Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

The Malaysian Department of Islamic Development recently posted on its website the ‘Guidelines for Muslims Celebrating Religious Festivals of Non-Muslims,’ issued by the National Fatwa Committee for Islamic Religious Affairs during its 68th muzakarah (discussion) on April 12, 2005.

The guidelines have been posted there to serve as a reminder to Muslims not to violate the teachings of Islam if they intend to attend the religious festivals of non-Muslims. So, what are the religious events and activities that Malaysian Muslims shouldn’t join? Well, they shouldn’t take part if:

1. The event is accompanied by ceremonies that are against the Islamic faith;

2. The event is accompanied by acts against the Islamic law;

3. The event is accompanied by acts that contradict the moral and cultural development of Muslim society in this country;

4. The event is accompanied by acts that can stir the sensitivity of Muslim community.

These criteria seem to be reasonable, since they only advise the faithful not to participate in events that contradict Islamic values. But the religious authorities, who probably don’t want a liberal interpretation of the guidelines, have given specific examples of anti-Islamic practices.

Based on the guidelines, ceremonies and acts that violate Islam include the use of religious symbols such as the cross, lights, candles and Christmas trees. Muslims also can’t wear red costumes like Santa Claus outfits or other garments that reflect religion. Possession of ornaments like church bells, Christmas decorations and the breaking of coconuts are also prohibited. Muslims also can’t sing songs that take the form of non-Muslim religious propaganda. Are Christmas carols off limits then?

The ban on the wearing of conspicuous clothing, organizing beauty pageants and cock-fighting might also seem a bit extreme to some, but are perhaps understandable for a Muslim-dominated country like Malaysia. Indeed, in a sense, the guidelines aren’t entirely unjust because some of the prescriptions are genuinely aimed at protecting the Islamic faith. For example, Muslims can’t listen to speeches that insult Muslims and Islam. They also can’t attend ceremonies that serve intoxicating food or beverages.

However, the guidelines include an instruction to the public to first consult with religious authorities before attending the religious festivals of non-Muslims. Does this mean a Muslim employee is violating Islamic teachings if he attends an office Christmas party without asking permission from religious officials?

Ultimately, these guidelines are in conflict with the avowed aim of the government to promote religious harmony in multiracial Malaysia. Even the prime minister’s political slogan and major campaign programme is called 1Malaysia, with a stated goal of preserving and enhancing ‘this unity in diversity which has always been our strength and remains our best hope for the future.’

Malaysia should continue promoting pluralism—and that includes tolerating the religious practices of all its people. If Malaysia instead favours a strict implementation of religious edicts, it could end up encouraging mob attacks targeting religious minorities, similar to what’s now happening in many parts of Indonesia.

Written for The Diplomat

Thailand-Cambodia border row

The ongoing border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand can’t just be about the Preah Vihear Temple—if the clashes really are motivated only by patriotic determination to defend ownership, then these two neighbours have gone mad.

The ‘idiocy of the situation,’ as described by Thailand-based twitter user @thaitvnews refers to the irony of two Buddhist countries fighting over a ruined 900-year-old Hindu temple. Let’s also not forget that the contested territory on which the temple is located covers only about 1.8 square miles (4.6 square kilometres). It’s therefore difficult to comprehend why two countries are ready to go to war, and risk dangerous instability in the region, over such a tiny piece of land.

But if it’s not about the temple, then what are they fighting for?

My guess is that the real aim of both Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is to strengthen their respective domestic leadership credentials. The border dispute, despite its unpleasant portrayal in the international press, serves the political interests of Sen and Vejjajiva. The two leaders seem to be basically using this ‘patriotic war’ to drum up civilian support for their governments. More specifically, they could be planning to project the image of a decisive leader ahead of elections—Thais go to the polls this year, and Cambodians next year.

The war could also be a pretext for requesting bigger military budgets this year, while also helping distract the public from their empty pockets and lack of freedoms.

Whatever the motivations, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of nationalism. More Cambodians, for example, seem to be expressing anger in cyberspace these days, especially since their leaders reminded them that the Khmer Empire was once the oldest and largest in the region, but that centuries of war and invasion have trimmed the country to the size of the state of Missouri. Meanwhile, ultra-nationalists in Thailand are trying to prod the government to take over Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in exchange for the Preah Vihear Temple.

Sen and Vejjajiva, who are supposed to be calming their citizens, are only encouraging more hatred by issuing bellicose political statements.

The United Nations is hesitant to intervene, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as expected, is powerless to implement a peaceful settlement of the issue. Still, they probably offer the best outside chance of preventing the tense situation on the border from deteriorating.

But more importantly, let’s hope that the peace-loving citizens of Cambodia and Thailand reject the war rhetoric of the ultra nationalists in their own countries. They should realize that real patriotism isn’t about supporting warmongers, but exposing the unpatriotic motives of their politicians.

Written for The Diplomat

One Response to “No Christmas for Malaysian Muslims?”

  1. Faith comes from the heart not because of looks from the outside.


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