Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Muslim's Perception Toward Non-Muslim Houses of Worship

Selangor health, plantation workers, poverty and caring government committee chairman, YB Dr Xavier Jayakumar, announced last week that non-Muslim places of worship in Selangor will have a higher annual allocation and the current 930 sq m limit on the land size removed. He was reportedly said that the current RM3mil allocation from the state government was too small compared to large population of non-Muslims in the state. He however declined to reveal the amount sought for (See The Star Saturday June 7, 2008).

The building of non-Muslim houses of worship has been a cause for concern for non-Muslim communities in Malaysia. There had been complaints about difficulties to get suitable land from state authorities for the building of such places. Many of the worship places, especially Hindu temples, ended up being built on government and private lands without license. Problems cropped up when the lands, often situated in strategic areas with high commercial value, were developed. Inevitable demolition of the illegally built temples to give way for “development” easily turned into an emotionally charged political issue.

However, in this Muslim-majority country, little attention is given to Muslim perception toward non-Muslim houses of worship. How do they view the existence of non-Muslim houses of worship in their areas? Are they concerned with the number and size of the houses of worship as well as the activities going on at such places? Previously, there had been clashes between Muslim and non-Muslim community over the activities at their respective houses of worship which are situated closely to each other. The Kampung Rawa Muslim-Hindu clash in 1998 was one of the incidents which was widely reported in the media.

In October 2007, I worked with a team of researchers from Merdeka Center for Opinion Research in a survey to identify Muslim’s perception toward non-Muslim houses of worship in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. This is an important indicator to gauge the level of religious tolerance among Muslims living in highly urbanized and racially mixed areas. The survey was commissioned by Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (YADIM).

We found that, in tandem with other earlier studies on inter-religious relations in Malaysia, there was a high level of religious tolerance among Malaysian Muslims. Over 700 respondents interviewed in the survey, 92% respected the right of people of other religions to practice and profess their religions. However, the same proportion of respondents also felt that non-Muslims should not be allowed to preach their religions to Muslims. Interestingly, 55% of over 200 non-Muslim respondents also shared the same view.

A majority of Muslim respondents did not see non-Muslim houses of worship as causing problems to them. 99% of Muslim respondents were aware of the existence of non-Muslim houses of worship in their vicinity. Out of this, 85% said that they were not disturbed by the activities going on at such places. Only 14% felt disturbed. Most of them cited noise and traffic congestion as the main forms of disturbance.

However, the Muslims seem to be quite concerned with the number and size of non-Muslim houses of worship in their area. 90% disagreed if non-Muslim houses of worship outnumbered Muslim houses of worship in their area. Similarly, 83% of them disagreed if the non-Muslim houses of worship are bigger in size than the Muslim houses of worship.

Human rights and religious freedom had often been cited as the basis for building of houses of worship. We asked the respondents whether the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim-majority areas can be justified on that basis. 82% of Muslim respondents disagreed. Interestingly, non-Muslim respondents are divided over this issue. 42% of them agreed while 40% disagreed.

This survey shows that while the level of religious tolerance is high among the respondents (Muslims and non-Muslims alike), there are some aspects concerning the building of non-Muslim houses of worship that can be deemed “sensitive”. This is particularly so when it comes to building of such places in Muslim-majority areas. While the Selangor government’s initiative may be lauded, due attention must be given to these sensitivities.

Beyond, the issue of perception, there are practical issues of enforcement and planning. Our studies show that, in Kuala Lumpur alone, there are about 64 churches, 192 Hindu temples/Sikh’s Gurdwara, 819 Buddhist temples, 59 mosques and 218 suraus.

As Kuala Lumpur has a high density of squatter areas - populated mainly by Malays and Indians - many of the suraus and Hindu temples are built illegally on squatter lands. Problems cropped up when local authorities moved in to “clean” the squatter areas, causing the places of worship to also be demolished. As for Hindu temples, many of them also ended up being built on government land along busy roads, railways and on river banks. It normally started as a small shrine, but later expanded into a full-fledged temple.

The demolition problem could have been avoided should there have been proper planning and enforcement. Suitable land must be allocated for the building of places of worship based on the needs and “sensitivities” of local residents. At the same time, local authorities must move in early to prevent the building of illegal houses of worship on government and private lands as these lands are likely to be developed later. Early enforcement could have avoided unnecessary demolition problems, which normally caused racial and religious sentiments to run high.

In multi-religious society like ours, town planning and enforcement also plays a major role in promoting religious harmony.


  1. Well… I’m glad to get a confirmation that the religious tolerance in Malaysia is high. As we know, there are many attempts of some group to exaggerate the issue....

    I think the safest guideline to determine the number as well as the size of a particular worship houses is to look at the population ratio of the respective area. It cannot go wrong!

  2. The building of the houses of worship should be encouraged be it mosques, churches or temples. More land should be legally allocated for this purpose. This will encourage people to attend their houses of worship and be ‘religious’. I think, in order to propagate a moral and God-abiding society, this is better than building shopping and entertainment complexes. A loose committee should be formed comprising representatives from each institution of the houses of worship, not to discuss faith, but to co-ordinate and inform activities (for example activity that involve public procession and noise), discuss problems that might arise within the area relating to any religious ceremony, etc. in a civilized manner to avoid religious conflict and improve understanding of each other’s faith.

  3. I totally agree with Ahmad! Let us look at this issue in a wider and more peaceful prespective...rather than political prespective.