Enough of ‘tolerance’, please

Enough of ‘tolerance’, please

Helen Ang in Malaysiakini Jun 26, 08

A lot has happened the last 100 days. Over here in the pace of politics has outstripped me. In The People’s Parliament – Haris Ibrahim’s blog – I occasionally try to brush away ‘Holy smoke!’ (title of my miniseries).

The political developments are occurring fast and furious on many fronts whereas with religion, as history attests, we can quarrel and talk till the cows come home. Haris and I have been having recently a ‘holy war’ of words, so to speak, with bloggers Mahaguru and Abdul Rahman Abdul Talib in cyberspace; but it’s also a dialogue.



Zainol Abideen administers the blog Mahaguru58. Abdul Rahman uses the handle (nickname) ‘Tulang Besi’ and his blog is called Malaysia Waves. This portal considers the three men to be alpha bloggers and their postings are frequently listed in the Malaysiakini ‘Top Blogs’ section.

Talking cross religion has long been taboo in Malaysia. The proposed Inter-Faith Council did not take off and the Article 11 forums shut down prematurely. Questioning theology, particularly Islam, has been kept under a tight lid but the bubbling cauldron (its pent-up steam not given outlet in public) has been stewing and simmering nevertheless.

Our online discussions have breached this taboo by giving theological debates on Islam an airing. While the minorities may not be interested in the substance of the religion of the Federation, outcome from its official interpretation does indeed affect how the non-Muslims live, such as when PAS Youth fishes for Islamic law.

Take for instance the Kota Bharu municipal council circular that contained the directive on dress code for women. It reminded that Muslims are obliged to wear tudung, according to a Kelantan bylaw. Non-Muslims are required to dress decorously. When the authorities stipulate ‘tutup aurat’ (covering up), how Chinese and Indian workers are apparelled in the service sector is impacted.

Position of middle ground

Haris, along with Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, Farish Noor and Zainah Anwar have often been clumped together as ‘secular liberal humanists’ by their critics. Mahaguru and Abdul Rahman are usually viewed as orthodox.

Rather disturbing to me though is the perception of Haris by certain quarters, for instance in this description by one commentator in People’s Parliament. He said that he had received numerous spam from forums which he “did not even know existed pertaining to [Haris’] involvement in certain legal cases that vaulted [Haris] into the public consciousness. Many of them were definitely unflattering in nature.”

The cases associated with Haris’ name relate to conversion to Islam, apostasy and faith freedom. So obviously he’s on the Islamist radar and monitored.

Where Haris resides is relative to where the middle ground is. Take two countries with Muslim population – Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Their middle ground is at different points along the spectrum. It is imperative for Malaysians to at least have some awareness of where we ourselves stand unless we still insist on keeping our heads buried under the sand.   

There is hardly any robust discussion on religion in the mainstream media (MSM). Editors, especially non-Malay, tread on eggshells. Featuring as articles on religion are really only sermons by acknowledged figures in bureaucracy, and representatives from Islamic departments and organisations affiliated with the government.

Then there’s no escaping the homilies when newspapers report what Abdullah Ahmad Badawi ‘said today’ – Malaysian-style protocol journalism, if one can even dignify the soundbites as such.

Interactive engagement

The more free-wheeling nature of blogosphere has allowed the envelope to be pushed, and stamps and pointed nibs to fly. Mahaguru and Abdul Rahman’s blogs have several posts with ‘Haris’ in their titles and other write-up with less overt headings but glancing at the civil rights lawyer all the same.

In the opposite trench, People’s Parliament has carried several posts headlined ‘Mahaguru’. Discussions in Haris’ blog have been active, attracting from 40 to 90 comments averagely per posting. The responses though not uploaded to the minute remain close enough to real time.

Among some of the bones of contention are Mahaguru labelling fellow Malaysians ‘kafir’, his sure interpretation that kafir are destined for Hell, and Abdul Rahman’s reading of the Quran that apostates must die.

The other side meanwhile contends Haris’ understanding of Islam and takes exception to the way he quotes verses. But riots have not broken out yet because ‘sensitive’ issues crept out from the closet.

Some People’s Parliament readers have strolled over to comment in the ‘opponent’ blogs and some of Haris’ detractors have also commented in his. So all in all, there is a wide array of views represented, and the erudite segment of People’s Parliament demographics is remarkable in its acuity… an amazing readership overall.

To access Mahaguru and Abdul Rahman, you can click on their links in Malaysiakini.

To navigate People’s Parliament, most convenient is to look at the calendar on the bottom right of the blog homepage. Pointing your cursor on the date (numbers 1 to 30 or 31) will give you the items posted each day. A search on keywords like ‘Lina Joy’, ‘Revathi’, ‘Siti Fatimah’, ‘Ayah Pin’ and other controversies will yield a rich archive as well.

Iman Hadhari

I shall refer to historian Bernard Lewis to address the title of this essay on why the word ‘tolerance’ irks me.
Lewis wrote: “Tolerance is, of course, an extremely intolerant idea, because it means ‘I am the boss: I will allow you some, though not all, of the rights I enjoy as long as you behave yourself according to standards that I shall determine.’ That, I think, is a fair definition of religious tolerance as it is normally understood and applied.”

Someone who has mouthed plenty of pious platitudes on ‘tolerance’ both in race and religion is none other than the Prime Minister. Last year, after performing the groundbreaking ceremony for a RM150 million UiTM campus, Abdullah blathered: “Do not do things which may offend the believers of other religions … this is not good”. The many broken Hindu temples did not register on him.

Abdullah’s plethora of quotable quotes is legendary: “I am PM for all Malaysians”, “I’m fair to all” and ad infinitum in their variations. His words belie his deeds in the way he has dealt with Hindraf, the Muslims accused of being ‘Islamic militants’ held under ISA, and the scandals that have plagued his Administration and inner circle.

His hollowness is amplified in and by MSM. An op-ed in theSun on Abdullah, following the last Umno general assembly where the keris was wielded, has the word ‘tolerance’ occurring 6 times and ‘intolerance’ once.

The writer Jacqueline Ann Surin penned, “Abdullah should be applauded by all Malaysians for taking a stand, setting the record straight and for reminding all Malaysians – Muslims and non-Muslims – about what Islam is about”.

Surin wrote on how Abdullah demonstrated that his leadership is committed to a peaceful Malaysia based on mutual respect and tolerance among the races, and asked, “The question is, of course, whether others will rally behind the prime minister on this score.”
One wonders if it’s a personal opinion or the paper’s pitch when she said: “More importantly, we should ensure that the prime minister has the support he needs so that his vision for a tolerant and peaceful society is realised for the good of all Malaysians”.

For those of us whose patience on the ‘tolerance’ concept is wearing thin, can we try some frank respect for a change?

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