truly unique.

He also said the government remained committed to ensuring that the Sabah way of life of tolerance and mutual respect continues and gains further strength as the pillar of the society and state. Sabah is blessed to have leaders who make sense.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.