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Faith and the state July 25, 2005

Posted by elizabethwong in Columns, Human Rights, Islam in Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Politics, Southeast Asia, Writings.

Children There is something about faith that drives believers to, on the one hand, astound the world with what the human spirit is capable of accomplishing, and on the other, commit the most heinous of crimes in the name of their religions.

Take for instance, the religious inspired monuments and objets d’art molded with mere mortal hands. At the other end of the spectrum, there were the ‘holy’ wars which saw the slaughter of men, women and children.

We needn’t go out of the country to witness this paradox. Here we have the Ayah Pin commune in Jerteh, Terengganu. Many had traveled to this little village to seek whatever they were looking for, and found it. Some were hardened heroin addicts for 20 years who were able to kick their habit there. Some wanted to heighten their spiritual growth and understanding, though not discarding their personal faith. There are others, for example, a family of three who, without any musical training, were able to compose songs out of thin air.

Together, they built surreal structures by themselves, and put our state-sanctioned expensive and scary monuments, such as the monster replica of pitcher plants near Dataran Merdeka or the giant basket of tropical fruits in the middle of a Terengganu roundabout, to shame.

But their days of blissful existence irked a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. While the prime minister had gone around the world lecturing on Islam being a religion of peace and reason, here the situation is starkly different.

For months, the federal and state authorities pondered over which laws could be used to shut Ayah Pin’s commune down, and of late, the media went into a frenzy. So one early Monday morning, a group of men, armed with machetes, sticks and bags of flammable fluid and dressed to kill, decided to lay siege on the teapot commune. Another hundred men converged later outside the commune with banners condemning those inside as Satan’s little elves.

Intimidate who?

What happened after should shock us. An entire operation involving large numbers of federal police officers and state religious authorities arrested, not the hooded men who tried to burn down the commune, but the residents of the commune, including children, who were earlier terrorized by the mob. They were brought in, handcuffed and chained to each other, to the Syariah Court to be charged. The inspired judge saw fit to deny them bail on these assumptions: That they may be jump bail, or their liberty may rattle the eternally-wavering faith of the Terengganu masses, or they may ‘threaten witnesses’.

I’m not sure who were the witnesses these 49 followers could possibly intimidate. The mob? The police who guarded the demonstrators? The journalists whom the police prevented from entering the compound, or those among them who became agitated and troubled when they saw the police and religious officers ill-treating the followers?

Sadly, such actions (read: abuse of powers) by the police and local authorities has become so common that we have become increasingly numb. We’re not surprised the government showed little outrage at the mob attack in the Jerteh commune, or that there is a media blackout of civil society organisations’ condemnation.

We are further resigned to the fact that the state here is allowed, once again, to invade and to pre-determine the most private of personal space – one’s conscience and personal faith. And if they don’t wish to get their hands dirty, there are sufficient numbers of faithful citizens, ready to don masks and hoods to ‘crush’ those who ‘deviate’ or ‘diverge’ from a sanctioned path.

There are believers who may want to accept that a cut tomato or chance formation of waves spelled the name of his or her God. There are those whose religion is ‘Science’. Just as some women may believe drinking Ibu Fatimah’s jamu will make them look like Pamela Anderson, and that followers of Ayah Pin may want to believe they see truth in this man. We have every avenue and means to disagree with them, and we may even like to conclude that they are quite mad, but it doesn’t mean that these beliefs constitute a criminal act.

Our collective failing

In 1987, Jamaluddin (Joshua) Othman, a Malay Christian, was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for proselytizing his faith. Among the ISA detainees of Operasi Lalang, he was among those who were tortured most horrifically by the Malaysian police – primarily because he was (gasps!) a Christian. He survived and was released by the Federal Court, who ruled that his activities and practice of his faith were neither a threat to national security nor were they in conflict with public morality.

Not once did Joshua recant his faith. Neither did Bush’s prisoners of war whose faith have been put to the severest of test in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, nor did the Uighers or Tibetans in China. Do the authorities truly believe that punishing and taking the liberty of these 49 followers of Ayah Pin would make them change their faith?

Once upon a time, there were still some judges who could put justice above self, and who were our last line of defense in safeguarding our constitutional democracy. These days seem to be over. The civil courts’ lack of clarity and courage to adjudicate gross violations of liberty by local state Syariah courts and authorities speaks volumes of the absence of freedom in this country.

It is not the place of the state to cast in stone who can believe what, and to further obligate which particular demographic of Malaysian society is allowed to believe in. It is our collective failing to have permitted this conundrum to go on for 48 years too long.

Freedom of conscience and belief cannot only be limited to followers of a particular faith; what is freedom for one, should be in equal measure, freedom for the other. One may argue this is all legal-speak but history has provided us a valuable pointer – that laws and punishment cannot move matters of the heart and soul. In the end, those who struggle to practice their belief in quiet dignity, such as the 49 men and woman of Jerteh, are the ones who truly embody the infinite magnitude of the human spirit.

(13th Floor, Malaysiakini.com)



1. Realpolitik behind Lina Joy decision « elizabeth wong - May 31, 2007

[…] In the end, those who struggle to practice their belief in quiet dignity …. are the ones who truly embody the infinite magnitude of the human spirit. (Archived here) […]

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