Timothy Garton Ash, who did yeoman work reporting from Eastern Europe before and during its escape from the Soviet Empire, files a now-trademark world-weary report in the Guardian from Malaysia, headlined I respect your articles of faith – will you respect mine?
Measured by the standards of the Middle East, indeed of most majority Muslim states, Malaysia is an exemplar of interfaith coexistence.
As the maritime trading crossroads of south-east Asia, it has for centuries been a place where all of what Europeans have called “the east” has met – Indians, Chinese and Japanese, as well as the native peoples. Its population became even more diverse under the aegis, at once repressive and transforming, of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialists. (From the window of the National History Museum, which is housed in a building where John Major once worked as a banker, you still peer down on a somewhat melancholy cricket pitch.) This place was globalised well before anyone talked of globalisation.
Look a little closer, however; talk to Malaysians from the minority faiths as well as critical observers within the Muslim community, and the picture becomes more muddy – as befits a city whose name means “muddy confluence”. For a start, the communities coexist rather than co-mingle. I’m told there is relatively little intermarriage. This is no melting-pot. “We live and let live,” says the Buddhist businessman of Sri Lankan origin. Apart from anything else, the different groups’ religious prescriptions often prevent them eating each other’s food.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with such peaceful coexistence. The same was true of another often-lauded exemplar of multiculturalism, Sarajevo, before the second world war, and it is probably true of parts of London and New York today. Only advancing secularism (as in Sarajevo under the communist regime led by Marshal Tito) or farreaching assimilation (as has been traditional in France and America) produces the deeper mixing. But retaining separate communities does mean that politics remain group-based and there is always the potential for violent conflict to erupt, as happened here in 1969, if one group feels strongly disadvantaged.
In Malaysia, all communities are equal but some are more equal than others. Although the National Front coalition, which has been in power since 1957, includes Chinese and Indian parties, the Muslim Malay majority is dominant. While the Chinese still have a predominant position in the business community, there is affirmative action for the Muslim Malays, and other “indigenous” groups, in access to higher education, jobs in the civil service, government contracts and housing. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict is avoided not by the systematic balancing mechanisms of a liberal democracy, with fully representative politics, free media and independent courts, but by a semi-democratic, semiauthoritarian balancing act, with a distinct tilt towards the Malay Muslim side. The day I arrived, the government announced the indefinite suspension of the Sarawak Tribune newspaper, which published one of the Danish cartoons. It also made it an offence for anyone to publish, import, produce, circulate or even possess copies of the caricatures….
You may say: what right have I, as a westerner, a guest and a descendant of British colonialists to boot, to point these things out? Indeed, the religion with which I grew up teaches that one should start by criticising one’s own faults rather than those of others. That seems to me a good principle. So my first responsibility is to look at the way my own communities – Oxford, Britain, the EU, the west – treat their own minorities, not least their Muslim minorities. We have plenty of discrimination and double standards of our own.
Does that disqualify me from commenting on other countries’ shortcomings? I think not, especially when what I’m doing is reporting criticisms made to me by Malaysians, people who do not feel they can speak entirely freely in their own country and who would not be published if they did. In fact, I believe that as a writer with access to free media I have a duty to speak up for those who cannot speak freely for themselves. That’s my strongly held belief, and I trust that political leaders of other faiths, including Islam, will respect my beliefs. Then we can have a productive interfaith dialogue.