The politics of pluralism

By Farish A. Noor

The historian’s lot is a sad one in Malaysia. I say this as a historian who has been forced to witness the relentless murder of our history, enacted time and again, by those whose discomfort with the past informs their definition of comfort in the present. Our national symbols have been taken out of context again and again, so that the keris, which was once a symbol of transcultural hybridity has now become a symbol of ethno-nationalist exclusivism instead. The same has happened to our varied forms of architecture, that were once a blend of Malay, Minang, Javanese, Bugis, Indian, Chinese, Arab and European forms – all of which have been simplified according to the logic of racial-ethnic compartmentalisation.

But what irks me the most, and pains me considerably, is the loss of what used to be referred to as the Indonesian-Malay mosque. The Indonesian-Malay mosque – examples of which include the Masjid Kampung Laut in Kelantan and the mosques of Malacca – was once the norm for all the mosques of Southeast Asia. Furthermore they demonstrate their transnational character when we compare them to the Sinhalese Buddhist image houses (known there as Davatages) that are almost exact copies of the mosques of Malacca, Demak, Palembang, etc. Yet today the traditional mosques are being levelled to the ground, to be replaced by Arab and Persian-styled mosques, or worse still the huge (and ugly) “Petrodollar” mosques that we see all over the non-Arab world as well.

Malaysia, and Malaysian-Muslims in particular, seem to have lost their historical bearings and do not know what sort of Muslims they want to be. The emergence of the dreaded moral vigilantes, of exclusive Muslim lobby groups and NGOs, the calls for more Islamic norms to be inculcated in the conduct of governance, the demands for syariah to be made national law, and the calls for a further Islamisation of Malaysia all seem to stem from a new wave of Muslim political normativity that is so alien to the Islam that was first brought to this part of the world by the Indian-Muslim mystics and missionaries of the 13th to 15th centuries. If in the past Muslim preachers were happy to preach the universal values of Islam using an idiom and discourse that was replete with local cultural references, what we are seeing today is more than simply the Islamisation of Malaysia: it is the Arabisation of our Asian society.

Now I write this without any hint of anti-Arabism in mind. But in a global age where cultural nuances are being effaced and cultural particularities are being flattened out, I am just as wary of the Arabisation of Malaysian society as I am of the Americanisation of Malaysian society. Between Starbucks and MacDonald’s on the one hand, and Wahabbism – with its fervent distaste for Sufi mysticism, eclecticism and pluralism – on the other, we are lost and still looking for an Islam to call our own.

Malaysia needs an Islam to call its own. Just as it needs a Christianity to call its own, a Buddhism that is its own and a Hinduism that is its own. Why?

The reason is simple enough for anyone to see: Despite the demographic tilt that favours the Muslims of Malaysia, half of this country is made up of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists who are equally part of Malaysia’s social fabric and history. Any religion – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism – in Malaysia has to reflect this plural complexity with justice and honesty, and be sensitive to the fact that there are other belief systems that deserve equal standing and respect as well.

Some of Malaysia’s Muslims may speculate about whether Malaysia can turn to Turkey, Pakistan, Sudan or Iran for models to study. But the Turks, Pakistanis, Sudanese and Iranians all live in overwhelmingly Muslim-majority countries where the politics of difference and respect for alterity hardly arises. Likewise the Christians of Greece, Rumania, Italy, Spain, etc haven’t the slightest idea about how to live with the realities of religious pluralism as the religious minorities in their midst are equally small.

No, the unique thing about Malaysia is its ethno-linguistic-religious make-up which would baffle most politicians in any other country. Nobody said creating a country like Malaysia was going to be easy. And governing it isn’t a piece of cake either. But if this country is to be governed at all it will have to be a mode of governance that is inclusive, respectful of difference and balanced to all. Likewise the popular modes of religiosity would also have to reflect the diversity of our culture and history.

The recent controversies surrounding the case of Lina Joy, the destruction of Hindu temples, the dispute over Church-building permits et al. all suggest that this spirit of pluralism is wearing thin in the country. And that is why the Indonesian-Malay mosques of the past are so important in the present, with their manifold traces of Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan influences: They were built at a time when the Muslims of this region were more comfortable with the idea that we are, fundamentally, a mixed, hybrid community of communities, all living at the centre of the crossroads of Asia.

If the fragile multiculturalism that is Malaysia’s is to be protected and allowed to flourish in the future, then we – Malaysians – will have to nurture the spirit of eclectic pluralism and inject that multicultural spirit into our politics and religious praxis as well. We can begin by learning to live with our complex past and to value the long tradition of cross-cultural and cross-religious borrowing we once had. And if there is to be a renaissance of religion in Asia, let it be one that is genuinely dynamic and inclusive of others too.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.

One response to “The politics of pluralism”

  1. With memories of Balinese Architecture still fresh in my mind from the recent Climate Change Conferences in Indonesia, I made a Christmas holiday trip to Melaka and was genuinely puzzled and intrigued by the architecture of the old Mosques I saw, not just in old Melaka town, but throughout the state as well. Thank you, Dr. Farish, for providing the historical context for this phenomenon. It would indeed be a tragic cultural loss if these mosques were to be replaced by others with an architectural heritage that is truly not our own.