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The severed head of a cow was recently the center of attention in Malaysia as a group of more than 50 Muslim men gathered outside a state mosque and marched to a government office proudly carrying a cow's head as a symbol of protest while chanting the world-famous praise "Allahu akbar." The subject of the protest was as strange as the symbol called upon to represent it: The Muslim group was against the construction of a Hindu temple in their district. "I challenge the state to go on with the temple construction. I guarantee bloodshed and the state will be held responsible. Allahu akbar!" said the group's spokesman.
"With a temple in our area, we cannot function properly as Muslims. The temple would disrupt our daily activities," said another. It is difficult to imagine how a Hindu place of worship could prevent Muslims from functioning properly. More so when such temples do not blare out calls to prayer five times a day beginning at dawn, as is done by mosques across the nation.
The motivation behind parading a cow's head for their cause was obvious: Hindus deem the cow a sacred animal. The Muslim protesters spat at the cow's head and took turns stepping on it as if to display the superiority of their faith. The subject of the protest, and the symbol chosen to represent it, reinforced a common fear among non-Muslim minorities: that religious intolerance is becoming increasingly entrenched in Malaysian society.
IN NOVEMBER 2007, some 30,000 Hindus marched the streets of Kuala Lumpur to protest against discrimination and alleged systematic demolition of Hindu temples by the state.
The protesters met the full force of the state's chemical-laced water cannons and tear gas canisters. Thirty-one protesters who threw the canisters back at the officers were arrested and questionably charged with attempted murder. The five organizers of the protest were detained without trial for some 18 months. In stark contrast, the cow-head protest went ahead without any police intervention.
Malaysia is a nation of contradictions: Secular in constitution, Islamic in practice, its portrayal of racial tolerance is belied by an apartheid-like policy against its non-Muslim minorities. At the heart of these contradictions lies a nostalgic pull away from the secular to emulate life at the time of the prophet. The battle cry of the fundamentalists' cause is heard everywhere, with the nation's voices of reason forced to turn to the Internet.
Religious rows dominate national media: Students arrested for handing Christian pamphlets to Muslims; protests outside churches suspected of facilitating Muslim apostasy; a ban prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word "Allah"; Islamic rehabilitation centers "persuading" Muslims against conversion; a Muslim mother sentenced to be caned for consuming beer, with the woman's father urging the authorities to cane his daughter in public to make her an example. What might be deemed lunacy in the modern world pervades life in Malaysia, troubling its non-Muslim minorities as well as its liberal Muslims.
MALAYSIA STRUGGLES to separate Islam and state governance. The young nation, however, does not stand alone at such a crossroad. Many others are seeing a resurgence of religion, prompting calls for national identity along lines of faith. States that identify with a particular faith face the challenge of religious tolerance - an idea which usually contradicts the assumed faith.
While religion can be a positive influence, when taken to extremes, it can enshrine ignorance, placing unwarranted parameters in the minds of the faithful. It can also sow seeds of prejudice against nonbelievers, as demonstrated in Malaysia.
The religious often fail to appreciate that faith is not fact, and that people can find spirituality in more ways than one, regardless of faith. Amid universal belief by all faiths that there is a higher power; if someday God revealed Himself, the irony is that God would likely be rejected by the respective religious groups if the message He conveyed did not conform to their expectations and received teachings from holy books and texts.
The writer is the author of The Book of Walla, a controversial but light-hearted novel where God is sued for giving man religion and the conflicts between the many faiths are brought to trial. The Book of Walla has been banned in Malaysia.