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Is religion a brand?

  • Why has religion become so thorny a subject? Why has something supposedly positive become so negative?

By Ravindran Raman Kutty

The ongoing issues around us in Malaysia today are not so much about poverty, crime, youth, single mothers, illnesses, housing, pollution, corruption, unemployment, although these are the bread and butter issues of our nation and our people.

They are mostly centered on religion or racial issues. The recent study by the Borgen Project states that climate change is the world’s biggest concern today, especially in the U.S. While I am not disputing the fact that climate change is also an important issue, I hope none will disagree with me when I say that in our country, we are always divided by super-sensitive subjects called religion and race.

Climate change is an issue that we can find solutions to. We can change our lifestyle. We can cut plastic consumption. We can use less fossil fuel. We may even reduce meat intake, to reduce methane gas. These solutions are not unattainable to most sensible and mature human beings.

But, can I say the same for religion? Can I say that we are united, although every religion is espousing good in all that we do? Some say all religions are like the rivers leading to an ocean called God, does this statement go down well with everyone? Religion is a very private affair and yet, we are making it public, aren’t we?

Why has religion become so thorny a subject? Why has something supposedly positive become so negative? Why is it that there are more people who are educated and graduated in religious studies in Malaysia compared to 30 years ago, yet, it is difficult to strike a peace chord among the various religions?

Many argue that religion is one of the oldest businesses in the world. According to a 2016 study by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, it is also a highly lucrative one - religion annually contributes about US$1.2 trillion dollars of socioeconomic value to the United States economy, which exceeds the global annual revenues of the world’s top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Google. The gargantuan value also makes religion equivalent to the world’s 15th-largest national economy, outshining nearly 180 other countries and territories.

If religions are like a business entity, are they attached to a brand name too? I implore that we examine this thought-provoking question together- are we to argue which religion is a better brand? Will this argument go down well with people and their respective religions? Are our current actions pointing towards that direction?

In the commercial world, it is extremely clear that branding is an integral part of marketing and management. No product will sell without consumer awareness of a brand. Likewise, in religion, are we to promote religion so that we can attract more followers or disciples? Commercially, the more exposed the brand, the better the business. Ironically, in the realm of religion, the more we brand a religion against another, the worst the outcome.

We have had many skirmishes and indifferences in Malaysia as we cannot accept that one religion is better or lesser than the other. Even in the case of a foreign preacher, no one opposed him until his negative stunt of comparing the various religions and their impact.

I had the opportunity to meet and discuss the subject of comparative religion with a learned man. His view is that there is no good religion or bad religion. It is the narrator or the messenger of the religion who is the cause of the problem. He advised me to pay attention to the background and the alliance of the narrator or the messenger. If he is associated with a politician, political party, a political ideology, a sect or even an NGO, his views will mirror the beliefs of his associations, not the holy invaluable teachings of any religion.

We have had many petty issues raised in Malaysia by politicians who are bent on using religion as their weapon to garner support or discredit their opponents.

Religion, which is an organized belief system that typically relates to one’s faith and trust in a higher power, is a defining characteristic of the way many people live and make decisions. A person may base several life choices on their religious views. But when aspects of a person’s life are in conflict with the religious ideals, it may be difficult to reconcile the two, causing much distress.

While most of us are believers of faith, we should always respect each other’s faith and never belittle the faith or practices of another. We must teach our children the same values so that we can better understand each other’s race or religion. It is important to stress that we cannot just tolerate a religion or race - we must understand them. It is not a must to read several books to understand the goodness of a religion, but to observe the way most of their followers carry themselves. Any human being who behaves in a civilized way, such as not hurting another, not hurling curses, are respectful, kind, loving and above all god-fearing, is a good person. We must evaluate their value system rather than judge them conveniently based on the “brand” of their religion, namely, labeling followers of religion A as superior and the others as inferior.

All religions in the world has been exploited for politics such as BJP in India, Christian rights in America which Donald Trump is playing too, the Buddhist party in Myanmar that have ostracized Muslim Rohinyas and nationalizing religion and the Shiite and Sunni , Islamic issues in the middle east. These abuses that is blatant, causing so much of ire and pain.

As my friend who has done comparative religion says, when it comes to religion, we must always focus on the messenger, not the message. In a multi-religious country like Malaysia, we need to strive for harmony and not shoot from our hip because we want to score points with the electorate to secure political seats. It’s so heartbreaking that both sides of the divide are now even talking about boycotting Non-Muslim products - what are we headed for? Will this help the economy of a small nation like ours? It is even sadder that very few Muslim leaders of both the ruling and the opposition parties address this issue.

Malaysia is too precious to have any such showdowns. We must be concentrating on Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and explore answers and solutions to thought-provoking questions such as: “Why we are not producing athletes of Olympics caliber? What is happening to our sports, football, hockey? Why are our children not fluent in the English Language? Why we are divided when it comes to deciding on a preacher who is doing more harm than good for our nation? Where is the unity that we enjoyed about 20 years ago? Why are we debating about Muslim and Non-Muslim products? Why aren’t we talking about the growing number of drug addicts, single parents or addressing issues such as Mat Rempit, rising number of suicide cases, growing motorcycle fatalities, rampant corruption among civil servants, high dengue mortality rate, the irrelevance of measuring poverty using 1970’s index and explore when we can provide better school facilities for special needs children in our country?

When there are so many more pressing issues that we should address for the betterment of our nation, it is sad and absolutely demeaning to learn about religious and racial discrimination measures being proposed by a few bad apples. Such politicians and religious leaders must be charged and arrested as they are causing a public nuisance in a peace-loving nation.

As I pay attention to what’s on the airwaves and my social media news feeds, I am confident that almost 90% of Malaysians are not following leaders who are a threat to the national security. We need more rational and level-headed Malaysians to hold public office and shape a nation based on Rukun Negara, as envisaged by our founding fathers.

Branding is great when it is applied to man-made products and services, but they have no place in religions that are founded on principles, values, teachings and love. No religion is lesser or greater, they are all created to bring out the best in mankind. If religions are to be compared to like a commercial brand, it will only prove to be a recipe for disaster.

Anyone using religion as a brand to win or marshal support must be stopped and ostracized from our society. We have no time to ponder on issues which are divisive; we must focus on building a nation beyond race and religion. Nelson Mandela once said that “in order to build our nation, we must all exceed our own expectations”

(Ravindran Raman Kutty is an active social worker.)

 

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