Side Views

The toxic mix of religion in national schools — Thomas George

April 03, 2012

APRIL 3 — It is deplorable to see that the Johor Education Department has allowed a seminar which explicitly targets Christians in this country. It is shocking that national schools are dragged into what is called a “religious” discourse in the form of a seminar.

It is also surprising that such religious-hate seminars are organised in this country with the knowledge of the government at a time when the nation is struggling to build up relationships among various religious faith groups which has tragically deteriorated in the past few years.

The tragedy is that we have government officials and ministers who argue that Islamic religious departments in this country have the right to organise seminars in national schools even if it is in danger of transgressing religious sensitivities of a religious community.

While no one is questioning what JAKIM or the Mufti Department does to strengthen the faith of Muslim brothers and sisters in this country, the question is — why target national schools with such inflammatory seminars?

What do we achieve through such hate seminars for teachers of national schools where children from all religious faith are studying?

Do the Johor Education Department and JAKIM or the Mufti Council have the same function? If not, in what way are these bodies different in their functions? Are national schools under JAKIM or any religious council in Malaysia?

Are not national schools supposed to be the school of all Malaysians and not the school of Islamic studies?

Sadly, what we see here today are sectarian religious interests trying to shape a government education programme and policies according to their own religious doctrinal preferences and interests, including some politicians backing the sectarian cause because they see an opportunity that might help them in their political life.

From the seminar title and further responses to it by the organisers and the Education Department, anyone can reasonably come to the conclusion that what is promoted in the name of religious education is falling into the danger of an intolerant religiosity merged with political power that ignores the sensitiveness of the “other” who lives with us.

While positive influence of religion and state is acceptable and should be upheld, history shows us that whenever some issue comes up that concerns toxic mixing of government and religion, it contaminates both religion and politics.

The only way to avoid this is to draw boundary lines for the mingling of the two.

We need to clearly explain what national interest is and what is religious interest of communities within a nation?

What are the boundaries and limits of religions of the state when it comes to national interest and the good of all communities in a nation?

Experience teaches us that the interest of a religious community need not be in the best interest of all communities within a nation.

Moreover, in the context of variety of teachings in all religions, the task of building up relationship among different religious communities also depends on which school of religious thought is promoted as the absolute by each religious community.

The question is why is that national school teachers who are teaching primary and secondary students are asked to attend seminars which are obviously biased against a particular religious community?

Will the Education Department also encourage Bible Knowledge teachers, Gurudwara Council, Malaysian Hindu Sangam, Malaysian Buddhist Council and Council of Churches in Malaysia to hold such seminars for national school teachers in this country to educate them against the threat on their own religious communities?

Can that be a government-sponsored programme? Would that be the right approach in a multi-religious society?

If so, what is the role of the government elected by Malaysians? Is religion of a community more powerful than the government of the people of Malaysia?

If so, what is the role of the state and her institutions?

The religious school teachers in national schools are first national school teachers and they, similar to other teachers, are expected to follow the common interest of all Malaysians while strengthening the faith of the folks under their care.

While some are appointed to teach religion as a subject, the Education Department should not allow religious bodies to abuse such appointments for their own interests to create any kind of animosity.

The Education Department should not use teachers in national schools to pitch one religion against the other.

The role of teachers is not to influence students to another religion.

As teachers, they must be role models for children.

Moreover, it is fact that the role of religious teachers in national schools usually extends to more than just teaching religion.

In many schools they are given additional responsibilities where non-Muslim children are also involved.

If so, how can the state Education Department say that it is training religious teachers to strengthen the Islamic faith against the Christianisation threat when the interaction of religious teachers is not limited to Muslim students only in national schools?

How can the state Education Department be so irresponsible in dealing with the interest of all Malaysians by being biased towards a particular religion?

How can the Education Department water down national interest in the name of one’s religious interest?

When a religious teacher’s responsibility is extended in national schools, can the Education Department also ensure that there will not be threat of religious teachers influencing non-Muslim children in national schools and that the students will not be discriminated because of their religious background?

Isn’t it necessary to ensure that religious teachings in national schools will not create suspicion among young students of different religious background, who are beginning to understand the world?

Does the Education Department know if any support mechanism and fellowship programmes are in place for non-Muslim children in national schools in relation to their faith?

How will the state Education Department positively address such issues in a multi religious society? Sadly, the seminar’s motives do not help us in this direction.

The reason given by the concerned officials that there are sometimes threats from Christians against Muslims is ridiculous.

Do any of the parties involved know how many children were converted or were influenced to convert to Islam or vice-versa in national schools?

Was there any study conducted on such threats to children of all religions in national schools?

The Education Department should be looking at improving the secular education of our children who belong to all religions, and who depend on national school for their future.

Malaysians do not expect the Education Department or national school teachers to promote any race or religion to children in national schools, be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

Strengthening one’s faith and promoting one faith against the “other” are two poles apart.

Education is more than religious knowledge. It is also to learn to live with the “other” who may be different from us.

In a context where non-Muslim children do not have religious education in national schools — where a special support group is established for Muslim students through religious education — what Christianisation threat is perceived by the organisers?

What threats do Christian children in primary class and secondary classes pose to Islam here when we hardly have any non-Muslim students in many national schools? In this situation, what are they trying to prove through such seminars?

Isn’t it the Education Department using religious bodies to provoke young children to hate the “other” by educating their teachers to hate the “other”? Is this not a deliberate attempt to incite animosity among children in schools though?

Whether the title or content of the seminar is changed due to public outcry, the issue is far from over.

The question before all of us is: what is the interest of the national Education Department to spearhead such hate propaganda in national schools? Is the Education Department biased towards any particular religion?

How will such acts affect children of other religious minorities in national schools? Are there any mechanisms to find out if any religious discrimination is practised in national schools?

Since this happens with the knowledge of a government department, are such policies extended to other arms of the government including health and other service sectors?

The fact that Education departments are involved in such provocative events that explicitly pitch one religious community against another clearly shows utter disregard and disrespect for the “other” and the rise of religious intolerance in our country, particularly with the support of some government official and ministers.

This issue is a clear-cut violation of educational principles, an act of provocation by the Education Department, and a blatant transgression of power vested with the Education Department whose appointed task is the interest of the nation, which includes all Malaysians and not of any particular religious community.

Let education liberate us to understand that we are human beings, who can live and respect the other.

* Rev Thomas George is from the Malaysian Ecumenical Centre for the Study of Religion, Society and Culture (MECSRS).

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.