EDITORIAL: Build bridges, not walls that divide us

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Kuala Lumpur (The Star/ANN) – One of the most moving images during the massive protests in Egypt that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak was how the country’s majority Muslims and minority Coptic Christians came together as Egyptians first, just as they did during the protests against British colonial rule in 1919.

We saw how they stood together, protecting each other during both protests and prayers.

Scenes like this should not surprise us. Malaysia, after all, has had a long history of its people of diverse ethnicities and religions being able to come together as one people, in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding.

But there are also moments in recent times when the edges of the national tapestry of goodwill we have woven seems to be fraying, and the ethnic, religious, political, economic and social threads get entangled with one another. There are times when, in our desire to stress on the rights of one community, we appear to be insensitive to the rights of another.

We need to be reminded that the harmony among the various communities and religions in our beloved country is not “optional luxury” but an absolute necessity.

At a luncheon with leaders of various religious groups in conjunction with World Interfaith Harmony Week at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre on Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak rightly reiterated that the Government would fight any form of extremism as such ideologies only served to divide the rakyat (people) and weaken the country.

There is no doubt whatsoever that extremism exists in all faiths — be they Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu — and the only way to fight such extremism is to promote the sense of togetherness.

As the Prime Minister puts it: “We all may be different in our (religious) beliefs but there are values we have in common that can strengthen unity and promote peace and harmony.”

It’s no coincidence that our national motto is Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu which, literally translated, means “Unity is Strength”.

Right from the start, our founding fathers knew that we had to be united as a people if we were to be strong as a nation.

The unity that we speak of does not, however, mean that we agree on everything. Certainly there must be room for disagreements on how policies are made or whether all laws are just.

But our motive must be pure, that is, to protect the interests of all our citizens.

We have seen how even minor day-to-day issues grip the nation’s attention whenever we allow extremists to take control of the situation.

“It is extremism, rather than differences in faith, that triggers tension among people,” Najib said at the function, warning that if this was not dealt with, it would have adverse effects on the nation and humanity in general.

And the Prime Minister was able to put forth a good suggestion when he addressed the United Nations General Asssembly last year in which he called for the formation of a global movement of moderates.

And, mindful that before we try and tell the world to do something, we have to do it in our own backyard first, the Government has since set up the Committee for the Promotion of Inter-religious Understanding and Harmony which brings together different religious groups for constructive dialogue towards a better understanding of religions.

Although the 47-member committee will be meeting behind closed doors, its members should take note of some of the very loud discussions on religion in the public sphere.

There appears to be a lot of ignorance and a lack of understanding of each other’s beliefs, which often result in sweeping statements being made which give rise to unnecessary tension.

And public posturing often makes it difficult for any party to backtrack, even if the offending side knows what was said is incorrect.

And, added to that is the fact that in this Internet era, every word travels at the speed of light and its ramifications are felt almost instantly, a point Najib made in explaining the need for the committee’s meetings to be held behind closed doors.

Najib’s plea for a spirit of empathy is also spot on.

Empathy, he said, is very important as it would allow one to see issues from a different perspective, adding that without it, Malaysians would not be able to find commonality and relate to each other.

“If we mix ethnic groups and act collectively, we will create an umbrella of togetherness. We will think of becoming Malaysians who love the country and this will make us stronger. If we want to succeed in this, we must think like this”.

This is where the committee must do its part not only to rein in the extremists but to offer suggestions on how we can come together to learn from one another.

We need to invigorate the spirit of unity that led to the birth of our nation. We need to build bridges to connect, not walls that divide. And we need to appreciate this blessed land of ours anew.