Mon, 31 Oct 1994

Rights: Asia's shortcomings dramatized

Chandra Muzaffar, director of the human rights organization Just World Trust, in this exclusive Inter Press Service column uses Malaysia as an example of an Asian nation that has had its human rights shortcomings dramatized in the international arena, instead of its exemplary record in accommodating the many religious differences within its population.

PENANG, Malaysia (IPS): A country's commitment to religious tolerance and freedom must be measured by both its ability to protect the religious sensitivities of its minorities and its willingness to deal firmly with religious extremism.

It is significant to note the response of the Penang Education Department and the State Minister of Education responded to allegations that certain school principals were barring Hindu girls from wearing the pottu, the red mark worn by Hindus on their foreheads. The authorities immediately came out on the side of the pupils.

By their action, the Malaysian authorities not only asserted that a religious symbol with meaning for a particular community would be protected, but also emphasized that different religious identities are part and parcel of the mosaic of Malaysian society -- of which 53 percent is Moslem, 19 percent is Buddhist, and the rest is Taoist, Hindu, or Christian.

Contrast this with the rule introduced by the French government which prohibits Moslem schoolgirls from wearing the headscarf that most Moslems regard as an important element of religious attire.

At the same time, however, craftily drafted regulation allows girls from France's majority Christian community to wear their religious symbols to school.

This covert discrimination against the Moslem minority in France fits into a pattern of systematic harassment and persecution of this community which has intensified in recent months. Yet France is eulogized by liberals in both the West and the East as one of the staunchest defenders of human rights in the world.

Britain, another European country which liberals regard as a marvelous inspiration for human rights and democratic rule, once forced one of its loyal Sikhs citizens to fight a long legal battle in order to keep his turban -- one of the articles of his faith -- while in the service of a public institution in London.

Minority Sikhs working in certain public agencies in Canada, which also perceives itself as an outstanding advocate of human rights, have also had to defend their right to keep their turban in the face of chauvinistic, discriminatory bureaucracies.

In Malaysia, on the other hand, both the government and the people have always respected the rights of Sikh, (even though they are members of one of the smallest religious minorities in the country) to wear a turban whatever the public institution they may be serving and whatever the public activity they may be performing.

It would be wrong, of course, to conclude that Sikhs or other religious minorities in Malaysia do not have some grievances. But it is undeniable that in its concern for religious sensitivities, and in its accommodation of, and respect for, different religions, Malaysia has a distinguished record which few other multi-religious societies can match.

Malaysia authorities have often acted with unflinching firmness against religious extremists within the majority community. In August 1978 and May 1979, for instance, the Malaysian government acted swiftly against Moslem zealots who demolished idols in Hindu temples.

There is no doubt that the uncompromising response of the state to religious fanaticism has helped to keep inter-religious ties on an even keel and to maintain political stability.

It is rarely noted that very few governments are prepared to move vigorously against extremist tendencies, especially within the majority community. The Indian government, for example, has so far failed to take decisive action against rabid, bigoted elements within the majority Hindu community who were directly and indirectly responsible for the demolition of an illustrious mosque revered by the Moslem in India.

Some of the majority community's leading intellectuals have adopted principled positions on ensuring justice for the Moslem minority in India. But its dominant political elite, mainly because of electoral considerations, have continued to appease those forces seeking to distort the teachings of Hinduism for their own interests.

As a result, the Moslem minority feels threatened, even besieged, and has begun to develop a persecution psychology -- in spite of what India's secular constitution says about human rights and cultural freedom.

In Pakistan, another Asian country that is predominantly Moslem, the government has also been giving in to ultra- conservative religious elements whose demands have adversely affected both women's rights and the general populace's freedom of conscience and expression.

While curbing religious extremism within the majority community is a fundamental prerequisite for the enjoyment of certain types of human rights, there is very little appreciation of the importance of such action among human rights activists in the West.

If human rights activists in the West have no empathy for concerns such as the relationship between religious extremism and human rights or religious sensitivities and human rights, one cannot expect their counterparts in the East to show any understanding of these issues.

Indeed, human rights activists as a whole have seldom highlighted the achievements of non-Western, particularly Asian, societies in protecting human rights and human dignity. The tendency always has been to dramatize human rights shortcomings within Asian societies.

While one should endorse any endeavor to expose gross violations of human rights in our part of the world, it is incumbent upon human rights activists to adopt a balanced approach, weighing our minuses against our pluses in the sphere of human rights.

A balance approach would also require a willingness to lay bare the innumerable weaknesses in the concept and practice of human rights in the West -- instead of the prevalent attitude among many human rights activists of glorifying Western rights and accomplishments in an unthinking, uncritical manner.