Race and Religion In the Left

By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

Being in a leftist party in Malaysia, it is expected to receive brickbats from those who choose a political platform steeped in race and religion. Such is the pervasive nature of identity politics in Malaysia that both the current governing coalition and opposition are always either skirting around the issue or outrightly using it to their own advantage. In and amongst this is also the notion that a left-wing party will suppress personal identity and lead to the eradication of racial and religious expression.

However, two incidents seem to be contradictory to this. First is the fact that in the Semenyih by-election, Parti Sosialis Malaysia fielded Nik Aziz Afiq, a young Malay-Muslim who embraced his religious identity. Nik was even reported to have said multiple times that he had joined PAS in the beginning of his political career but left later for PSM as the latter resonated with his beliefs and showcased a greater commitment to the people’s welfare.

Outside of Malaysia, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, showed solidarity and sympathy with her Muslim citizens after the recent Christchurch mosque shootings. She even donned the hijab and whilst there are those who criticised her for this act, Ms Ardern reiterated that if her wearing the hijab gave Muslim women who do the same the security to continue to practice their faith, then she is glad to have done it. Ms Ardern describes herself as a social democrat, a centre-left ideology, and also as a progressive. As some Malaysians also have pointed out, she is a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights as well.

Both these incidents seem contradictory at a glance. How is an individual actively practising their faith allowed to be in a socialist party, especially that rejects race and religious politics whilst fighting for a secular state? How can a leftist Prime Minister who supports LGBTQ+ individuals as recent as this week, condemning Brunei for their law to stone those who have committed gay sex, show solidarity with Muslims and want them to feel safe enough to practice their faith?

The notion that leftism leads to the erosion of race and religion is deeply false. It has arisen from years of right-wing propaganda that the only custodians of race and religion are conservatives. This is bolstered by the right through championing the supremacy of a certain racial or religious ideology, making it seem like theirs is the only avenue to ensure the continuation of that race or religion. The left, on the other hand, do not talk in terms of race and religion, so seem devoid of the inclination to protect either.

If we take a step back and see what is championed by leftists, we will realise how incorrect this notion is. When right-wing governments in America and Australia discriminate against Muslim immigrants, leftists rise in solidarity to defend them and their way of life whilst pushing forward a need to live peacefully together. The Hindutva violence now spreading in India is also criticised by leftists in the same breath, alongside critiques on state-led violence against racial, religious and ethnic minorities in China, Myanmar, Nigeria and even Malaysia. The difference between the left rising in solidarity for people practicing racial or religious customs and the right championing them is the fact that the left does not believe in supremacy whereas the right often does.

This is evident when the same leftists come out in support of individuals on either end of the spectrum in terms of ideology. The left speaks out against discrimination of any kind, be it in the denial of jobs to Muslim women due to them wearing the hijab or the treating of LGBTQ+ individuals as second-class citizens. In this sense, the leftist response to the matter of identity protection is a universal preservation. In Malaysia, Orang Asli communities are supported by leftists to ensure their culture and way of life is not eroded. Recently, an Orang Asli group even invited PSM members to their village to celebrate their victory in stopping the Tenom Dam project, saving their villages.

However, the protection of every way of life is not possible when some include the suppression of another. Where do we draw the line then? Oftentimes, this is a huge dilemma to the left but boils down to the crux of coexistence where the important element to be preserved is the freedom to express oneself without forcing another to change so long as peaceful coexistence is maintained. This would mean Muslims can remain Muslims but certain elements that are against Islam as understood currently, such as LGBTQ+ rights, should be protected as well.

Perhaps this is unsavoury to some, but it is inherently hypocritical to favour one way of life over another if both are peaceful. There is a need to find a middle ground where all people can live with dignity and freedom. It is a complex process to determine where this middle ground should fall. Perhaps this is why, instead of focusing on race and religion, leftists focus on other, more easily measured matters such as economics and human rights. If a certain individual is being deprived of their inalienable rights, then they should be protected. This is the vague line leftists tread.

Where this becomes contentious, especially in a country like Malaysia, is the disconnect between personal beliefs and public conduct. One may hold the belief that LGBTQ+ individuals are sinful and go against their religious teachings but to manifest that belief into an act of harassment or discrimination would be barred. This is taken to be an act of religious suppression itself, that is the religious would feel they are being forced to accept something that they do not want to. This is where there needs to be a nuanced articulation of the personal and public sphere. Religion, and this is also true for cultural beliefs or practices, should be confined to the self, that is the beliefs cannot be subjected unto another who does not freely want to conform.

What this means is, for example, just because one’s beliefs say pork should not be ingested, this doesn’t give one the right to force another from ingesting pork. This is an extreme example that does not happen in Malaysia. Similarly, multiple expressions of faith are allowed in Malaysia, with spacious churches, resplendent mosques and great temples dotting the landscape. Yet, one wonders, if this level of acceptance is kosher, why not go beyond?

Coexistence is possible and the left hold that to be true. One can be religious and live alongside another practicing something completely opposite of their beliefs. In fact, one can even argue the expression of race and religion is better in the left than on the right. This is because the right’s glorification of race and religion distorts them to become false idols to be exalted, not understood. The rhetoric of racial and religious protection is used to maintain power through the support of an electorate fearful of losing their identity. Any supposed threat to race and religion is extrapolated as evidence of the eradication of identity which then moulds the psyche of the electorate to be compliant to manipulation.

The left, meanwhile, focus on the common needs between different groups, leaving personal beliefs in the personal sphere. Where ever those beliefs can be understood and respected, they are. Where they spill into the public sphere in such a manner as to inflict discrimination, incite hatred or induce harassment, they are rejected for the common good. In this frame of mind, a leftist would face internal conflict between the leftist ideology and his personal beliefs. Navigating through that conflict takes him through understanding his faith and ideology further, instilling a nuanced approach bereft of hypocrisy and contradictions. In the left, expression of one’s faith becomes understood, not exalted, and a leftist finds bridges between different people and not walls.

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