On the eve of our 62nd National Day, Malaysia, as a nation is facing developments that may disrupt its social fabric.
Sporadic yet worrying incidents involving ethnic relations have revealed the fragile state of social unity in the nation despite gaining independence 62 years ago.
Ironically, these events took place after the country’s change of government in last year’s general election, which purportedly paved the way for more a open and free society.
The recent incidents could be an unintended consequence of a complex set of socio-political change.
The reluctance to endorse jawi and khat as part of the syllabus by vernacular schools and the controversies surrounding Islamic preacher Dr Zakir Naik may be the tip of the iceberg of a more complex majority-minority dynamics in the country.
Since 1957, the country’s quest to achieve national consensus in regard to inter-ethnic relations remains a crucial challenge.
This situation, if left un-checked, may lead to further social and political disintegration, which contributes to egocentric behaviour, norm violation and distrust of public authority.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by Oxford Balvitnik’s School of Government, demographic division continues to be a major obstacle in developing healthy inter-ethnic relations in Malaysia.
Malaysians, in this sense, do not have much opportunity to foster inter-ethnic interaction and friendship due to lack of diversity in their neighbourhoods, schools and workplace.
Additionally, the study found that religion can pose a barrier to national integration if not approached from a proper angle.
To avoid a decline in social cohesion, there must be a framework of peaceful coexistence.
Islam, from its early inception, has always been committed to promoting the idea of co-existence among different religions and ethnic groups.
The Quran is replete with injunctions that promote good treatment of the non-believers: “Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed Allah loves those who act justly” (Al-Mumtahanah (60): 8).
Prophet Muhammad has also shown an exemplary tolerance and respect towards other religions.
In a hadith, the Prophet proclaimed that: “He who harms a peaceful/contracted non-Muslims, harms me; and he who harms me harms Allah.”
This principle is also enshrined in the Madinan Charter, a treaty between the Prophet and Madinan people that guaranteed their religious and civil liberty, regardless of faith.
In the modern context, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, an Islamic scholar and former minister of Mauritania, has been a leading force in promoting the concept of peaceful coexistence at the international stage.
In 2016, Bin Bayyah was among the key figures to initiate the Marrakesh Declaration, a document that represents Islam’s commitment to coexisting with other religions and protecting the rights of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
Notwithstanding these principles, the need for systemic approaches in dealing with such complex social phenomena is paramount.
Merely introducing new laws or imposing policies with the hope of improvement is not likely to work in a complex situation of social disintegration.
In this context, causes and effects do not operate in a straightforward fashion due to multiple interlocking factors.
Instead, developing ecosystems of change and confidence- building measures would more likely influence the system and generate good results.
Moreover, these approaches would be better attuned to the perspectives of different social actors, such as the government, philanthropies, religious institutions, non-governmental organisations and the private sector.
Only then can a more holistic picture of reality be discerned and causes of social problems be identified.
With such comprehensive measures, the actors involved could how past solutions would not work or even make things worse.
They may then develop initiatives that will become a fertile ground for system-wide changes.
In sum, in appreciating their independence, it is high time Malaysians revive their commitment to nation-building and coexistence through religious consciousness coupled with systems-based strategies.
The writer is a research fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Thursday 05 September 2019