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Ridhuan Tee’s defence of the actions of Prime Minister Najib’s aides in removing Christian symbols from a Christmas gathering recently (Utusan Melayu, January 02 2011)  is a sad commentary on the state of national unity in our country today.

According to Tee, the presence of those symbols at a meeting with the Prime Minister would have been disrespectful to the Prime Minister’s faith.

He also went on to say that:

• Christians should tone down their celebrations to reflect their population size (about 10%) and that the way they are presently celebrating Christmas made it look like they were more than 50% of the populations.

• Najib’s presence at the celebration was a “major compromise” on his part as “according to the Islamic laws, Muslims are not supposed to attend many of the non-Islamic celebrations.” However for the sake of promoting tolerance and harmony, Najib apparently “decided to close one eye.”

• It is politically dangerous for a Muslim politician to be photographed with non-Muslim religious symbols in the background

He then went on to accuse those who took issue with the actions of Najib’s aides as troublemakers seeking political mileage.

It might be tempting to dismiss the above remarks as the ravings of an overzealous convert out to burnish his credentials; the fact that not a single Muslim minister rebuked him, however, is very telling.

This is an astounding perspective especially when you consider that Najib never entered a church and neither did he participate in a religious service. It was a tea-party held on the grounds of the Archbishop’s residence, for goodness sake!

And what would be an appropriate way for Christians to celebrate Christmas in Malaysia relative to their population size? How many Christmas lights across the country would be considered too much? How many Christmas carols would be tolerated? How many open houses at Christmas would be considered appropriate? What an asinine way of thinking?

And doesn’t he realize that most of the coloured lights and Christmas decoration that he sees all around the country are not Christians trying to be provocative but businesses capitalizing on the season to promote their products? Even Tourism Malaysian is in on the act.

And will that mean that Muslims would also celebrate Islamic events in a way that reflects their population size?

Is Tee suggesting that the practice of religion – public holidays, construction of places of worship, public financial support, television air time, etc., be based upon population size? If so, it will be a dramatic change. Some faith communities might even welcome such a move since they are at present denied proportional support for their religious activities.

It is also reflective of a growing culture being promoted by extremists to consider any association with non-Muslim religious events, even simple events like open houses, as somehow a contravention of Islamic teaching and that good Muslims have to “close one eye,” as Najib apparently had to do, in order to accommodate non-Muslims.

Some have even suggested that Muslims should not celebrate in any way (attend open houses, send greeting cards, extend wishes, etc) the religious festivals of others.

Never mind that Islamic scholars, including our own, continue to argue that Islam enjoins its followers to respect other faiths.

The verse, “To you be your religion, to me be mine,” comes to mind. A google search also turned up this verse: “Beware!  Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment” (Abu Dawud).

Tee’s views, if it becomes the accepted, must surely spell the death knell for national unity in our country because it demands that non-Muslims must somehow downplay their own faith in order to have someone like their prime minister attend even a tea party.

If the prime minister himself sets such an example it will surely become the norm everywhere very soon.

And if non-Muslims apply the same principle, they would now have to withdraw from official meeting which open with Islamic prayer or stay away from kenduris because prayers are often included.

Is this what we really want?

We used to pride ourselves on the unique Malaysian practice of hosting open houses to celebrate each other’s religious events. There was a time when the government itself took the initiative to host all the key religious events. Even His Majesty the King was sometimes present at Christmas celebrations.

Non-Muslims used to simply bow their heads in respect when Muslims prayed at public meetings. Muslims used to send Christmas cards and visit their Christian friends at Christmas. Some of my Muslim friends even entered a church when they had to attend a funeral service. It appears that all that has now been consigned to history by narrow-minded and bigoted people who have little understanding of their own faith and only antagonism and hate  towards the faith of others.

Inevitably this will push Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia further apart. If we cannot commonly celebrate, in non-religious ways, each other’s religious festivals, how can we grow in unity?

When you consider the present racial polarization that is being deliberately promoted in our country today, it is not hard to be pessimistic about the our future.

The sectarian strife in countries such as Pakistan, Iraq and Egypt did not start overnight. It grew by small steps of bigotry and prejudice. It put down roots when good men did nothing in the face of intolerance and injustice. It fed on the ambitions of unscrupulous politicians and their supporters out to win power at any cost. It was fuelled when men of faith abandoned the very principles they professed to believe in.

Slowly but surely we too appear to be headed down that road to perdition.

Ridhuan Tee, with his ethnic Chinese background and his Muslim faith might well have served as a bridge to promote unity and understanding; that he has chosen to promote disunity, discord, and intolerance instead is disappointing.

Prime Minister Najib, in line with his much-touted 1Malaysia policy could have easily set the record straight by rejecting Tee’s extremism. That he chose not to, reflects both his own shallow commitment to his own convictions and his glaring lack of real leadership.

I wonder if this is the end of that wonderful experiment in multiculturalism, decency and tolerance that was Malaysia?