This past Sunday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak endorsed the work and mission of the Inter-faith Relations Working Committee. It's a group of Malaysia's religious leaders, representative of the many faiths that make the country such a remarkable society in both the Asian and Islamic worlds. Between Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and ,of course Muslims, the Committee is truly a cross-section of its country's diversity.
In a 45-minute session attended also by the Minister for Unity, the Minister for Religious Affairs, and various other faith-group representatives, the Prime Minister pronounced the Committee's work to be fully consonant with his own vision of a Malaysia where pluralism is the foundation of national unity, rather than a front of division.
Why comment upon what is, at first glance, a rather pedestrian bureaucratic act within a foreign government? Because what seems mundane is, in fact, highly significant. What Prime Minister Najib did on Sunday was not only an endorsement of a non-legislative issues committee. It was a pointed and meaningful rebuke to the elements in Malaysian politics and public life that fan ethnic and religious flames in pursuit of their own power.
Early 2010 was not a happy time for religious pluralism in Malaysia. The societal controversy over a Christian use of the word "Allah" for God was at a fever pitch, and demagogues like opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim were eagerly scapegoating Jews for political purposes. Between a social tolerance being tested by an issue-of-the-moment and a major politician indulging in naked anti-Semitism to further his quest for the Prime Ministerial office, the Malaysian model of religious coexistence was threatened in ways it hadn't been since the stresses of the immediate post-independence period.
Malaysia, for those who don't know, is a country where ethnic and faith identities matter, and finding a truly Malaysian nationhood has always meant contending with those who think the relationship between those identities should involve subordination and submission.
It was in this troubled milieu, and as a response to it, that the Inter-faith Relations Working Committee was established in February. It came under swift attack from elements opposed to the Prime Minister, and from members of his own political coalition's old guard. Among the Committee's more mild dismissals was that of the Deputy Prime Minister, who in April told media that the group was, in fact, small and irrelevant.
What the Prime Minister has done, viewed in the context of Malaysian politics, is tactfully reply to his Deputy -- and forcefully rebuke his foes in the opposition coalition. In addition to the aforementioned Anwar Ibrahim -- who B'nai B'rith proclaimed to bepersona non grata for U.S. policymakers -- the coalition includes as the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party as a major partner, a group which seeks the imposition of shari'a throughout the country. Among the PAS more notable accomplishments was its solicitation of volunteers for the Taliban in late 2001.
In this light, Prime Minister Najib's act this weekend was really one shot fired in a two-front struggle: against the old-line elements of his own party, who cling to the increasingly outdated notions of Malay supremacy as enshrined in the bumiputra system of economic preferences on the one hand; and against the genuinely extremist collection of shari'a proponents and Jew-baiters arrayed against him in the political sphere. It's a delicate endeavor, as one element must be cajoled and conciliated, and the other flatly thwarted within the bounds of democratic politics.
Endorsing the Inter-faith Relations Working Committee -- which, keen-eyed observers will note, falls under the Minister for Unity rather than the Minister for Religious Affairs -- advances the Prime Minister's goals, and the goals of every Malaysian who hopes that national identity can supersede, though not erase, sectarian and ethnic ones.
This matters within Malaysia, and it matters outside of Malaysia. Within the Islamic world, there are a mere handful of states and governments attempting the construction of genuinely free multi-ethnic societies -- and within that group, there are few with a real claim to democratic legitimacy. Malaysia is among those few. When the Prime Minister acts to support a dialogue between faiths, he's doing more than helping Malaysia. He's helping a troubled world that, in the pursuit of toleration, could use more of that sort of vision.
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