Largely Muslim Malaysia has been ill-served by the spectacle of bureaucrats in the Publications Control and Quranic Text Division of the Home Ministry defying the Prime Minister by withholding, then defacing, Bibles published in the Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia).
March 20, 2011 was the second anniversary of the detention of Al-Kitab (the Bible in Malay) at Port Klang. More recently, 30,000 copies of Al-Kitab have been withheld by the authorities at the port of Kuching in Sarawak, East Malaysia.
The government of Malaysia has repeatedly expressed its commitment to freedom of religion. Access to religious texts in the language that the government has made the principal medium of instruction is an essential aspect of that freedom. However, despite numerous meetings and assurances from officials at the highest rungs of government, the Christian Federation of Malaysia has faced obstructionist efforts by lower level officials who have refused to act on those assurances and the agreement reached for the release of the Bibles. They have, with apparent impunity, introduced their own requirements and proceeded to stamp the Bibles with serial numbers and official descriptives in a clear effort to police their distribution. The Christian Federation has responded by insisting on the freedom of religion guaranteed to all citizens of Malaysia. After initially refusing to collect the defaced Bibles, some Christian groups have since claimed some of the shipments of Al-Kitab primarily to prevent any further defacing.
The Things We Hold in Common
This state of affairs is particularly ironic considering what Islamic scholars of note have said about Prophet Muhammad’s own attitude towards other faiths. In No god, but God, Reza Aslan says:
“As far as Muhammad was concerned, the Jews and the Christians were ‘People of the Book’ (ahl al-Kitab), spiritual cousins who . . .worshipped the same God, read the same scriptures, and shared the same moral values as his Muslim community”(100). To those who would claim the primacy of one faith over another, Aslan tells us that “Muhammad offered a compromise. ‘Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold in common,’ the Quran suggests: ‘that we worship none but God; that we make none God’s equal; and that we take no other as lord except God’ (3:64). It is a tragedy that after fourteen hundred years, this simple compromise has yet to overcome the sometimes petty yet often binding ideological differences between the three faiths of Abraham” (104).
What is happening in Malaysia relative to the Bibles is petty. It may be traced to mis-placed piety on the part of lower officialdom. It would be a travesty to let it continue to besmirch Malaysia’s professed tolerance for all religions and allow it to foster the perception that those who truly hold the reins of power do not have the ability to ensure that their directives are obeyed. Neither God nor nation are served when we fear the stories of one community’s yearning for the Divine so much that we allow access to these stories to be limited by the banality of serial numbers and official stamps.
The Christian Federation has good reason to be offended by the runaround they have been subjected to. Perhaps this sorry tale of bureaucratic ineptitude and misplaced zeal is an invitation to Christians in Malaysia to live their faith in ways that go beyond the Book. St.Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” Sound advice always, but especially so in the face of silliness that passeth understanding.