A real dialogue (All pics courtesy of Mas Hamzah)
AS a Muslim foreigner coming to Malaysia from the Arab world, I was filled with curiosity and excitement at the chance to witness Islam in a country like Malaysia which we look up to as a developed, thriving Muslim country rich in cultural and religious diversity.
Since arriving, I have also had the privilege of befriending Malay, Chinese and Indian Malaysians, which have made my experience here not only deeper and richer but also more realistic.
One day during this month of Ramadan, my Indian Malaysian housemate invited me to join a dinner gathering at her friend’s house so I would not have to break fast alone. It was then that I first heard about the 28 Aug 2009 cow-head protest against the Hindu temple relocation in Shah Alam. The incident had happened a day earlier.
I was shocked and horrified, and felt a mixture of deep sadness and fear. Fear for where this incident could lead Malaysia, because of the actions of a few irresponsible people who have no religion and know no God. An Arab sage once said, “The greatest of fires are started by the smallest of sparks.”
But a Chinese proverb also says the best way to fight darkness is to light one candle. And it was clear to me from that dinner gathering that Malaysians know how to extinguish a fire before it can even start. It was obvious to everyone who was sitting there that the protest was politically fuelled and spoke in no way of tensions between the Hindu and Muslim community in Malaysia.
Immediately, I saw so many candles lighting up, stories of mosques, churches and temples standing together side-by-side in Penang, stories of compassion and tolerance in places like Terengganu. (An Indian Malaysian Christian friend told me the Muslims and non-Muslims there were so close she could even read the Qur’an.)
But the biggest candle that lit up during the dinner was the idea from our friend Ambiga about Muslims going to the Hindu temple in Section 19, Shah Alam that was to be relocated. The visit would be to show solidarity with the community, and disapproval of the cow-head protest. I looked at my housemate and said: “Let’s do it!”
And indeed, with the help of my two Muslim friends, Mas and Nazreen, we gathered a group of 25 people and went down to the temple in Shah Alam on Friday, 4 Sept 2009, to meet the temple people. We greeted them with flowers and fruits, and they received us with appreciation and gratitude, and welcomed us in even while their prayers were being held.
Muslim offerings of peace
Sitting down with them at the more-than-a-century-old temple, they gave us background information about the temple’s problems, and the issue of relocation which has been unresolved for two decades now. The current temple needed renovations, which they were not allowed to carry out without a police permit, they said. They also needed a police permit for their special prayers if that drew a larger than usual crowd, they told us.
The temple committee said they were open to the idea of relocation as long as it was in a suitable place for their prayers. But for too long, the plans for relocation kept getting postponed.
A large area beside the temple was also fenced off. When we asked the temple people about it, they said: “The area now fenced in used to be an open space where devotees could park their cars when they come for prayers. In December last year, Pewaris came and fenced off the open space, so that devotees now have no place to park.”
Our group spent time asking questions and discussing the situation, hoping that the meeting with the state executive council the following day would reach a satisfying solution over the temple’s relocation.
While we were at the temple, we realised that the harm had already been done on the national level, and our small action of solidarity was merely healing the wound on a personal level. But what united all of us in this gathering was our deep conviction that the cow-head protest does not represent Malaysia or Islam. Even though only a small number of us visited the temple, we know that the protest has caused outrage among many Muslims and non-Muslims all over the country.
It was clear to the temple people and to many of us that the reasons for protesting the temple relocation were “manufactured”. In many places all over Malaysia, temples, churches and mosques exist together in the same area, and no one complains about “the noise”.
That these protests were politically orchestrated also crossed my mind the next day when I watched the video of the unfortunate council meeting held on 5 Sept 2009. What looked like the same protesters hijacked the meeting. They looked like gangsters running around the hall hysterically, trying to disrupt the meeting in any way, while the residents sat through the melee calmly. It reminded me of how some governments in the Arab world used to pay gangsters to violently disrupt peaceful demonstrations, keeping away while others did their dirty work.
When we went to the temple our messages were very clear: we refuse political games in the name of Islam. And we refuse to be associated with the actions of a few who acted so disgracefully, and yet had no shame in chanting Allah’s name during their protest.
For so many years, politically motivated groups have worked so hard to taint, put down, fight and step on whatever is sacred and holy to us, and then blame it on Islam and Muslims to divide communities and people. We can no longer afford to allow them to imprison us with feelings of shame for actions they are responsible for, leaving us frustrated trying to defend that which is not Islam. It is time for every Muslim to really act on what Islam is and what it means to him or her.
And that is exactly what this small action of solidarity symbolised to me — an acting out of compassion and respect for others. I’m not an expert in the Quran nor a religious scholar, but I have a personal understanding of the spirit of Islam, which is supposed to guide us all in our actions.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the night of the temple visit that I came across this verse in the Quran by chance. It is a verse that rejects the abuse or humiliation of others:
Allah says what can be translated as, “And do not abuse the ones whom they worship apart from Allah, (or) then they would abuse Allah aggressively without knowledge ….” (Surah 6 Al-An’am: 108)
I urge all Muslims and Malaysians to rely on this inner guidance and not allow the ignorance of a few and their own selfish goals to succeed in making us shut down our minds and hearts. Our only way out is to uphold and protect what is sacred to us.
Hadil El-Khouly is a 24-year-old Egyptian Muslim and a women’s rights activist who is currently visiting Malaysia.
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