Campus members walk past Copley Hall in Georgetown University, Washington, DC (© Edward Pien)
I WAS pleasantly surprised to discover that Georgetown University has a full-time Muslim chaplain among its campus ministry staff. Imam Yahya Hendi heads a chaplaincy programme that provides religious services and support to Muslim members of the university, while also serving as the spokesperson of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America.
There is a Muslim prayer room in Copley Hall, where the five daily obligatory prayers are held, while on Fridays Salatul Jum’ah is held in the main students’ building, the Leavey Center.
That the faith life of Muslim students and faculty members should be as much a concern of the university as that of Christian, Jewish or Hindu members of the academic community in Georgetown is seen by its administration as obvious and unremarkable. Georgetown University seems to be a community at peace with itself, able to accommodate within its Catholic origins what it describes as a “centred pluralism” that respects and engages the various religious and humanist perspectives and traditions of members of the university community.
Although Catholic in origin, Georgetown University provides ample worshipping spaces for its multireligious body, including the Muslim prayer room in Copley Hall (Pic by Aloysious Mowe)
Halfway across the world, in the land of Islam Hadhari, the Catholic Students’ Society at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) has been refused permission by the university’s administration to hold meetings of Catholic students on the campus of UKM Bangi during the 2008/2009 academic year.
The students were told in a letter dated 21 July 2008 that programmes and activities of only the “official religion” may be held within the campus of the university. The letter was signed by Shahruddin Ahmad, the director of UKM’s Pusat Perkembangan Pelajar, the Centre for Students’ Advancement. The irony, we can be certain, is entirely unintended.
That there should be no room in our universities for non-Muslim students to explore and deepen their faith is just one indication, 51 years after its attaining independence, of how far Malaysia is from being a nation at peace with itself.
Facism — a word too far?
National day would be a relatively uncomplicated occasion for celebration if it were simply the commemoration of a past event, the achievement of nationhood after a long period of colonial rule. Nationhood, however, is no simple matter: it is not so much a goal accomplished as it is a work in progress.
When all the soul-searching by the bien-pensants that traditionally occurs whenever August 31 comes around is said and done, we are left with the question: what kind of nation do we Malaysians want to build? Even this question becomes moot when we realise there are some who would say not all Malaysians are created equal, and that the final determination of what this nation should be must lie in the hands of only one ethnic and religious group.
When talk of some fabled “social contract” comes up, as it has tended to in recent times, the implication is always that the non-Malay sectors of the population are citizens not by right but by grant and under sufferance.
Scene outside the Bar Council forum on 9 Aug 2008, which featured unwarranted calls for some to “balik Cina” (Pic by Seira Sacha)
It is because such talk has passed into the currency of political rhetoric and what passes for historical research in Malaysia that some communities are regularly treated to taunts of “balik Cina” or “balik India”. I doubt if the proud descendants of the great immigrant families from the Hadramawt and the Bugis homeland have ever had to endure the cries “balik Yemen” or “balik Sulawesi”. Who would dare?
There are loud voices in our country that wield with impunity the rhetoric of fascism. Is this a word too far? No, it is entirely accurate to label as fascists those who tell Malaysians of Chinese descent to “go back” to China, or who bandy about notions of racial supremacy.
The voices of those who espouse moderation and pluralism are, thanks to the alternative media, not entirely drowned out, but the aspirations of the moderate camp seem to me often to be naive, and their conceptual underpinnings not entirely secure.
What social contract?
National Day is often an occasion for people to wax misty-eyed about the 1957 Federal Constitution, and to bemoan the way that it has been amended willy-nilly to suit the agenda of successive Umno-led governments. It takes the undoing of deeply ingrained habits of thought to see that the 1957 Constitution is not a magical document that will solve all our problems, just as we need to make a conceptual leap to ask certain hard questions of those who speak glibly of a social contract.
If in 1957 the framers of the Constitution could speak only in terms of ethnic grouping, and decided also to enshrine certain institutions and notions that, for want of a better term, were essentially feudal in nature, are we today to be bound by those notions? The world was a much more racist place in 1957. Are we in Malaysia destined to be the last racist nation on earth, by dint of our constitution?
What are the terms of the social contract? Who signed it, and on whose behalf? What right did someone have to make such a contract for succeeding generations? By what law am I bound through this contract?
If we ask enough of these questions, relentlessly and pointedly, we will come, by Socratic method, to realise that the social contract is nothing more than a metaphor, perhaps constructed to suit one version of Malaysian history rather than rooted in any kind of reality.
Metaphors are malleable things, and therefore perilous to the unwary. Elizabeth II of England may be an anointed Queen, but surely no Briton today believes that she, or her government, rules by divine right; and yet the Westminster government continues to exercise certain powers by “royal prerogative” that bypass the legitimate and democratic legislative process.
Justice William J Brennan, Jr wrote of the Constitution of the United States that its genius rests “not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems.”
The great fault lines of our nation are those of ethnicity and religion. It is tempting to think that the only way to correct those fault lines is to have a constitution that erases such notions as a basis for nationhood, and whose great principles are those of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice for all, with no exceptions.
Aloysious Mowe, SJ, was born after Merdeka and considers himself a Malaysian as his birthright and not by anyone’s concession. The last time he checked his passport, it says that he was born in Malaysia, not Tanah Melayu.