Who is proselytising?
By Shanon Shah | 07 November 2011
A FEW weeks ago, I took an English friend to visit the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur before the zohor prayers. At the entrance, my friend, a practising Christian from the Church of England, was given a purple robe to wear — I assume because he was wearing knee-length shorts and I was in full-length jeans. When we went to the main prayer hall, he was barred from entering. The sign read “Muslim only”.
Just outside the main prayer hall, a leading Malaysian Islamic non-governmental organisation (NGO) had books and leaflets about Islam on display. Among these were a pamphlet called The Truth about Jesus Christ. Something about the title of the leaflet, placed so prominently outside the mosque’s main prayer hall, made us want to leave quickly.
What do these rules governing behaviour at the mosque tell us about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia? What does it say about Islam in Malaysia that Muslims have the power to declare the “truth” about another religion, yet non-Muslims are being accused of undermining their faith?
In the “Christian West”
And how do our local experiences compare to places of worship in other countries with religious diversity?
The first time I visited Westminster Abbey in London, I went for Evensong on Sunday. Even though I was studying the sociology and anthropology of religion, and this was a non-Eucharistic service, I wondered if it was wise of me as a Muslim. I think I saw a Muslim woman in a hijab going in and that relieved me a bit. Reading the service sheet before the actual worship began, I was moved that the Abbey explicitly welcomes people of all faiths to participate in the service or merely observe.
Clearly, there was no sign barring a non-Christian from entering the church. Additionally, there weren’t any Christian books or leaflets titled The Truth about the Prophet Muhammad, or The Truth about the Jews. It seems that in England, a country with an established church, the Church of England doesn’t need to assert its “truth” about another religion.
My purpose in sharing these experiences is not to judge one religious tradition against the other. That would be a trap too easy to fall into. Especially since Malaysia’s current social and political climate is as charged as it is now, what with public demonstrations and anxieties about apostasy among some Muslims and tense debates about hudud. Rather, I wonder if this is about the boundaries between religions in a diverse society, and how these are created, maintained or even dissolved.
Sharing or proselytising?
When I finally read the pamphlet, The Truth about Jesus Christ, I had no quarrel with it. It merely included Quranic verses relating to Jesus, who is a revered prophet in Islam. In fact, these are verses I have shared with my English friend, and we have had meaningful and affectionate exchanges about Christianity and Islam as a result. I guess one difference is that I presented these as Islamic perspectives of Jesus, rather than The Truth about Jesus.
Pamphlets from the National Mosque (pic courtesy of Giles Goddard)
So was the Islamic NGO presenting Islam to the world or was it proselytising to non-Muslims through its different pamphlets? Have I been merely sharing my faith with my friend or have I been proselytising? Yes, there are times when we know people are proselytising aggressively. “Accept Jesus as your saviour or you won’t get to Heaven,” I’ve been told by some Christians. But it can be subtler than that. So what is the boundary between sharing one’s faith and proselytising? Who determines when someone is proselytising? And in the case of Malaysia, where proselytising to a Muslim is a crime, who determines what constitutes proselytising?
And how was it that I did not feel proselytised at Westminster Abbey? There were clergypersons reading lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. There was a priest preaching at the pulpit. The Trinitarian formula was invoked, and the choir sang from the Anglican hymn book. The substance of Christianity and the Church of England’s worship style were on full public and active display. At the same time, I might not have felt proselytised at but would all other non-Christians feel the same way?
Boundaries and foreclosure
This is where the 22 Oct 2011 Himpun Sejuta Umat demonstration deserves scrutiny. Surely it is a group of Muslim citizens’ right to publicly assemble and express their anxieties about proselytisation and apostasy? And surely the state’s response — allowing the demonstration to go ahead and listening to the protesters’ demands — was also justifiable?
On another level, I am deeply alarmed by Himpun and the state’s response to it. What does the Barisan Nasional government hope to accomplish by endowing “apostasy” with such aggressive political meaning, and simultaneously whipping up fears about a monolithic “Christian enemy” in our midst? And what is the state doing, taking on Himpun’s demands without criticism or caution? Furthermore, the prime minister himself has justified the state’s amicable interaction with Himpun and compared it with the state’s antagonistic interaction with Bersih 2.0. We now get an idea of not only where several boundaries are in this country, but where they should be according to those who hold social and political power.
There are two big problems with this. Firstly, these particular boundaries around religion foreclose our ability, as Malaysian Muslims and non-Muslims, to think and act on our own behalf especially when it comes to something as private as faith.
Secondly, the state is itself actively engaged in drawing these boundaries for all of us. Ironic, given that Himpun Sejuta Umat only managed to draw a few thousand Muslims despite the absence of tear gas, water cannons and the threat of arrest.
“David Beckham people”
Not all is doom and gloom though. A few days after we visited the National Mosque, my English friend and I went to Alor Setar, Kedah, and visited Masjid Zahir. The security guard there, a nice Malay-Muslim Malaysian, handed my friend the customary robe. Pak Guard then welcomed us into the mosque. He even offered to take several pictures, including with us on the minbar where the imam delivers the Friday sermon.
When the grand imam walked in, Pak Guard wanted to introduce us, but the imam was in a hurry, and so only smiled and waved. Pak Guard even engaged my friend in conversation. “So, you are the David Beckham people?” My friend laughed. “Pi lah bawak dia minum teh tarik kat belakang! Mesti dia seronok,” Pak Guard said to me.
There are so many observations one could make about this special encounter. I prefer to just declare how happy my friend and I were after we left Masjid Zahir. He was even more enchanted by Alor Setar, and I was proud to be a Muslim born and bred there.
Was Pak Guard just being nice, or was he proselytising? Was it a bit of both, or neither? And if a Muslim were to be similarly welcomed into another religion’s house of worship in Malaysia, what do we think would happen?
Shanon Shah did his MA in Religion and Contemporary Society at King’s College London, and often maintains his anak Kedah boundaries in Kuala Lumpur and London.