Sunday Star talks about regulating harmony in a multi-ethnic society to two US diversity experts who were here recently on a knowledge-exchange tour under local think tank IDEAS' new unity initiative Malaysia Kita.
Eric Treene Special counsel for religious discrimination,
Civil Rights Division,
US Department of Justice.
The United States and Malaysia share a lot in religion – both countries are religiously diverse, and the people take their religions seriously, Eric Treene observes.
“In many parts of the world, multicultural societies have been trying to achieve religious tolerance through a secularist approach – by reducing religion to something relatively unimportant in people’s lives. However, both the US and Malaysia have opted for a different route – embracing a pluralistic model that protects religious freedom and equality,” he says.
“This allows both members of the majority faith and members of minority faiths to practise their religion authentically and comprehensively in their lives, including building places of worship.”
Racial and religious tolerance is now part of life in the US, says Treene, but it is mainly due to the enactment of anti-discrimination laws.
Still, these laws will only be effective if the lawmakers and law enforcers are impartial when implementing them, Treene concedes. “Although we are interfering in religious affairs, we try to do it fairly.”
Ultimately, they need to play the role of the umpire: “We need to allow people to talk openly about religious sensitivities and find their solution. History around the world show many countries have achieved harmony successfully this way.”
Recounting the African-American civil rights struggle in the US, he says one could call it “apartheid”. African-Americans in many states faced extreme discrimination in their daily lives and had a second-class status then.
“Many people wouldn’t consider hiring a black person, so it was difficult for them to get jobs. They were turned away from buying a house or renting a house in certain areas. There were separate buses and schools for blacks and whites.
“This had ripple effects on society as they were not working or living side by side, and could not get to know each other.”
Then, at the height of the civil rights struggle, the US government enacted a series of anti-discrimination laws to protect African-Americans from discrimination, ranging from employment to education.
“The legal change spurred social change. It helped to break the racial wall. And once you broke that barrier, you had people working together and living next to each other; you had integrated schools where white children and black children could become friends.
“The people would not be integrating like now if there were no discrimination laws. These mechanisms have helped integrate our society by integrating our workplace and neighbourhoods. They accelerated the change towards tolerance in the US,” says Treene.
The US anti-discrimination laws have provided them with a powerful tool to combat religious discrimination and religion-based violence.
“When it was enacted, the main purpose of the (Civil Rights) Act 1964 was to end racial discrimination but the law also barred discrimination based on national origin, gender and religion.
“It gave us such a strong infrastructure of civil rights protections and resources that decades later, in the wake of the 9/11 attack, we were able to take action against religious discrimination.
“There was a sharp rise in hate crime cases in the months after 9/11 – people were assaulted, threatened and had their properties vandalised. Using the civil rights laws, we prosecuted these cases vigorously and we saw a drop in these cases.”
It has also helped the US protect other “religious minorities” as the US grew more diverse in the last 50 years.
“Now we have a growing and thriving Muslim community, along with Sikhs, Hindus, and members of other faiths, all becoming part of the American mosaic. Achieving and ensuring the preservation of religious tolerance and harmony has thus become a more multi-faceted and complex issue.”
The laws have made it possible for the DOJ to take action against anyone who breaches them and for ordinary people to bring a lawsuit against anyone who discriminate them.
“For example, the laws have helped us ensure that an employee who wants to wear a headscarf at work can wear a headscarf without being forced to choose between their job and faith.”
Treene believes the US and Malaysia can learn a lot from each other’s experiences in managing religious diversity.
DR TIMOTHY SHAH
Religious Freedom Project,
Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs
THE Government has a key role to play in protecting people from discrimination and using the law is one way, says Dr Timothy Shah.
“If one religious or racial group is being systematically abused or discriminated against in society, the government should intervene to stop that.”
He points to the Gujerat massacre in 2002 where some 2,000 Muslims were killed in a communal violence.
“The Indian government did not take action against those who abused the religious minorities, so it escalated. And until now, the government has still not brought the people responsible to justice.
“By not doing anything, the Indian government had failed its people,” he says.
Dr Shah, however, believes that it is wrong to assume that restrictive laws are necessary to manage national unity.
“It is tempting for government to take control of religion to try to prevent religious tension. But our studies show that countries that have a high degree of government intervention in religious affairs only make it worse.”
Dr Shah cites a study by the Pew Research Centre that indicates the higher the level of government restrictions over religion, the higher the social hostilities in the country.
Indicators used for government restrictions include whether religious conversion is allowed or “sects” are denounced, while social hostilities comprise, among others, religiously motivated violence and hostility over proselytising or conversion.
Data shows that when the government intimidates religious groups, the level of social hostility is five times higher than when the government treats everyone fairly and equally.
Similarly, when a government shows “favouritism” towards one religion, the social hostility levels are five times higher than the countries without such favouritism.
The government has to stay neutral, as an “impartial referee”, or their interference in religious affairs will create more religious tension, he adds.
“Their citizens will not feel secure and will not feel society is theirs.”
Dr Shah reveals that the study shows that Malaysia has a growing restriction on religion – in 2012, Malaysia was ranked in the same group as China, Russia, Myanmar, Somalia and Eritrea.
Tension is also rife where the government dictates what is orthodox in religion, he highlights.
“The government should not be dictating this is how you pray, or this is what you should call God.The government cannot ‘play God’.
As the study shows, religious conflict will arise when there are groups who think the government is not orthodox enough.
“That is when you see governments being attacked for not being zealous enough or hard enough on religious matters, like in Saudi Arabia where the people attacked the government for not taking action against errant Muslims.
“Militant Muslims are born when people decide to take the law into their own hands – that was how Osama bin Laden’s terrorist campaign began in Saudi Arabia.”
Dr Shah believes that social harmony can only result from greater freedom.
“I hope that as Malaysia considers a path towards greater racial harmony, it will think twice about expanding the role of government in managing religious affairs.”
In highly diverse religious societies, we need to find other ways to get people to reconcile, he says.
“We need to get them to talk openly to each other about religious sensitivities. There will be tension and awkwardness at first but people will find their own way.
“They should be allowed to go through this and find their solution. History around the world show there are many countries that have achieved harmony successfully this way.”
It is difficult if there are restrictive laws on religion, he concedes.
“To have dialogues between religion, we need to remove restrictive laws, so that one side will not be scared of breaking the law while the other will not be scared of being converted.”
The litmus test for the freedom of a society is the security for its minority, stresses Dr Shah. “If the minorities in society are not secure, then society is not free.”