Monday 24 October 2011

Faith and Inspiration Down Under by Marina Mahathir

 Can such religious tolerance ever happen in Malaysia? - 1Christians

I was invited to give the keynote speech at a conference on Ten Years after 9/11: Rebuilding Harmony organised by the Centre for Muslim States and Societies (CMSS), University of Western Australia. I jumped at the chance to speak on the role of civil society to rebuild harmony because it gave me a chance to think and write about something a bit different and to meet some people I'd only heard about before especially Prof Samina Yasmeen, the head of CMSS.

Perth weather was glorious, cool but sunny. And the conference was terrific. The auditorium at the University Club was full and the line-up of speakers was interesting. Although it did not start too well. The US Consul-General was given the chance to speak first and to everyone's disappointment she spoke only of the victims of what happened in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC that day and didn't even mention Iraq and Afghanistan. In the question and answer session that followed, the audience which comprised various Australian academics, journalists, students and anyone who was interested in the subject, asked her some tough questions which she just managed to answer in as calm a manner as possible.

This made me doubly nervous about my speech and I wondered if the audience would be as tough as me. I spoke about how what happened in New York on September 11 was a terrible catastrophe and that we should remember not just those who died in those three American cities but also those in the many wars in other countries since. I spoke about how because of September 11, the civil liberties of Americans, especially Muslim Americans, have been very much curtailed and growing Islamophobia all around the world has made life more difficult for everyone, especially when there are deranged individuals like Anders Breivik in the world.

I also talked about how, sadly, Muslims themselves have often not helped matters, responding in ways that only served to confirm the stereotype in the Western media of the wild-eyed angry Arab man. And how these negative global defensiveness have translated into local defensiveness, including in our beloved country Malaysia where some politicians have used race and religion to polarise people.

But there have been attempts by ordinary people to build bridges and mend ties between different faith communities. I cited Fast for the Nation two years ago and Tali Tenang early last year as two examples of community-level action to unite people and resist attempts by others to drive a wedge between Malaysians. I also talked about how the Arab Spring has done so much to break stereotypes about Muslims by showing that the hunger for freedom and for human rights to be respected is universal, as much wanted by Muslims as anyone else.

To my relief, my audience approved heartily. Over coffee I had several Australians, including some elderly people, come up and say that I had expressed what they thought, that the response to September 11, as terrible as it was, was out of proportion and unjust. Too many people died because of it and too much money was wasted on weapons.

Jarrod McKenna speaking about his work

The other speakers were even more enlightening. Dr Azza Anne Aly from Curtin University spoke about other community actions to rebuild harmony. A wellknown radio presenter on religious affairs, John Cleary, spoke about how the media talked about September 11 and how that helped or clouded understanding about the event. A Christian youth leader, Jarrod McKenna, talked about 'loving thy enemy' and how he had worked on a project to getting the people who had raised funds to kill his friend in the Bali bombings to see others as human beings and therefore to stop using violence on them.

Me with some of the lovely students from the Australian Islamic College who had come to attend the conference.

After the conference, we went to St George's Cathedral, the main Anglican church in Perth, to attend a choral evensong marking the 10th anniversary of September 11. The church looks modest from the outside but inside has the beautiful stained glass windows that lend a glow to the place and makes it look majestic. The guests that day included the Governor of Western Australia, the Premier, the Lord Mayor of Perth ( who is a woman by the way), the US Consul General and a representative of the WA Leader of the Opposition.

Imam Muhammad (in white cap) waiting to speak

But it was the service itself that was impressive. After some initial hymns, Sheikh Muhammad Agherdieu, the imam of the Masjid al Taqwa in Mirrabooka near Perth got up and recited, in Arabic, the first surah of the Quran, the AlFatihah. For those who may not know what this surah says, here's the English translation which was available in the service programme:

In the Name of of God, the Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace.

Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds!
The compassionate, the merciful!
King on the day of reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.
Guide Thou us on the straight path,
The path of those to whom Thou hast been gracious, with whom thou
art not angry, and who go not astray.

I have to confess that although I knew the imam was going to get up and speak, as soon as he began to recite the AlFatihah, I became overwhelmed by emotions and burst into tears. I think it was because I realised that I would never have this experience at home, where just to be in a place of worship not my own would cause people to suspect my faith. Yet here was an imam confidently getting up to recite the Quran, in its original language, in a church. As far as I could tell, his faith remained intact.

Mine on the other hand expanded and soared. My heart was filled with love for an Islam that is generous and compassionate and respectful of other faiths.

In addition to the AlFatihah, Imam Muhammad recited Surah 3:64:

Say:O People of the book! Let us come together upon a formula which is common between us -that we shall not serve anyone but God, that we shall associate none with Him.

and Surah 42:15:

Because of this*, then, summon us all to pursue the right course, as thou has been bidden (by God); and do not follow their likes and dislikes, but say: "I believe in whatever revelation God has bestowed from on high; and I am bidden to bring about equity in your mutual views**. Good is our Sustainer as well as your Sustainer. To us shall be accounted our deed, and to you, your deeds. Let there be no contention between us and you. God will bring us all together for with Him is all journeys' end."

(* I.e., because of this breach of the original unity of men’s faith in the One God.(Quran Ref: 42:15 ))

(** Lit., "between you" - i.e., "to induce you to be more tolerant of one another": evidently an allusion to the bitterness which stands in the way of an understanding between the various sects and schools of thought in all revealed religions.(Quran Ref: 42:15 ))
The service then continued with more hymns, lessons and prayers including one by Rabbi David Freilich, the Perth Hebrew Congregation, Chief Rabbi of Western Australia. This was preceded by the laying of a commemorative wreath by the US Consul General and various other local Americans.

Imam Muhammad greeting Rabbi Freilich and his wife

After the service we all had some refreshments in the courtyard outside, in the nice cool weather. I was introduced to the Imam and his wife, a lovely couple who, if you closed your eyes, sounded indistinguishable from any other Australian. While we were chatting, the Chief Rabbi came by to say hello and these two religious officials greeted each other warmly. No, lightning did not strike anyone dead just then.

I have been to many multifaith events and they are always inspiring and gratifying. They make me feel hope that things can change for the better. But later on I went on John Cleary's radio show Sunday Nights where we talked about the conference, about the work of Sisters in Islam, and about being a young Muslim in Australia. (Listen to the podcast here.) As always, there are the detractors. But at least everyone gets an airing.

Anyway it was a good experience and I made some new friends. And for a while I felt united with the world. Perhaps one little good thing did come out of September 11.

And talking of good things, tonight the PM announced the repeal of many of the laws we don't like including the ISA. It's almost unbelievable. But since it is Malaysia Day tomorrow, I'm going to allow myself to bask in positivity for at least the next 24 hours and feel happy.

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