A lesson on race and religion for Malaysians. By Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Idris

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A new year begins, but last year’s “1Malaysia” campaign, which promotes multiculturalism and understanding between religious and ethnic communities throughout Malaysia, is still going strong.
The mere need for this kind of public campaign for unity and the recent violence marking the beginning of this year both suggest that something is seriously wrong in Malaysia: we have become obsessed with petty issues regarding race and religion.
Last year, Muslims brought a cow's severed head to a mosque to show their anger over the building of a nearby Hindu temple. And a few weeks ago, incendiary devices were thrown into churches–the Metro Tabernacle Church in Kuala Lumpur, the Assumption Church, the Life Chapel Church and The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church–all in Petaling Jaya, a small town near Kuala Lumpur, following the controversy over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians in Malaysia.
It seems as though we are facing a solid wall of bigotry that stems from ignorance, intolerance, suspicion, a shunning of our own neighbours and, yes, even hatred.
And yet, it is written in the Qur'an: “And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender." (29:46).
In his own lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad dealt with Christians justly. He ordered two of his followers–Abu Musa Al-Ash’aree and Mu’aadh ibn Jabal–to go to Najran (part of present-day Yemen) to speak to the Christians there. This is recorded in the following hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Facilitate things for the people, and do not make things difficult for them, and give them glad tidings, and let them not have aversion and you should both work in cooperation and mutual understanding; obey each other.”
After the Prophet Muhammad’s death, Caliph Omar bin Khattab signed a peace treaty with the Christians of Jerusalem, which stated: “This is the protection which the servant of God, Omar, the Ruler of the Believers has granted to the people of Jerusalem. The protection is for their lives and properties, their churches and crosses, their sick and healthy and for all their co-religionists. Their churches shall not be used for habitation, nor shall they be demolished, nor shall any injury be done to them or to their compounds, or to their crosses, nor shall their properties be injured in any way. There shall be no compulsion for these people in the matter of religion, nor shall any of them suffer any injury on account of religion.”
But with so many problems arising between Malaysia's religious communities, it seems that we have forgotten the high status afforded to non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians, by our Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Ironically, in an age when there is so much information available to us via television and the Internet that could serve to break down barriers, we have become more paranoid than ever.
As fellow citizens, we can choose to see what we have in common or we can just focus on the differences. We can choose to remain ignorant about others or we can ask for guidance from our religious leaders and officials to help us broaden our perspective.
We have a lot to be thankful for. Our country is not at war. There are no air raids, no missiles, no bombs showering down on us. Most families have enough to eat decent meals. We have no shortage of petrol. Our homes remain intact. Is it because we do not have a common enemy that we have the time and energy to destroy places of worship?
Our country is not at war, and our people should not be either. Let us remind ourselves and each other that the Muslim greeting, or salam, is short for “May Peace Be Upon You”.

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* Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Idris is Royal Fellow at the School of Language Studies and Linguistics at the National University of Malaysia and Chairperson of the Community Services Committee of the Malaysian Red Crescent Society. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at thestar.com.my.

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