On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

We must preserve our multi-cultural identity

Dr Syed Ali, in a strong rebuttal, said Mohd Fauzi Mustaffa was not fit to hold the position at Takaful and that he should repent for his arrogance in thinking that he has knowledge on the matter.  

He agreed with Dr Abdullah that the ban imposed by Fauzi was his personal view and based on a narrow understanding of Islam. 

The clarification by Dr Abdullah and Dr Syed Ali, who are authorities on Islam, is important because not many people would want to challenge such a directive.  

If left unchallenged, the directive would eventually become a practice, which is surely unacceptable in a plural society like Malaysia. 

The term Deeparaya – to denote the proximity of the two festivals – appears to be less used this season, presumably because some Malaysians are not sure how to react to such joint celebrations and they do not want to be seen to have committed anything that is regarded as sinful. 

Such reluctance could be because of the call by the Ulama Conference just four months ago, through its working committee chief Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria, urging the Government to review the Kongsi Raya and the National Open House festivals. 

This was made following the National Fatwa Council's decision that celebrating the festivals of other religions could erode the Muslims' faith and lead to blasphemy. 

In an almost similar tone in the e-mail to his colleagues, Mohd Fauzi said wishing Happy Durga Pooja, Happy Laskhmi Pooja and Happy Deepavali was deemed as expressing greetings to the Hindu gods Durga, Lakshmi and Krishna, which he viewed as going against the Islamic faith.  

Going by Mohd Fauzi's interpretation, his staff may be banned from wishing Christians Merry Christmas too, as that could have religious connotations. 

Kongsi Raya or Deeparaya celebrations are merely social gatherings. And even if they have religious significance, Malaysians have long regarded them as celebrations that unite rather than divide the people.  

Such gatherings are devoid of religious rituals and merely depict Malaysia's multi-racial society. In fact, Malaysians, especially the young, should be encouraged to visit one another for a better understanding of this nation of ours. 

There is also no reason why Malaysians should shy away from visiting the places of worship of other faiths. 

Irrespective of whether we are Muslims or non-Muslims, we have no qualms visiting temples, churches or mosques when we are overseas.  

But for some reason, not many of us would do the same at home.  

Have we come to the point where Malaysians have become so sensitive, even as we profess that we are strong in our faiths? 

I remember, as a student at St Xavier's Institution in Penang, how our teachers used to take us on the round-island bus trips where we had to stop at different places of worship as part of our education.  

I am not even sure whether schools organise such trips these days, but the fact is the multi-religious character of Malaysia is being challenged by a small group of people who want to assert their religious belief and identity on others. 

Is our faith in God so fundamentally fragile that, on the slightest pretext, it would erode if we wish our Muslim brothers Selamat Hari Raya or vice-versa on different festivals?  

In the words of my journalist friend Rose Ismail, "This is hurtful to those of us who remain solidly Muslims even as we listen to Christmas carols or indulge in mutton curry during Deepavali with friends of other faiths." 

The mark of a free and mature society is surely the ability to tolerate differences and dissent, whether politically, religiously or ethnically.  

We have done well in the past but there is a need to improve ourselves now. 

Malaysians should not be made to be insecure, intimidated or frightened because they hold different views or because they wish to practise their own religious beliefs. That is their right. 

More important, Malaysians must be prepared to speak up because they must never allow the minority to impose their views or will on the majority.  

There is no reason why we should not stand up and express what we feel is not right. 

Responding to the National Fatwa Council in July, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Kongsi Raya celebrations had become popular social events for Malaysians, and that they should continue as long as they were not religious gatherings. 

It is important that religious figures emphasise on the similarities of our religions, which is a very personal matter, instead of harping on trivial differences, which does no one any good. 

We may have different religious approaches but we share the same belief in promoting friendship, peace, respect and goodwill for one another, and surely that is more important. 

Whether we like it or not, there will be individuals or groups who want to chip away our multi-cultural national identity. More than ever, moderate Malaysians must be prepared to stand up to defend what we have.