Why interfaith celebrations bring me such joy

Martin Vengadesan

Modified 1 Jul 2019, 8:54 am

COMMENT | I’m one of those Malaysians who don’t have a religious or cultural holiday to make a big deal of. The primary reason being that I don’t believe in an afterlife nor any deities.

However, I have always loved how Malaysians can share their goodwill and joyous celebrations with one another.

When I was a kid, Hari Raya meant going to the houses of my father’s colleagues, from one to another, trying hard to avoid overdosing on beef rendang - let’s be honest, I wasn’t trying at all and usually wound up groaning from having eaten too much!

We also did the rounds during Chinese New Year, besides having our own extended family gatherings for Deepavali and Christmas. Good times they were. The concept of an open house is so generous and welcoming – a lovely advertisement for faith and harmony.

To this day, when someone complains about too much traffic in front of a place of worship, I disagree with them – again, I see it as part of what’s good about Malaysia. Hindus have Thaipusam, Muslims celebrate on Fridays and Christians on Sundays. We all take turns and respect that one another needs ‘room to celebrate’.

That is great.

That’s why every right-thinking Malaysian (or should that be left-thinking?) should be upset by the recent turn of events that have seen simple gestures of goodwill dragged through the mud.

There’s been a war of words over the decision of PKR’s Johor Bahru MP to celebrate the breaking of fast in a Sikh gurdwara (photo, above).

I thought it was a great gesture of both sides and the sort of cross-cultural kinship that we should be embracing at a time when extremists are trying to turn us against one another. Instead, Akmal Nasir found himself attacked by cyber troopers, rebuked by the state Ruler and most recently, became the inspiration for a preposterous diatribe by PAS information chief Nasrudin Hassan (below).

Some said this was a subtle form of preaching to Muslims, casually ignoring the fact that Sikhism isn’t a religion that seeks to convert adherents to its faith.

Nasrudin went a step further, even charging that there is a conspiracy of ‘liberalisation’ by ‘enemies of Islam’ who try to play on ‘interfaith understanding and harmony’.

He said: “They want to destroy the spirit of the Muslims to pursue syariah. They want to push the argument that Islamic law does not need to be accepted because of the plural society and the respect for religious diversity.”

How has it come to this, I thought, sadly. How can there be such a twisted narrative that brothers and sisters from different faiths cannot come together to celebrate?

Remember New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s gesture of solidarity when she mourned, while wearing a headscarf (below) after the Christchurch terror attacks?

Remember how during the Arab Spring in 2011, Christians formed a ring preventing riot police from attacking their Muslim brothers who were praying at Tahrir Square?

These are beautiful gestures needed at a time like this. When the world’s terrorist extremists on both sides of the divide are trying to provoke us into disunity and hate – hands that reach out to one another are what we need.

Not hands clenched in fists or raised in surrender.

A friend of mine messaged about Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto's decision to give away zakat hampers at a mosque in her constituency.

“They don’t like it bro. Maybe we should stop?” he asked via WhatsApp.

“Who doesn’t like it?” I retorted. “I don’t think I know anyone who is so close-minded. Just look at the action. She’s showing respect wearing the headscarf. They are showing respect by inviting her as a community leader. What’s wrong with the gesture on both sides?"

I guess times have changed, but even this past Ramadan, I have been fortunate to experience buka puasa four times with Muslim friends and colleagues. I may not share the religion, but I feel honoured to experience, together with them, moments like this.

On one occasion, the Muslim family I was with made special vegetarian dishes out of respect for my needs. I was so touched by the kind gesture, for it creates such a positive impact of kinship. I don’t know why anyone would want to break Malaysians apart by threatening interfaith celebrations.

(PS: If you are cross-checking this vegetarianism with the beef rendang I referenced earlier in the article, I became vegetarian in 1993).

My own extended family celebrations of religious festivals are almost a thing of the past.

Well, they still exist but they are of a very different nature since my siblings and three-quarters of my cousins have migrated. So it’s family without many young children and it doesn’t feel the same at all.

Indeed, their migration was due in no small part to the same sort of chauvinistic thinking that led to another national tragedy – the brain drain.

We need to look at the shared values that make this country such a wonderful place. Sharing joy across communities is truly Malaysian. Don’t let anyone spoil it.

MARTIN VENGADESAN is a member of the Malaysiakini Team.

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