In the hyper-connected world where information travels fast via the border-less cyber space, an attempt to control confessional faith conversion via laws that prohibit a human being from engaging with others is superficial. No proselytizing effort can convert a person into any faith as believe in God is a free will and a matter of conviction in ones’ heart. As for Christians, it is by the work of the Holy Spirit that one is born again. Christians and Muslims need to put extra effort to engage with each other so that misinformation and distrust that layered throughout the history of the Muslim-Christian relations is reduced or eliminated. The boundaries of da’wa and evangelism must be agreed and followed in a way that promotes mutual respect and flourishing of the whole community.
A Brief Background on HIMPUN and Response from Key Religious Groups
About one thousand people from 25 NGOs have responded to join the One Million Gathering of Muslims or ‘Himpunan Sejuta Umat’ (HIMPUN) at Shah Alam Stadium, Malaysia on Saturday, 22nd October, 2011. And the permit for gathering was issued last Tuesday. The planned rally is against some Christians who are viewed as “challenging the sovereignty of Islam.”
This sentiment has been simmering due to the insurgence of unprecedented events related to faith such as; Lina Joy’s court case on apostasy; the banning of the word ‘Allah’ in Christian materials publication; confiscation of 35,000 of Indonesian language bibles and other Christian books; stamping the page of the Indonesian language Bibles with the words “For Christians Only”; cow head protest against the construction of Hindu temples; bombing of Christians, Muslims and Sikhs’ worship places; the exaggerated figure of 250,000 Muslims leaving Islam; and the August 2011 raid of Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) by Selangor’s Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) where fifteen Malays were found attending this HIV patient fund-raising dinner event. The alleged is the proselytizing of Malay Muslims, mainly into Christianity.
Some medias report that the gathering also receives support from political parties even though it claims to be apolitical. In general, the public response has been both; positive and negative. Islamic Renaissance Front for example objectively commented online, “In this there are two outstanding questions that should occur to any sincere and concerned Muslim. If it is true that apostasy is as serious a problem as it is claimed, then we must ask, what is it about Muslim culture and education in Malaysia that is compelling many Muslims to leave the faith? In addition, what can Malaysian Muslims do as a community to reform that culture to further enlighten, rather than alienate, its own members?” Another interesting comment came from the Communication Director of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (a coalition of opposition parties) who questioned on lessons that can be learned from the positive growth of Islam in the West in spite of its lack of governmental and institutional protectionism.
The President of Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM) Rev. Dr. Thomas Phillips, who is also the President of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) disagreed with calling the rally off, saying every individual in the country reserves the right to freedom of speech and assembly. Like many others, he agreed that the gathering may provoke religious tension between people of different faiths. Some of the Christian leaders in Malaysia responded that the fight against proselytizing via the gathering is irrelevant. The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) chairman Rev Eu Hong Seng spoke with the Malaysian Insider that the Selangor Sultan had already decreed that there was insufficient evidence of proselytization in the raid made by JAIS to DUMC.
Malaysian teenagers joyfully celebrating Depavali November 2011
Where is Malaysia as a Member of a Global Faith Community Heading Tomorrow?
Will the number of participants that respond via Facebook increase by Saturday? This is hard to speculate. Regardless of the number, the lesson learned from the Arab Spring indicates that the root of any problems cannot simply be resolved via demonstration.
From HIMPUN leaders meeting with Cabinet’s Special Committee, which is set-up to promote Inter-religious Understanding and Harmony, yesterday night, one of the demands that was brought forth was the enactment of a law punishing those guilty of proselytizing the Muslims. Will this resolve the growing number of conversion of Muslims to Christianity or to other faiths in Malaysia? What are the roots of the problems?
Article 11 of the Federal Constitution ensures that every Malaysian has the right to profess and practice his or her religion of choice. However there is a jurisdiction granted by Article 11(4) of the federal constitution to permit the state to control or restrict the propagation of religion among people professing to be Muslims. The question is; can the propagation of any religion be curbed by one law or a set of laws when there are so many means to disperse and acquire information in this knowledge and information technology era? What are really the so-called acts of proselytizing? Would an azan or a call for prayer from a minaret considered proselytizing? Would distribution of the Bibles considered proselytizing?
The discourse on Muslims apostatizing from Islamic faith goes on but what is unspoken in the space of this dialogue is that many are also embracing Islam. For example, a youtube screened a story of Pastor Yohannes and his father, also a Christian, who used to head 15 Churches in Sabah, converted to Islam. Examples of three world renowned male who convert into Islam are Malcolm X, Mike Tyson, and Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Steven. And an example of a prominent female convert is Dr. Ingrid Mattson a professor at Hartford Seminary USA, a Canadian who became the first woman President of Islamic Society of North America – the largest Muslim association in North America. Unlike Lina Joy, Dr. Mattson enjoys the freedom in converting into Islam in this Christian majority country.
One of the most controversial cases related to apostasy was the conversion of a Coptic Church priest’s wife Camilia Shehata. The rumor said that she was abducted by a Coptic Church and this triggered bloodshed and the burning of churches. Al-jazeera news recently reported her appearance with her family in a television program saying that she has never converted and is now back with her husband.
Extinguishing fire from the burning Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt
We also read on the imprisonment of Syed Mossa from Kabul, Afghanistan and Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian, who is now on re-trial for a new charge. Both were initially sentenced to death for apostatizing from Islamic faith. The response from Islamic scholars on this matter varies. Mustafa Akyol, the author of ‘Islam without extremes: A muslim case for liberty’ wrote that death penalty is only applicable for specific context:
“apostasy” in that context meant changing your side in battle. (That’s why the Hanafi school of jurisprudence gave the death penalty to only males, assuming that they would become enemy combatants, whereas females were not expected to join any war effort.)
Perhaps, opting to the guidelines developed by Oslo Coalition for the Freedom of Religion and Belief on Proselytism and Human Rights will somewhat be helpful. Or, opting for common ethical values in dealing with such issue from within the Islamic and Christian traditions would be the solution? After all, both are of Abraham faiths and loving God and loving neighbors, although interpreted with slight differences, are part of their traditions.
Today, the Bible and the online Quran in their original and vernacular languages, commentaries of the Quran by Yusof Ali, al-Jalalayn, al-Tabari, al-Baydawi and al-Manar, various Bible versions – King James, American Standard Version, New International Version, and other faith related materials are available from the countless number of websites and Youtubes. They are also accessible via IPhone, IPod, kindle, and blackberry. It is too late to reverse the clock. There are far too many informative mediums in this IT age.
In this 21st Century, no government that considers itself a modern nation can curb their citizens’ accessibility to the information and communication technologies (ICTs) and prevent them from engaging critically with this virtual epistemological space. In other words, in the hyper-connected world where information travels border-less in a short span of time, an attempt to curb confessional faith conversion via laws is superficial and futile. The last question still remains. If mitigating conversion or enforcing constitutional religion is still possible, would God judge our faith by what is coerced written on a legal document? Perhaps, many bandwagons will lose their passengers if they failed to give the right answer to this simple question.