Malaysia Dateline

Dzulkefly Ahmad

MySay: Must Islam and multiculturalism be at odds?

Why must Malaysians engage in heated debate over a beer festival when the workers’ Employees Provident Fund money is used to save American jobs?

The polemic has undoubtedly deepened our already dangerous fault lines and threatened our multiethnic and multireligious coexistence. Most unfortunate is the inevitable perception that there is a growing trend of the Malaysian Muslim majority imposing their religious beliefs on ethno-religious minority citizens.

Must there be a contradiction between Islam and multiculturalism? This writer humbly begs to differ.

The beer festival, this time with the theme “Better Beer Festival”, would have been back for the sixth year running. However, the organisers failed to get the approval of the local authority, Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL), to hold it at Publika Shopping Gallery on Oct 6 and 7.

That it was not given a permit was finally put down to “security reasons” rather than mounting opposition, allegedly from the Muslim majority. But were those opposing it truly aware of the nature of the event, and hence, of its alleged consequences?

If the statements made, as reported, are anything to go by, they display more emotion than reason, but let us be fair and dissect them.

Leading the charge was the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which alleged it could lead to un-Islamic acts such as sex outside marriage, criminal activity and even rape. Worse still was the outlandish claim that the craft beer festival would turn the city into “the largest vice centre in Asia”.

Going by empirical data, the charges levelled against one event seem hyper-imaginative to many discerning Malaysians.

Be that as it may, how do we resolve such conflicting demands of two opposing camps, compounded by the fact that the debate is heavily polarised along ethno-religious lines? This is the bone of contention.

While the Muslims insist that respect must be accorded to Islam as the religion of the federation, the non-Muslims insist that this issue infringes on their constitutional right to hold such an event. Incidentally and ironically, both sides invoke Articles 3 and 11 of the Federal Constitution.

The writer categorically stresses that alcohol is prohibited in Islam (Surah al-Maidah: 90). While Muslims are strictly prohibited from drinking, this event, it must be stressed, is entirely for non-Muslims.

Besides, it is universally recognised that overuse of alcohol is extremely harmful. According to one estimate, alcohol results in the death of 3.3 million people annually, or 5.9% of global deaths. This is not surprising as alcohol has a significant causal role in 60 types of diseases and causes harm to the well-being and health of people around the drinker.

Thus, drinkers must accept that in a free society, anti-alcohol activists, who are certainly not limited to pious Muslims, have every right to campaign against drinking, whether it is to stop drinking entirely or minimising consumption.

Be that as it may, Muslims must remember that, despite the prohibition of alcohol among its believers, Islam, nonetheless, recognises the fundamental rights of adherents of other faiths and philosophies to live their lives according to their beliefs or cultures. In this case, it is about consumption of alcohol. The provisions of the Constitution have been alluded to earlier.

In line with Islam and the Constitution, society must have healthy voices against drinking, but insofar as no Muslim is involved and no harm is caused to third parties, anti-alcohol activists must accept that the choice has to be left to the drinkers.

This leads us to the next question: At the end of the day, should drinking events be allowed?

Before we get to Oktoberfest-style fiestas, let those of us who live in Peninsular Malaysia be reminded that consuming home-made rice wine is core to the Gawai and Kaamatan festivals in Sarawak and Sabah. If the Bornean diaspora in Kuala Lumpur want to organise such events, should they be turned down outright?

Clearly, the issue here is not an absolute yes or no, but hinges on how the event could be possibly held so as to comply with the regulations set by the local authorities, such as DBKL in this case.

Admittedly, there are public order concerns about the Better Beer Festival. DBKL should have set the parameters for the organisers to ensure it would not lead to public disorder. In fact, the organisers had said that they were more than willing to comply.

So, if the organisers are able to comply with and assure that the regulations, as stipulated by DBKL, can be fulfilled, isn’t it arguably correct to grant them a conditional permit?

At the same time, shouldn’t responsible drinkers accept that society needs a healthy dose of reminders about the harm alcohol can cause?

If we think and act with wisdom and are not led by impulse or ego, there would be no conflict between Islam and multiculturalism, not even between pious Muslims’ heartfelt sense of duty to advise against drinking and the non-Muslims’ right to consume alcohol within legal confines.

It is indeed sad that this episode has given a wrong impression about Islam’s deep wisdom and threatens to tear apart our delicate social fabric of multicultural coexistence. Let the heinous politics of race and religion in our plural society be debunked by the authentic politics of knowledge and wisdom, inspired by the tenets and values of Siyasah Shari’ah (Public Policy) and Maqasid As-Shari’ah (Higher Intents and Objectives of Shariah).

This writer and his inclusive-cum-progressive Islamic party are fully conscious that this and many more similar issues may further fracture the very fabric of our multiethnic and multireligious demographic, apart from distracting the public. Rather than being focused on collectively addressing endemic corruption and the problems of the gross mismanagement of the nation’s wealth and resources, our energy is being drained by non-productive zero-sum conflicts of mutually exclusive demands.

A bona fide religious scholarship and stewardship, cutting across race, religion and culture to righteously and effectively manage our many diversities and contemporary national challenges, would indeed augur well for the future of our beloved nation. We pray for wisdom to prevail among Malaysians of all faiths and of all persuasions.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 2, 2017 – October 08, 2017.