The cruel joke of Merdeka and Maal Hijrah

Two important historical markers are being celebrated back to back in Malaysia. Both celebrate freedom, but our actions in practice are contrary to the spirit of liberation that we seem to observe.

Yesterday, we celebrated our Independence Day. Today, Muslims observe Awal Muharram, sometimes called Maal Hijrah.

This day not only marks the beginning of the Islamic lunar calendar, but recalls one of the most important events in the history of Islam – the epic migration (hijrah) of early Muslims from Mecca, where they were once a persecuted minority.

In Malaysia, we have accorded these two occasions such importance that we decided to disrupt businesses for at least two days. It is legitimate to ask if the gaudy ceremonial proceedings in any way reflect the spirit of freedom and justice that both days have come to represent.

Consider our actions leading up to these two days.

On the eve of Merdeka, we sent a man and his family back into the lion’s den.

For Arif Komis, a school teacher (cum-terrorist-on-the-run, to take Erdogan’s media at face value), deportation must have seemed to be a cruel independence day joke by a country where he had hoped to find protection.

Meanwhile, in the name of Maal Hijrah, Malaysians were introduced to a ridiculous rule which denied the minorities among us their right to be entertained because our self-appointed guardians of Islam considered it a desecration of a holy day.

A veteran south Indian singer (not some heavy metal rocker in tight shorts and a bulging crotch) was forced to reschedule his concert because some half-baked salaried Muslim scholars at Jakim considered any form of entertainment during Maal Hijrah to be tantamount to disregarding Muslim sensitivities. Their advice was duly implemented by Puspal, the federal agency which vets foreign artistes.

Their actions might seem to be a cruel joke upon the memory of the nascent Muslim community who endured sufferings as a persecuted minority in Mecca.

For 1,500 years since then, Muslims have paid tribute to this minority group who traversed the hard desert sands of Arabia to flee persecution. That act of migration in search of freedom and equality was so important in Islamic history that it has become the basis of the Islamic calendar.

Has that lesson been lost upon our salaried Muslim scholars, who have produced such strange rules in the name of Muslim sensitivities? Our government, our defenders of Islam, backed by our salaried Muslim scholars, also appear to have forgotten that Islam is a religion built on the sacrifices of refugees.

Maal Hijrah is a call of brotherhood with minorities, a reminder to Muslims that they, too, were once a minority. To deny a minority group an innocent evening of entertainment because it conflicts with a day of brotherhood with minorities is more than ironic, it is tragic.

Our salaried Muslim scholars might find a salutary lesson from Islam’s infancy when a group of Muslims persecuted by the elites of Mecca fled to Abyssinia and sought refuge with Negus, the Christian king. Surely our scholars can understand the generosity of spirit which allowed a Christian king to give protection to people who propagated a religion that does not believe in his version of Christ.

Yet that liberating spirit has been obliterated by the wasteful ceremonies by which we celebrate Maal Hijrah every year and more so, this year, by the way we have turned against a minority and a group of refugees on an occasion when we should honour and lift up the downtrodden.

Abdar Rahman Koya is editor-in-chief of FMT.