Image credit Charles Chiam

“Much has been said about the country and its tolerance for the many faiths practised by its people. Malaysia makes for a fantastic advertisement on multiculturalism… Note the word ‘tolerance’. Herein lies the root of all the problems the country faces.”

This is the paragraph that first pushed me into deep thought after I started reading Dina Zaman’s latest book. From here, I began to understand that in some cases “tolerance” might not include “acceptance” or “understanding”.

For those in the dark, Dina Zaman is a founding member of IMAN, a think tank focusing on society, religion, and
perception, which aspires to provide reliable information to a young Malaysia and the region on matters pertaining to society, religion and perception, and aims to deliver sound policy solutions along with actions and measurable outcomes.

The 49-year-old Malaysian journalist and writer is also the editor-in- chief of IMAN’s online magazine.

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Image credit Gerakbudaya

Dina Zaman’s “Holy Men, Holy Women: A Journey Into the Faiths of Malaysians and Other Essays” is a collection of writings and columns, detailing the author’s personal experience and observations of our country’s dealings with racial and religious issues. Some of them are serious, while others are peppered with humourous elements – all thought-provoking, as it made me think of issues that would never have come to mind if I never picked up this

I really appreciated the honesty in the book where potentially controversial comments were not censored though the people’s names were changed.

For example, there is this quote after Dina Zaman told a temple administrator her religion.

“ ‘I’m a Muslim’.

‘Okay.’ He is silent for a while and then he pipes up. ‘I don’t like your religion. And I do not like your Hari Raya Haji. You kill animals. I am vegetarian.’ ”

I cannot imagine confessing how I dislike someone else’s religion in a casual conversation. I could be accused of racism or be arrested.

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Image credit Alchetron

Another example of issues that never crossed my mind is how the same religion varies differently between East and West Malaysia. One chapter details how a Sabah village matriarch laments that the ulamas arriving from the peninsula are “tearing apart the social fabric of the [Muslim] villagers”, by denouncing various traditions and cultures as wrong.

“ ‘Aku nak Islam lama balik. Bukan Islam ini.’ ”

“ ‘I will fight this type of Islam to the death. Islam Semenanjung merosakkan hidup kami di sini.’ ”

Her book also shed light on the widespread of agnosticism in Malaysia. Dina recounts an encounter with a hijab wearing agnostic woman who reveals that there are many more like her.

“We just don’t tell people.”

Don’t or can’t?

I managed to meet with Dina and had a quick little chat with her on topics similar to what she had covered in her book.

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Dina Zaman at the launch of Holy Men, Holy Women. Image by Charles Chiam.

My first thought upon finishing this book was “Wow, this author is much more optimistic than I am”.

Well, I think my book might be years too late. Look at what’s happening in Sarawak, Terangganu, where the mosques are opening up to the Chinese to celebrate Chinese New Year, but this is getting less and less. We need to work harder at enhancing race relations.

Am I pessimistic? I do feel pessimistic because, you can see the anger, fear. You hang out with your friends and you feel the anger they have towards each other. I am neutral – typical journalist, I let everyone have their say. In the past, it was just discussions, now, it’s no longer the case. It has become personal fights. This weighs you down – are my friends like this? Does my family think this way? Where do I go for comfort?

There was a sense of optimism back then and things were political but not politicised. There’s a big difference. We had problems, we argued about it, but there was still that grand adventure to life. It was a time where you can explore and discuss things.

For the past five years, whenever we talk about religion – whatever religion – it has been politicised to the point it has split the country. It has made people angry and even questioning the level of community. I have seen this among the Christians, the Hindus, the Muslims. Nationwide; how healthy are these kinds of thoughts for the country? Right now, I just wish that people would stop using race and religion as a political tool. I also think, with the rise of social media, everything became shallow in that you always display only the best side. I take a look, and think, “It’s wonderful, but what’s the reality behind these photos?”

I suppose you have some thoughts to share on the subject of Neelofa launching her hijab at Zouk recently.

As a business person, you are allowed to do what you want, but you must also be smart about it. You are promoting modest wear. She said the venue fit her budget, and the theme. I think, if you haven’t expected that backlash, or didn’t want that backlash, you would have done a private event for your customers. It’s about being smart. Granted, her wares were sold out the next day, it makes everyone question. I will say this, I think the commercialisation of faith, whatever faith, is actually creating a class of people that may not have faith in its best interest.

Let’s say you have a product, a ubat (medicine), and you think “this thing can really make me money” – yes making money is important – but when you start to see it as a mere money-making tool, then you dilute the value. I’m talking not from the religious perspective but from a marketing perspective. I don’t know, I mean, is it a PR gimmick, or a PR fiasco? I will say this, most take their religion very seriously, but it doesn’t mean you cannot have fun, just that
there’s a time and place for certain things.

On this subject on being smart, does that mean you think the Malaysian chapter of Atheist Republic wasn’t being smart? There are a group of atheists who had a private gathering last year and they posted their photos on social media, depicting Malay members and pig masks. It prompted at least one minister asking for their arrest. In this case, maybe it’s because I’m much older, I don’t think they are being very careful.

You need to be very strategic. Being an atheist in this country, for a Muslim, is illegal. Now, while I can understand wanting a support group and all that, I think they should not have put their picture on social media. You cannot trust everyone, can you? I think they have well-meaning intentions. Everyone wants to have a voice and you have a right to voice your belief, but you are still talking about a country like Malaysia where you have to self-censor, where it has draconian laws. Just be very strategic about this. With photos like these, you kena jaga-jaga lah.

It’s not a federal crime. It’s only a crime if a Muslim becomes an atheist. Most of them who I know have left the country. I think the backlash happened because there’s a lot of Malays in the photo, and the religious authorities take it very seriously. I think that while social media has helped a lot, it has also opened up a Pandora’s Box. Many
people don’t know what their rights are. We all need to learn, to discuss, to know what people want. These discussions need to happen between the people and the authorities. You are going to be inheriting this nation. Discussions need to be had. They don’t have to be public, but they need to be had.

During Chinese New Year last month, and the months coming up to it, there were conflict of sorts, regarding the dog-themed decorations. Why do you think the Malays Muslims are so – for the lack of a better term – sensitive now? I think it’s because of the lack of interaction with other races and their education – what they have been taught or pressured by peers, teachers and family. We have lost a sense of curiosity. We are told we cannot be friends because of different faiths. Ini haram, itu halal. There’s also the fact that everything’s politicised, which contributed to that mindset.

But I wouldn’t say all Malay Muslims think like that. We have to realise that a lot of these problems happen in the federal states – when you go out of Kuala Lumpur, most Malay Muslims don’t think like that, so it would be rather unfair to group them together.

Do you think we might still be able to change for the better?

I have days where I fear the worst, but I also have days where I think “We do a lot of great things”. Some days I see mosques opening up, churches opening up, and I think it’s great. I still want to be positive. If you think about it, we are not Zimbabwe yet; we may hit that, you never know, but for the moment, we still can have little luxuries, like how you and I are talking about this topic.

In this world we live in, we cannot work in silence. The activists, the NGOs, the companies, we must talk to each other. I have seen young people rising and taking a stance. Whether you agree with them or not, they have energy, and I like young energy. Some of them are frightening, but I like how they are coming together. This country will go to the young, and we need young leadership. However, I don’t mean individuals. I think, as Malaysians, many
of us suffer this syndrome, of the cult of personality. We need a team of leaders who are tight, a collective leadership.

And sometimes, what we can do is actually easy. You don’t have to go to big campaigns and all. You just have to be genuinely curious about other people. Don’t judge them and just get to know people as people. Don’t seek to impose your views. Start with your neighbour, say “I’m genuinely interested in becoming your friend”. I know these responses sound simple, but what’s the point of going big if there’s no impact?

Dina Zaman’s “Holy Men, Holy Women: A Journey Into the Faiths of Malaysians and Other Essays”  can be purchased at bookstores nationwide and on Gerakbudaya