Malaysiakini Letter

Learning to live and let live in a multicultural society

Vinodh Pillai  |  Published:  |  Modified:

Earlier today, I called for a Grab car to my cousin's house for a tuition class. I decided to grab lunch on the way too, so I first tried finding the nearest vegetarian restaurant in the area. 

To my luck, there was a vegetarian hawker stall just ten minutes from where I was. However, it was located inside a restaurant that served pork, and catered to non-vegetarians as well as vegetarians.

While this was not a concern for me, the same could not be said with the Muslim driver I rode with when I called for a Grab car. 

He was visibly shocked when we arrived at the shop and I told him I was going to pack some food. 

While I reassured him that I was only getting vegetarian food, he was concerned that the food I was bringing into his car would not be halal. 

"But how can it not be halal," I asked him. "There is no pork or meat in any of these dishes, and the utensils the hawker owner is using is different from the ones the other stalls used," I claimed.

He shook his head at me, sighing to himself.

“You don’t understand. There might be dogs outside that shop. The vegetarian chef might be hanging out with chefs from the other stalls.

“If chefs cook non-halal food, the vegetarian chef will definitely not be halal because he mixed with the other chefs.

“Moreover, the vegetarian food might be cooked in the same place with them,he said, turning his gaze towards the restaurant now. He looked disgusted.

I was running out of time. I was sympathetic, but my class was going to start and the Grab car driver had another passenger to fetch.

I made up my mind, apologised to the driver, and decided to pack my lunch from the shop anyway. 

When I returned to the car, the driver didn't seem to be angry at me. In fact, he seemed calm and reserved. Again, I apologised and reassured him it was strictly vegetarian food that I had packed and nothing else.

The last thing I wanted was to be branded as a racist. I insisted the food was "halal".

After some time he looked at me from the rear-view mirror and said, "I just want to be a good Muslim. I hope you understand what is the meaning of ‘halal’ for my people”.

We rode together in silence after that. I could no longer accept his meaning of "halal" but I apologised anyway. I apologised for disrespecting his faith and his beliefs, even though I didn't necessarily believe his version of what “halal” entailed.

Tolerating others

A few days ago, Isma, or Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, announced that it had discovered yet another "Muslim-only" laundrette and shared pictures of a customer bringing a dog inside the premises, caressing it as he was putting his clothes into the laundry machine. This was after news of a similar case in Muar, Johor, made rounds on social media the week before. 

I'm sure Muslims who hear about a dog having been cradled by a customer in a public laundrette service would be concerned about using the same facilities. Let's not be irrational, this is something Muslims believe find impure and dirty. I don't find this racist at all.

If the Muslims are uncomfortable, what's so bad about having "Muslim-only" services? The laundrette owner in Johor had claimed that he only wanted to ensure that cleanliness is preserved at all times. Like the Grab car driver, both insisted they were not racist. 

If this is the case, ferrying passengers and providing laundrette services for all walks of life may not be the most "halal" thing in the world.

I say, let the Muslims cater to consumers who share similar restrictions and leave the rest of us be. 

I was sure there were more "unhalal" situations that the Grab car driver had been forced to tolerate. What if the Grab car driver chose to fetch a passenger going to a club, or a drunk customer? Or God forbid, ferrying a passenger actually bringing pork.

As a vegetarian, I have my own version of what is “halal” and what isn't. If the same utensils used to cook meat was mixed with the vegetarian preparations, I would generally avoid dishes made with them. 

Even if I dined with friends of mine, I would politely decline their request to eat from restaurants that do not have vegetarian dishes. Sometime I would refrain from taking purely vegetarian dishes because I was scared about the cleanliness of the utensils they would use.  

"To each his own," I would tell my dinner party if they would tell me to forgo my stand and just “eat the damn meal”, even if it was vegetarian. "You've got your own version of what halal is, and I've got mine."

Some would even tell me not to be so nitpicky about the things I eat, and that it wasn't a big deal if "the curry had a piece of chicken in it". Rolling my eyes, I learnt to tolerate. 

So if vegetarians like myself are used to doing this and still get through the day, why can't "Muslim-only" laundrette owners and Grab car drivers like mine?

If you can't put aside your concerns and learn to live in tolerance with people of other beliefs and differences, why should we? 

Perhaps it is a good idea to have a "Muslims-only" laundrette. We could also have a "Muslims-only" taxi service with "halal-friendly" customers. Customers not like me. 

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