Photos by HAKAM
KUALA LUMPUR, May 24 — The use of religion to distract from the alleged abuses of the government is a dangerous tactic that will destroy multicultural Malaysia, said senior lawyer Philip Koh in a warning to the government.
With Islamism filling the void of communal politics that has increasingly fallen out of favour in Malaysia, Koh urged politicians not to succumb to the temptation to use religion as a means to pit the various communities against one another.
“As we love this country, we try to shape this country, we ask the elite that is in power, please don’t use religion to protect your corrupt use of power; please don’t use religion to manufacture anxiety among Muslims who are decent people, who have lived for the last 60 or hundreds of years in harmony with the minorities.
“Please don’t abuse that to try to unite in a false self-deceitful way, what you attempt to call a kind of a way to glue and create an enemy. That will be the beginning and we are already in the midst of that — the death of the Malaysia that we know,” he warned when speaking as a commentator in a forum here.
Dr Dian Diana Abdul Hamed Shah, a Universiti Malaya (UM) law lecturer, pointed out that the protection of minorities’ religious rights are set aside by pragmatic politicians who choose to appease the dominant ethnic group for electoral support.
“You can see parallels with the case of Malaysia, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 general elections. So mobilising support among the minorities by addressing concerns of religious freedom or religious rights have been less and less appealing to politicians in all three countries,” she stated.
Dian was comparing the violations of religious freedom despite constitutional protections in Malaysia and two other countries — Muslim-majority Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese Buddhist community accounts for 70 per cent of the population.
“Constitutional arrangements — no matter how beautiful, no matter how innocently drafted, no matter how innocently intended, no matter how supportive of human rights — are by themselves insufficient to protect religious freedom.
“Especially where the judiciary is subservient to the government of the day, where the executive and law enforcement authorities lack accountability, and where politicians do not have incentives to protect human rights,” she concluded.
Senior lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said the role of the government is to act as an “honest broker” in providing equal space for all to resolve their issues within the confines of the law.
He said that while non-Muslims are often thought of as the minorities in Malaysia, Muslims who did not fit within Putrajaya’s definition of Islam also saw themselves being labelled as liberal or deviationist.
The prevalence of race and religion started when then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad sought to outdo PAS in Islamist politics, followed by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Islamisation efforts in the 1990s.
In 2001, Dr Mahathir also controversially declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state.
According to Imtiaz, Malaysians are now encouraged to think through the “toxic” lens of race and religion, which splits up the community.
When weighing in on the politically-motivated use of race and religion, Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi said that appealing to people’s baser instincts encourages them to subscribe to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan supremacist group and India’s BJP party.
“Somehow there’s always attraction in hatred, the important thing is that those of us who don’t believe in this kind of things must also speak out,” the emeritus professor of law from Universiti Teknologi MARA said.
The constitutional law expert said Malaysia remains a fortunate country, noting that things were less incendiary when compared to his birthplace India, where deadly communal riots can happen easily if a cow’s head is thrown at a Hindu temple or a pig’s head is thrown at a mosque.
Cows are sacred to Hindus while pigs are considered unclean and forbidden animals for Muslims.
“In this country, at least in this respect, up to now and I hope it stays, we may not like each other (but) we don’t kill each other.
“And I think it’s quite something because in many other societies — Sri Lanka, Thailand, Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines, Pakistan and India, things are much worse,” he said.
The four were speaking at the “Human Rights and Religion: Are the two compatible?” forum, which was jointly organised by National Human Rights Society and the UM law faculty’s human rights research group.