Sunday, May 9, 2021

‘Merry Christmas’, just the icing on Jakim’s cake

But the problem did not start with the present government, nor did it end under the leadership of those who preached reforms.

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For some Muslims, reading about the revelation of Jakim’s restrictions on products bearing the halal logo is almost like watching a terror attack unfolding in the West.

They hope and pray, “Please, not another Muslim assailant.” But this prayer is not always answered, and when it isn’t, the result is another round of international media frenzy on “jihadist cells”, volleys of wisdom from self-critical Muslims, and the patronising verbal diarrhoea of apologists stating the obvious with phrases like “Islam means peace”.

As a journalist who is a Muslim, I felt no pride in exposing the ridiculous condition imposed by the Department of Islamic Development, banning “Merry Christmas” at shops and on products which carry its much sought-after halal guarantee.

There could be many reasons behind these reservations: it could have been the work of one thoughtless officer or a misunderstanding on the part of the shop owner.

Moreover, coming up with a story exposing ignorance about Islam and multiculturalism on the eve of a major celebration might not have been timely.

But we were left with no choice, and what followed only confirmed our worst fears.

Jakim, although denying the prohibition of Christmas wishes on cakes, actually confirmed that the same greetings are not allowed on products and premises bearing its halal logo.

In so doing, this heavily funded government body with the sole power to declare what is halal has laid bare its ignorance about the issue and, indeed, about the very ethos of Islam itself.

Let us not waste time explaining to it why the thinking public reacted the way they did.

For decades, our concept of Islamic education has been devoid of philosophy and critical thinking.

The content of our Islamic syllabi is the same, whether at primary school religious classes or Islamic discourses for adults catching up on religion after years of partying. We are obsessed with the correct pronunciation of Arabic words and the right way of ritually washing our various organs.

Does the cake controversy show the quality of Islamic scholarship in Malaysia? It’s 2020, and we are still trapped in ridicule over Christmas greetings.

In some of the world’s biggest Muslim nations such as Indonesia, Iran and Egypt, Muslim leaders don’t mince their Christmas greetings. In fact, they have no qualms about attending church events and praising the very figure that Christmas is about: Jesus.

Yesterday, the president of Iran, the nation often depicted as the capital of Islamic radicalism, went a step further, paying tribute to Jesus Christ “as a messenger of kindness, altruism, freedom and salvation”.

Meanwhile, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, no believers in half-baked theories over “Merry Christmas” themselves, used the exact expression in their greetings yesterday.

Jesus, like many other figures, is the common property of Muslims and Christians. His is also one of the most mentioned names in the Quran, while Mary has an entire chapter dedicated to her.

However different the Islamic concept is from Christianity, he is still the same symbol revered by adherents of both faiths.

The cakehouse controversy is only the tip of the iceberg of what ails the Malaysian Islamic discourse. All this despite over RM1 billion allocated for the development and promotion of Islam, through none other than Jakim.

The problem did not start with the Perikatan Nasional government, nor Pakatan Harapan (PH), nor Barisan Nasional. It is the outcome of years of cultivating a form of Islamic priesthood where people look up to smooth talking, Quran-quoting individuals for guidance.

And for all their criticism of Jakim’s budget, none of the PH leaders ever attempted to remedy this by proposing a decrease in allocation through a serious reform of the federal Islamic administration. On the contrary, under PH, Jakim was given a raise – twice – from RM1.1 billion to RM1.2 billion for 2019, and then to RM1.3 billion for 2020.

We also saw zero reforms in Islamic administration under the federal government’s purview when it was under Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the former Islamic affairs minister praised by some circles for his liberal soundbytes.

What this shows is that as far as Islam is concerned, politics triumphs, no matter who is in charge. The only difference is whether one is a smooth talking hypocrite who plays to the gallery, or an honest bloke who does not mind being ridiculed for his stupidity.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether Jakim’s rule has caused cakehouses – whose business thrives on Malaysia’s crowded calendar of multicultural celebrations – to think twice about getting halal certification.

Abdar Rahman Koya is editor of MalaysiaNow.

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