An exploration of both sides of the fence in the issue of non-Muslims entering mosques and the possibilities to reconcile to the two.
I visited Hyderabad in 2005 to observe the impact of communal riots in Shah Ali Banda on the local society. During the visit, I learned two important lessons on community reconciliation and peace making process – (i) in incidents of racial or religious conflicts or misunderstandings in a diverse society, it is unwise to conclude that reconciliation should only lead to one party or group’s interests or rights prevailing over the others, (ii) as much as we find trespassing or violating boundaries of one’s personal cultural, religious or racial space triggers or escalates a conflict, it is also the best starting point for reconciliation in order to seek the solution to the conflict.
I remember very well my trip to a local school owned and run by the community in the old Hyderabad city. Due to the hostility between Muslims and Hindus in that area, the school became a refuge for the younger generation of the community – to seek comfort and protection from the seasonal riots and clashes. Every Friday prayers or Ganesha celebration is a potential bloody nightmare for the community. I asked the teachers how do they keep the children’s spirit intact and alive since the school has both Hindu and Muslim children?
One of the programmes explained to me was how the children first exposure to communal acceptance and peace is through sharing of food. The teacher explained to me that for the Muslim and Hindu, food is one of the most personal and sensitive aspect of lifestyle for both religion. The teachers requested each child to prepare a food edible for their friends of other religion. This assignment leads to discussions and setting of rules on what sort of food to prepare for these meals. “I cannot bring beef for meals and they bought chicken from a special shop in town”, a Muslim student explained to me when asked.
This is indeed a small but powerful example on how it is possible to negotiate our religious and racial space that we guard so jealously from one another. Another inspiring lesson drawn from my experience in Hyderabad is that it is possible to do so without having to demean or undermine one group over the other. The rule of thumb has always been to strive for a realistic and viable balance between conflicting factors – supported by ideas or mechanisms to address and manage potential conflicts. Having some sort of idea or mechanism to manage potential conflicts does not signify our pessimism, but rather a reflection of being realistic about what our society’s diversity and dynamism is capable of triggering.
Political naivety aside, the bitter truth and perhaps major challenge for Malaysians in overcoming religious or race-based conflicts is due to the fact that religion and race are consistently used as a tool of trade by the powers that be, religious institutions, and political parties to gain public mileage and support. It is also not helpful that the power to negotiate our religious and racial space, be it within the formal or informal setting, is usurped by the State. It would be less of a headache if the institutions responsible for administrating our religious affairs are willing to take up the roles of mediator and peace broker in the event of such conflicts. However, the frustrating part is when the institution’s interventions in such conflicts aggravate the crisis – as they tend to take a defensive and punitive approach in problem solving.
There is also limited opportunities for civil society or even the local communities to be directly involved in such conflict resolutions. Hence the ability to build their own independent strategies and understanding on how to deal with these issues is thwarted. To add salt to the already severe injury, the rise in formations racists groups is worrying – as they threaten to widen the divide and hinder opportunities for inter-religious and racial understanding in our society.
Having said that, I have, throughout the week, mulled again and again over the latest controversy of non-Muslims entering mosques. Before the recent case of Teo Nie Ching, Member of Parliament for Serdang who is condemned by certain groups for entering Surau Al-Huda in Kajang, Selangor Executive Councillor, Dr. Xavier Jeyakuma’s talk at a Klang mosque in August last year also invited threats of charges against the mosque committee. The reason why I took time to reflect on what happened is because coming up with a fair and objective assessment to the problem can be tricky, similarly with any other issues involving religious and racial spaces and interests.
If I were to simply agree that yes, non-Muslims can enter our praying spaces, I could easily be misunderstood by certain segments of society as being disrespectful and too liberal. This is despite the fact that it is permissible in Islam, for non-Muslims to enter our mosques, qualified by some conditions that were stipulated not to hinder the non-Muslims from entering but to promote peace and respect in the house of God. For example, people entering such places of worship must be modestly clothed and do not intend to bring threat and harm to the mosque.
As far as I am concerned, the rules set are universally acceptable for other places of worship as well. Metaphorically speaking, shouldn’t a host of the house set reasonable ground rules for the guests to adhere to? Bear in mind, as I have stated earlier, that because religion is a bargaining or trading tool for some political parties and interest-based groups in the country, it is easy for racial supremacists or religious zealots to rely on society’s lack of understanding and experience in inter-faith issues and work around this premise for their propaganda. PERKASA, for one, knows there are Malay Muslims out there who would buy this premise. Hence they capitalise on our own insecurities for their own benefit. Sad, but true.
But if I were to say, no, non-Muslims should not enter mosques, I would definitely be in serious denial of what a compassionate and understanding religion Islam is. Even worse, I am denying Prophet Muhammad(p.b.u.h)’s display of compassion and progressiveness that is abundant in the wealth of Islamic history. According to records, the Prophet was widely known for allowing non-Muslims to enter mosques as founded in the case of the delegations of Thaqif and the Christians of Najran that stayed in the mosque before they embraced Islam. In addition, the mosque was always open to the Quraisy people who were seeking refuge and assistance from the Prophet.
I am sure all of us have taken either one of the stands expounded above. I understand completely how our personal experiences and understanding informed our opinion on this issue to a certain extent. Rather than selecting any of these views as a way to give us personal credit, political advantage, or glowing reception for our political parties, religious institutions or interest groups – we need to stop thinking whose opinion prevails supreme – instead we should focus on how do we strike a harmonious chord in the community albeit our differences.
Yes, we might take some time to digest the fact that our non-Muslims friends can enter our praying spaces but the process of acceptance, understanding, and embracing the idea need not be shoved down our throats by the religious councils, PERKASA or BN or even Pakatan leaders, in line with whatever agenda they are having for the rakyat.
At the moment, MAIS, PERKASA, and political parties are claiming the space for this issue in the media and public sphere, what about the Surau Al-Huda Committee themselves or the local community who dedicated their time and energy at the mosque? Don’t they have a say in this and the right to uphold their actions?
The 90th Muzakarah led by the Jawatankuasa Fatwa Majlis Kebangsaan Bagi Hal Ehwal Ugama Islam Malaysia in March 2010, held that non-Muslims visitors are allowed to enter mosques subject to certain conditions. Then why doesn’t MAIS allow the Surau Al-Huda Committee to decide on the entry and conditions that MP Teo needs to comply with, as opposed to condemning the MP’s presence in the surau? And why is it taking over the administration of the mosque without due process? MAIS needs to be aware that any decision to charge or dismiss the committee in response to what had happened without proper and fair process will be unjust and uncalled for towards all parties.
All in all, I am strongly of the view that the state religious councils should play a progressive role in enhancing Islam’s image and give more autonomy to mosques to operate independently in their community. In the context of the Surau Al-Huda case, I don’t see the problem for a community outreach or mediation unit to be established under the mosque administration as to promote greater cooperation, openness, and understanding on the interactive and vibrant roles of the surau in its area.
It is during conflicts like these that Malaysians should ignore bigoted attempts to divide us using religious or racial cards – and work together on the ground to reconcile our differences towards creating a win-win solution.
LB: Shazeera is a law graduate with no intention whatsoever of being a lawyer. She was a Chevening Fellow with Glasgow University, studying government relations with civil society. She is currently one of the Directors of Pagaralam Sdn. Bhd. – a consultancy firm dedicated to promoting good governance in social development and human rights. She will be pursuing her Master in Applied Human Rights in University of York, UK very soon. Her interests, among others, are human rights, cultural relativism and it’s implications on public policies. Catch more of her take on politics, pop culture and parenthood at As I Live.