Sunday 25 January 2015

A lesson in moderation from Germany

By Andrew Sia, Published The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2015

WHENEVER some NGO protests that Muslims in Malaysia are "under threat" from minorities who don't hold the levers of power in this country (the latest one being that K-pop is a "Kristian" conspiracy to undermine Islam), one wonders what the "silent majority" can do.

To answer that, perhaps we can look at what's happening in Germany.

For the past three months, a group there called Pegida (the German acronym for "Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West") has had weekly demonstrations against an alleged "Muslim threat" from radicals and refugees. From an initial few hundred protesters, the numbers grew to 25,000 two weeks ago, after the Charlie Hebdo killings.

But... what is amazing is that an estimated 100,000 people throughout Germany staged counter-protests against Pegida. Some of them held brooms in a symbolic gesture to "sweep away" racism and intolerance.

In response to earlier protests, the lights at Cologne's landmark cathedral were switched off as a Pegida rally was due to pass by, as a sign of religious disapproval. And the city's Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki called on Germans to show compassion, rather than prejudice, towards Muslim refugees.

Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged people, in her New Year speech, not to follow Pegida "for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate".

Last week, at a rally organised by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate, the Chancellor joined in and said: "Hatred, racism and extremism have no place in this country... Islam belongs to Germany."

German President Joachim Gauck, a former pastor, added during the rally that "Germany has become more diverse through immigration - religiously, culturally and mentally. This diversity has made our country successful, interesting and likeable."

How could such amazingly moderate and multicultural political statements come from a country which, just 70 years ago, was following a Nazi ideology based on German racial supremacy?

I was reminded of some chats over beer with some German tourists in Thailand some time back.

"At school, we learn about how the Nazis came to power," said one of them. "Don't forget that Hitler was democratically elected as a leader."

After reading up on the Internet, I found that German students do indeed have extensive discussions and lessons (sometimes too much) about the dangers of fascist and racist ideologies. They learn that after the 1929 economic crash, there was mass unemployment and social unrest in Germany which Hitler's Nazis exploited to attract popular support, blaming the country's ills on the Jews and foreigners.

His answer to the weak coalition governments then was strong leadership and "unity", as epitomised by the slogan: Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer - "One People, One Nation, One Leader".

Students also learn that one way the Nazis could brainwash ordinary Germans into supporting its ethnic cleansing was by controlling religion. In 1936, a National Reich Church was created, with a Nazi elected as bishop of the church. Its members called themselves Deutsche Christen ("German Christians") with "the Swastika on their chest and the Cross in their heart" and many of the nationalistic and racial aspects of Nazi ideology were incorporated.

School groups also visit former concentration camps where millions of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and German political opponents were exterminated.

After decades of such progressive education policies warning against the racist ideologies of fascism, it's not surprising that 100,000 Germans could come out in the streets recently to protest in favour of a minority - the Muslims.

(In contrast, conservative Japanese politicians have long tried to downplay or gloss over the horrors of World War II, such as the Nanjing Massacre and sex slaves, in their school's textbooks. So, while former wartime enemies Germany and France are now firm friends jointly leading the European Union, old wounds still fester between Japan and China.)

Of course, the German education policies have not had perfect results. It's said that discrimination still exists against Turks and Poles who live in Germany, for instance, but what's important is that the country's political and religious leaders have set the agenda for harmony.

In Malaysia, the closest parallel to the German support for Muslims was seen one year ago. On the Sunday morning of Jan 5, 2014, certain groups had threatened mass protests at Klang's main Catholic church against the Christian use of the word "Allah". But instead of angry crowds, parishioners were greeted by the sight of 20 non-Christians bearing flowers, including social activist Marina Mahathir and friends from Sisters in Islam (SIS).

"We are here to show solidarity with the congregation. A lot of us here are Muslims and we believe Islam is a religion of peace. It is not something that we only say (in words), but there must also be action," Ms Marina told journalists outside the church.

Yet, for her brave action to foster religious harmony, she was condemned then by groups like Perkasa. In October, SIS was tarred by a fatwa from the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) as being "religious deviationist" because it allegedly subscribed to "liberalism and religious pluralism". Recently, Ms Marina was denied entry, for the fifth time, into a government university, even though students had invited her for discussions.

A Google search of "Marina Mahathir" throws up "murtad" (renounced Islam) as one of the top items, with lots of links alleging her "apostasy". Such low-brow tactics are chillingly similar to what the German anti- Muslim groups have done after Dr Merkel spoke up against them - they manipulated a photo of her to show her wearing a tudung or hijab.

Muslims in Malaysia surely don't like to see Muslims in Germany being unreasonably labelled a "threat" and bullied by racist groups like Pegida - and they must be glad that tens of thousands of ordinary Germans, plus top political and religious leaders, have spoken up for "liberalism and religious pluralism" to ensure tolerance for all.

But how will Muslims in Malaysia respond the next time certain groups allege that Christians, K-pop fans or other powerless minorities are a so-called "threat"?

The futures of Germany and Malaysia will be determined by what each country's majority community decides to do. We can only hope that each nation will choose the right way forward.


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