Friday September 14, 2012
Insights from across the globe
ROAMING BEYOND THE FENCE
By TUNKU 'ABIDIN MUHRIZ
Travel broadens the mind and we should encourage and sponsor young Malaysians to visit parts of the world from which they can learn so much.
BETWEEN Merdeka and Malaysia Day I pondered many valuable historical lessons for our country while returning to Istanbul, preceded by several ports of the Black Sea and followed by a stopover in Jordan.
Constanta in present-day Romania was perhaps the most compact in terms of appreciating the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and communist periods: en route to a statue of the Roman poet Ovid, past many churches and horrific flats erected by Stalinist dictator Ceausescu (our guide emotionally retold the horrors her family endured), we stumbled across a gorgeous Ottoman-era mosque.
The groundskeeper, upon learning we were Muslim, immediately let us through to perform supplementary sunat prayers.
He had never met Malaysians before, and everyone ended the day mentally enriched by the experience.
After my previous visit to Istanbul I wondered whether a place of worship built as a Hindu temple in Langkasuka could have survived through to present-day Malaysia, perhaps having been converted by now into a mosque; for one of Istanbul’s greatest tourist attractions, the Hagia Sophia, was built as a church in 360AD and converted into a mosque in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror.
This time I learnt that the oldest mosque in the city, built in 717AD, was later turned into a church, though a much more famous example of this is Cordoba’s Mezquita-Catedral in present-day Spain.
I now write from Amman, where mosques stand near remnants of Roman temples and churches that flourished under the Umayyad caliphs.
I saw similar evidence of ancient peaceful coexistence in Cairo last year, too, when the sight of Christians protecting Muslims praying for a more democratic future without Mubarak was fresh on our minds (that Morsi today arguably enjoys even more executive and legislative power does not diminish that achievement).
Clearly, Malaysia’s conscious experience of housing a multi-religious society is minuscule compared to what other parts of the world have experienced for millennia.
We simply have no equivalent awareness of the past that most residents of Istanbul or Cairo have.
Although the Sultanate of Malacca is so extolled in our schools, we know that the first Sultan of Kedah reigned in 1136, and though we have some inkling about Srivijaya, we cannot visualise how our ancestors lived in a comparable way that a Jordanian can coolly walk past astonishing frescoes or mosaics of even older origin and have some understanding of what their land was like in those periods.
Instead, recent historical references for us have been fuelled by politics: the legitimacy of Hang Tuah, attempts to paint the Emergency (or even the Portuguese assault on Malacca) in racial terms, the role of history in our schools (though if it’s true that the curriculum will be depoliticised with the subject given prominence, that’s brilliant news).
As a consequence, we get some teachers telling students that “looking at a cross will make you go blind”.
Perhaps these people would suffer apoplexy if they ever set foot into the Hagia Sophia or the Mezquita, where Muslim and Christian art gaze at each other across the halls (and in countless churches in West Asia, the Arabic word “Allah” is routinely seen, with no adverse effects on Muslims).
Maybe they won’t go blind though: instead, their eyes could be pried wide open, and the brains behind them will absorb information that just might change their attitudes. They might realise how Muslim Caliphs of the past were able to retain, tolerate, even celebrate what previous civilisations had achieved.
I’m not suggesting that it was always hunky-dory, and certainly there was defacement in places of worship and restrictions placed on certain faith groups.
But what is profound is that popular political discourse in so many of these countries has absorbed the lessons of the past in a way that we have not.
Of course, it’s a disadvantage that our ancestors used biodegradable wood rather than hardy stone and marble, but you’d have thought that the exciting discoveries in the Bujang Valley, for instance, could be transmitted to the public – young Malaysians in particular – faster and more systematically.
One way is to encourage and sponsor young Malaysians to visit parts of the world from which we can learn so much. While nothing can substitute actual travel as an ignorance-buster, reading widely, though traditional, is a good alternative.
If The Travels of Marco Polo is deemed too dangerous, then I’d suggest The Travels of Ibn Battuta instead.
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of Ideas.