The View From Asia

Faith, misbeliefs and the damage they do

Asia News Network commentators slam attempts to misuse religion in the region

Bigotry in the name of sanctity

Tay Tian Yan

Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia

The Handmaid's Tale bagged this year's Emmy award for outstanding drama series. The story takes place some time in the future, when birth rates are at rock bottom and the human species is battling a survival crisis.

The enraged male-dominated leadership blames it on women who are unwilling or unable to conceive. Some of the extremists plan to overthrow the United States government and replace it with the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and theocratic state which overturns the virtues of democracy and freedom. Gilead is ruled by male clerics who vow to build a wholly sanctified nation through the purging of human souls.

All women, except the clerics' wives, are stripped of their citizens' rights and their assets are forfeited. They are forced to stop working and learning. All they are allowed to do is bear children. Anyone running against the law is put to death.

Although the story happens in the future, it is, in its essence, about emerging conservatism and extremism in today's world as human civilisation recedes to the amorphous formlessness of the age of religious theocracy millennia ago. While the story sounds surreal and wildly imaginative, it nevertheless reflects what is taking place right under our noses.

In our world today, many have tried to enforce their perceived "sanctity" on other people, in the name of religious "sanctity". From the caliphate fantasy of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group and the Muslims-only launderette in Muar, to the dress code for non-Muslims (later said to be for Africans only) at the Flora Damansara (condominium).

These absurdities, all in the guise of religion, are nothing short of extremism. I'm not the only one to brand such acts "extremist", for many educated men in Malay society have done likewise. The Johor Sultan's second son wrote of the "halal" launderette in Muar: "I was shocked. It's too extreme!"

CIMB chairman Nazir Razak lamented: "Such acts of extremism must be stopped. They have distorted Islamic teachings."

Unfortunately, many other Muslims appear to endorse such aberrations. Johor mufti Mohd Tahrir Samsudin said cleanliness is very important to Muslims and that the laundry only wants to make sure its washing machines are not soiled by unclean things.Sadly, such discourses have a large following in the conservative Malay society.

Monk silenced, not the hatred


The Nation, Thailand

Few decent-minded people, Buddhist or otherwise, would have been perturbed last week when outspoken monk Phra Apichart Paunnajanto, known for railing against Islam, was disrobed.

His immediate disappearance from public view was cause for speculation for several days, but then he resurfaced, clad in pious white attire, insisting he was a changed man. It was his decision alone to leave the monkhood, he said. He hadn't been forcibly disrobed at all, let alone by the state and ecclesiastical authorities.

Those authorities also said he had voluntarily shed his saffron robes, but we have our suspicions.

This is the man who despicably called on Buddhists to burn down a mosque every time a monk was killed in the conflict-riddled south, not an infrequent occurrence there. Such vengeful, prejudicial, inflammatory preaching not only contradicted the teachings of the Lord Buddha, but it also ran counter to common human decency.

Apichart seems, though, to have undergone a conversion in his brief absence from public view. He no longer advocates violence against Muslims, no longer feels they are a threat to Thai Buddhism.

How did this abrupt change of mind come about? Perhaps the ruling junta's almost magical abilities at "attitude adjustment" had something to do with it.

Government officials would like us to think Apichart was a "lone wolf" - a deluded monk with wayward sermons. But several Buddhist academics have looked deeper into the matter and concluded that's not the case.

They have suggested that prominent political figures and monks in Thailand were elevating Apichart as this country's version of Wirathu, the nationalist monk in Myanmar ferociously attacking the Muslim minority there. Wirathu's fiery anti-Islam rhetoric paved the way for the persecution of Muslims and the slaughter of the Rohingya in particular. Photographs taken in Apichart's residential hall show portraits of Wirathu on the wall. The Thai clearly is (or was) an admirer.

Apichart's call for Thai Buddhists to burn down a mosque for every monk killed by southern insurgents made headlines two years ago.

He was arrested a week ago, reportedly over controversial videos he recently posted online. It seemed an odd turn of events for Apichart if what the scholars have found is true - that he was in some ways a creation of the ultra-conservative elements in Thai society.

Apichart's monk's robes may have been removed and his Facebook account shuttered, but the atmosphere in Thailand remains polluted with the cruel beliefs and vengeful hatred he formerly espoused. The authorities and society as a whole will have to do much more than silence the voice of one man who probably ended up going too far. Any monk can be disrobed.

Making money off a holy bond


The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Dating services help lonely hearts worldwide but an online service offering convenient partners for nikah siri (unregistered marriages) has whipped up a storm.

The website, which also reportedly planned a "virginity auction", was promptly closed by the Communications and Information Ministry.

The owner of the website, a businessman named Aris Wahyudi, was arrested.

An angry Social Affairs Minister, Khofifah Indar Parawansa, has warned the public against the business platform's attempts to profit from legalising adultery and making a commodity out of nikah siri, which cannot guarantee the rights of wives and their children.

Nevertheless, thousands had registered on the website, reflecting widespread interest in nikah siri, literally discreet marriages, which are common in Indonesia.

Such marriages involve far less hassle - mainly in acquiring the permission of the first wife, in the case of legal polygamous unions.

Aris is accused of violating the Pornography Law and the Electronic Information and Transactions Law, but his website is only one of several, and similar online services were first reported several years ago.

  • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news media entities.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline 'Faith, misbeliefs and the damage they do'. Print Edition | Subscribe