King Chai calls on Malaysians to just sit down, breathe, and think for a minute.
Much has been talked about from a legal standpoint on the now-not-so-recent Bible seizures conducted by the Selangor Islamic Religious Departments (JAIS) against the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM). Many of these debates talk about whether it is legal or not for an Islamic state religious authority to take action against a non-Muslim body by confiscating over 300 copies of Bibles in the Malay and Iban languages. Articles of the Federal Constitution, Selangor State Enactments and court decisions have been quoted, discussed and flogged thoroughly, so I will not deal with them at all.
At the urging of His Supreme Eminenceness Lord Bobo’s most loyal minion and Master of the Blawg, I would like to put some thoughts into writing and think aloud on this entire issue of Bible seizures that have upset both Christians and Muslims in Malaysia.
I believe that philosophy can really help us think about these issues in a more helpful way, rather than regurgitating whatever views have been fed to us and digging ourselves deeper into a hole that may end up collapsing on its own weight. Rather than trumpeting on grounds of religious belief or moral rights, I believe it is also important if we think about why these issues are important to us.
Consider the history of this country, Malaysia. Many if not all of us are familiar with the history of the Malayan independence and the eventual establishment of Malaysia, in one form or the other, either through history classes in school or Wikipedia. The key point here is that Malaysia is a country built by the blood, sweat and tears of different ethnic communities, with different beliefs and world-views. It is from these different beliefs that individual groups come to understand their reason for coming into being (their raison d’être?) and the point of their existence. Thus, by building on such beliefs, they solidify into values that are repeatedly used to guide their actions and hence, position themselves in society.
In a similar instance, let us look through the lens of religious beliefs. These beliefs have continuously inspired their respective groups to different pursuits in life, and these pursuits can be anything from raising a family to building a system of society with its particular order of things. It is all very complicated but not unfathomable when these groups are driven by the ideals that they hold to be true and important. Thus, as these system of beliefs and ideals come to form the very world that these groups live in, they become values that define the groups’ existential identity. In other words, these values become the reason for existence and without them, the groups fall into an existential crisis, or worst, cease to exist.
Therefore by building on that premise, we can then begin to place the incident of BSM’s Bible seizure by JAIS in our line of thinking. And let me cut you off before you carry on thinking that this is an article trying to take sides or justify the actions of any bodies. This article merely begs your indulgence to think aloud, hopefully in a systematic manner, to understand contemporary issues.
So going back to that premise of how certain values (i.e. religious beliefs) become the reason of existence for groups, we can then begin to understand why it’s so important for respective groups of Christians and Muslims to each lay claim to the term ‘Allah’. On one hand, the Christians believe that the term ‘Allah’ had been used to refer to God in Arabic and it has been used for more than a century in Bibles belonging to the indigenous people in East Malaysia. Hence, it cannot be a term exclusive to the Muslims, who on the other hand, believe that ‘Allah’ refers to their God in Islam and must not risk being confused with the Christian God.
Setting aside theological arguments for both Christians and Muslims, we can now understand why contestations between the two groups are inevitable and will continue to take place. It is specifically because many of these groups (from religious associations to pressure groups and political parties) have attached such religious causes to their very existence and reason of being.
The traditional way of understanding such conflicts or contestations between two groups is that it will ultimately lead to a winner and a loser, where the former will completely and absolutely annihilate the other, thus ultimately resigning the latter to the fringes, to be forgotten by history. It’s a terrifying thought, to be made completely irrelevant and erased from existence. Therefore, groups must be in conflict and fight for their ultimate survival. This breeds antagonism between groups and it is inevitable. This is a view that a political theorist such as Carl Schmitt would favour.
However, along with other political theorists such as Chantal Mouffe, I disagree with such a narrow view of conflict and contestation. I think conflict can be rather good, especially when understood from a broader perspective.
For example, a ‘theory of agonism’ would argue that such contestations do not need to necessarily lead to annihilation of the ‘other’ (or the ‘enemy’). Instead, it can be part of continuous process to try to solve the problems and issues of the day, at the same time recognising that there is no such thing as permanent solutions to every problems, thus allowing this process to go on and on. Presumably for the better, because total annihilation of either groups have been averted.
But for such agonistic contestation to take place, the groups involved must make room to recognize the inherent differences that exist between them, and that these differences are important to each other. Therefore by accepting the differences, they are recognising the legitimacy of the respective groups in their claims. This will then allow contestations to take place at a level that does not necessarily lead to total destruction of one or the other.
So in a real-world instance where tensions between religious groups are high, what can we actually do? How do we apply such an approach, especially in a multicultural and multi-religious country like Malaysia? Do we have any best-case studies and scenarios that we can draw from?
To be honest, I don’t know, and I would greatly appreciate if you could share your thoughts on this. I think the problem we have today is that people just don’t think anymore. Philosophy is not some high abstract fluff — it is a tool that helps us to think and guideour actions. Philosophy comes about from our pursuit to understand why things are the way they are, or the way they should be.
To quote the Master of the Blawg, “Questions are, most of the time, more important”.
King Chai is currently unemployed. He also has an entire playlist built around Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” on Pandora.