Friday, October 12, 2007

Asian Racism in Malaysia: Apostasy

Although not strictly racism, the story surrounding this womens plight is turly amazing... religious re-education camps? what is this, Nazi Germany? Enjoy


I DO not intend to renounce my religion—in so doing, I have in fact chosen the religion I now have. But I am deeply saddened by the news of someone forbidden to practice the religion of her choice. I am saddened by the story of Revathi Massosai.

Revathi, a Malaysian woman married with one child, is the daughter of Hindu parents but she converted to Islam. It was they who gave her a Muslim name but it was her grandmother, a Hindu, who raised her and Revathi decided to adopt her grandmother’s religion. In Malaysia, this is a problem. There, people whose fathers are Muslim must be Muslim. And as a Muslim, Revathi is forbidden from renouncing her religion or from marrying someone of a different faith. Apostasy is forbidden.

But in 2004 Revathi married a Hindu man and the couple had a daughter.

Last January she went to court for official acknowledgment of her status as a Hindu. Not only did she fail, she was detained by the officials. She was sent to a “faith rehabilitation center” and held for six months. The officials in charge of the implementation of Shari’a law wanted to ensure that she would stay “on the right path”—which of course means the “right path” according to those holding religious authority in Malaysia.

During the whole six months of her captivity, she had to wear the veil and perform Muslim prayers, amongst other things. When she got out she told of how she had also been served beef which Hindus are forbidden to eat.

Her stories triggered an angry response from Hindus in Malaysia, and the defense lawyers for the Shari’a officials in the state of Malacca hurriedly explained that Revathi’s stories were untrue. The BBC quoted them as saying they were sure that Revathi could still be persuaded not to give up her Muslim faith.

Revathi disagreed.

I don’t know what those Shari’a officials in Malacca hope to really achieve: save a Muslim soul from the fires of hell; ensure there is no decline in the number of Muslims; or make someone merely pretend to believe in Allah yet in her heart is unwilling and suffering.

I don’t know how those in charge in the Shari’a courts interpret the accepted wisdom of the Qur’an that “there is no coercion in religion”.

I am also not certain whether the efforts to prevent an adult from choosing his or her own religion are part of the politics of suspicion afflicting Malaysia—which makes the matter of one’s identity as a “Muslim” bound to one’s identity as a “Malay” so that religious conviction is no longer a matter of awareness, but a matter of genetics.

I am Indonesian and I am proud to say that in this country Islam is not automatically linked to race. Faith is not something automatic. Religion is reason, the Prophet said. Reason implies freedom to think and to choose.

Still, I have to say that I am a Muslim because of my parents. But I am free not to follow that path—just as the Arabs of times past were free not to follow the beliefs of their ancestors and could decide to follow the Prophet, even at the risk of being ostracized by their own families and societies.

Still, I have to say that I have chosen to keep my current religion not because I consider it to be the best. I am not converting to another religion simply because I know that in my religion there is good and there is bad, just as there is good and bad in other religions. The history of religions is always full of the most repressive and cruel chapters, but it also has passages that are the most noble and hope inspiring. Religions offer a ray of awareness to human life, no matter how impossible it is that justice will ever come. This, and all Allah’s attributes, still inspire. That is the essence of faith.

And so in the end what is important is not which religion Revathi or I choose, but rather how someone can uphold the essence of that faith—how he or she lives and acts.

The essence of faith does not question God. Not even an apostate can question this—just as the character of Lazaro, the apostate, who cannot help but feel close to Don Manuel, the priest in a small Spanish town in Migel de Unamuno’s novel, Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr.

Lazaro comes to my mind because Don Manuel is a patient man who helps people, and—according to the storyteller—likes to give precedence to “the most unfortunate, and especially those who rebel.” But he is also a priest with sad eyes. His face clouds when he tells a child that one has to believe in Hell.

Even Lazaro, who abandoned his Christian faith, respects him and becomes his assistant. The two of them heal the sick, befriend the lonely, feed the hungry, and cheer those who grieve.

The priest does not ask Lazaro to remain a Christian. He only asks him to “feign belief”, even if he does not have any faith, so as not to shock the townspeople. Don Manuel does not demand truth, for truth, as he tells Lazaro, is “perhaps so unbearable, so terrible, and so deadly that simple people could not live with it”.

He himself probably does not believe in Hell; he is sad when God takes revenge. But he does not want to renounce his religion, even as he allows Lazaro to do so. At the same time, everything he does in life shows that hope can happen—hope as the reflection of God who is present in every act of kindness and sincerity towards the wounded and neglected.
By Goenawan Mohamad, translated from the Indonesian by N.S.
Asiaviews, August-September 2007

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