By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

Religion has become a non-issue for me over the years. I usually don’t take positions defending or protecting any specific ones or their adherents. However, recent events have piqued my interest in this matter with the now infamous incident of controversial Islamic preacher Muhammad Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu insulting Hinduism. This is unsurprising as the man has Zakir Naik as a mentor, the tiresome so-called scholar of ‘comparative religion’ whose handling of other religions is laughably mediocre with the sole intention to make Islam seem superior.

The good medical doctor and his protégé are obviously interested in one thing only. Proselytisation. Normally such matters of religion would not interest me, the usual understanding that everyone is free to choose whatever religion they want to follow is enough for me. However, I can’t help but feel there is some level of hypocrisy going on here.

In Malaysia, according to the Federal Constitution, Article 3 (1) states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation”. However, Article 11 (4) states “State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam”. From that, 10 out of 13 states in Malaysia have state level enactments to control the propagation of non-Islamic religions to Muslims. For the Federal Territories, section 5 of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act, 1997 (Act 559) makes it an offence for any person to proselytise a Muslim to a non-Islamic religion.

The logic for this is usually that the religion of Islam is the religion of Malaysia and so occupies a higher stratum in society. Perhaps this is enough. However, I believe that the fact that Islam is the religion of Malaysia is not enough to justify this inequality. Giving the privilege to Islamic preachers and proselytisers to convert anyone not in their faith whilst taking away the same power from non-Islamic ones pushes other religions to be in such a vulnerable position that it is akin to oppression. In fact, the freedom with which Muslims may talk about the advantages of their religion compared to others may lead to casual situations which may cause mental stresses to non-Muslims as the reverse is rather illegal.

For example, most non-Muslims would have found themselves in a situation where a Muslim acquaintance will casually suggest to them to convert to Islam. Usually, this would follow some suggestive act such as the non-Muslim exhibiting extraordinary knowledge of Islam, showing romantic interest in another Muslim individual or simply a personal gathering of friends usually in residential schools. The non-Muslims in this scenario would usually awkwardly smile and change the subject. As aggressions go, this is definitely a minor one but small incidents like this build up a lot of resentment within the non-Muslim community, which then manifests itself as a general annoyance towards Muslims. The scary thing is, I am not at all being Islamophobic, all of this is real.

Can we imagine a situation where the reverse is possible? Say, if a Christian was to suggest to a Muslim to convert into Christianity, what position would they be in? This would be illegal and prosecutable. We live in a country where putting the word Allah in the Holy Bible is disallowed, even for communities that have been using the term to refer to their God (the god from the Bible) for as long as they can remember. Already there are conspiracy theories of Christian Malays from Indonesia being smuggled into Malaysia to convert other Malays. This is a scandal.

However, when it is Zakir Naik or Zamri Vinoth doing the proselytising, this is deemed kosher. Why this privilege is acceptable is beyond me. Surely if there is such a thing as fairness amongst religions, either all proselytising would be allowed or none would. Perhaps this has to do with the dakwah (specifically Islamic preaching or proselytising) is an important part of the Islamic faith. To be fair, the equivalents to it do exist in other faiths but maybe the subjugation of small parts of other faiths are what make Islam comparatively special in Malaysia. If this is the case, I am moved to ask whether such a policy is fair or necessary.

Especially with regards to the named preachers, misleading statements and untruths are liberally spread for the exaltation of Islam. For example, Zakir Naik, a medical doctor by training, often asserts that the Theory of Evolution, the very bedrock of modern biology, is only a theory to solidify his worldview of creationism. His arguments disregard the difference between the definitions of a theory in the layman sense and a theory in the scientific sense. He additionally would go further to focus on the lack of knowledge on the part of Charles Darwin instead of taking into consideration the modern Theory of Evolution which goes much further than Darwin had.

Naik’s handling of other religions is even more egregious. His modus operandi is to memorise religious texts to quote in his speeches that give him an air of authority when presenting his arguments or analysis on them. However, he usually takes them out of context and reinterprets them to suit his own narrative. There are speeches he has given where actual practitioners of other faiths present counter arguments that are dismissed by Naik with no rebuttals except that he knows more. Naik is supremely confident that his congregation will never fault him, instead would ridicule the other speaker over him every time.

This is a dangerous mob mentality that is prevalent even in Malaysia. The Zamri Vinoth video shows what can happen when out of context plucking of religious facts can lead to. After he states that there are 330 million gods in Hinduism in a derisive manner, it was backed up by similar preachers like Firdaus Wong, who asserts that what Zamri said was accurate, quoting the book Malaiur Manikam by local author Uthaya Sankar SB. What both Firdaus and Zamri fail to understand is that a cursory reading of Hinduism would reveal the context of 330 million gods. They are the manifestations of the Ultimate Reality called Brahman. Hinduism can even be said to be monotheistic (although even this is not very accurate as Hinduism allows for various interpretations of theism, and even some atheistic elements as well).

The congregation is obfuscated from seeing these nuances because they have accepted the speaker as an expert in the matter (Zamri is a recent convert from Hinduism into Islam whereas Zakir Naik exudes expertise through his impressive memory). Any argument that would strengthen the preconceived notions of the group are accepted as true without much intellectual rigour. Then again, this isn’t much different from certain non-Muslims. There is ignorance and suspicion enough to go around, especially when it comes to necessary conversion when it comes to marriage. Whatever of this that we see with Muslims is reflected on the non-Muslim side, make no mistake.

However, whereas non-Muslims are barred from talking so openly about their skewed views on Islam, Muslims are not. They are presented with arguments against other faiths with the security that their religion is untouchable. Psychologically, this elevation creates a sense of privilege where one’s conviction in their religion is cemented to such a point that the supposed silliness of other religions is a matter of fact. Of course other religions are inferior, this is why my religion is protected.

What we really need within society is proper understanding of beliefs. It’s not my business to instruct anyone how to form beliefs but I feel there is a real inequality between how Islam is differentiated from other religions. There is some hope when most Facebook comments on Zamri Vinoth’s video from Muslims were disapproving of his behaviour. It is heartening to see that ordinary Malaysians are willing to call out his hypocrisy. It’s also not as if he got away with his spiel as well as he had been investigated by the police.

Honestly, I don’t agree with the investigation as it impeded on free speech but there is a need to reassess. The inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims in terms of how their religions are treated needs to be addressed. We need to create a space where open discussion between faiths can happen without anyone trying to capitalise to pull more supporters towards them. If we are being honest, the way the state propagates this has to change as well. Perhaps all proselytization needs to be banned. Perhaps none should. Perhaps there is a third alternative. I don’t know.

What I do know is, as of now, we have is rhetoric-filled Muslims with the sole intention of converting non-Muslims without much intellectual honesty. This can be seen from the glorification of Facebook pages like Fakir Islam. This is not to say that non-Muslims would be any better if they were allowed to proselytise Muslims as similar ignorance can be seen in attempts to convert other non-Muslims from one faith into another. However, with state power backing Muslim proselytization, I believe we need to take a step back and address the inequality for the sake of preserving unity between religions in Malaysia.

Note: I do not necessarily agree with the deportation of Zakir Naik as the Modi government does have anti-Muslim tendencies. I simply disagree with his methods and argue that it causes inequalities between holders of different faiths.

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