Does religion teach us to be cruel?

Does religion teach us to be cruel?
By Zan Azlee

When I was growing up in Johor Bahru, I went to an Islamic religious school. I was probably around eight or nine years old. I used to ask a lot of questions and the ustaz (religious teacher) in class would scold me to keep quiet and not to question too much because religion is the word of God. If you asked too much, “nanti jadi gila!” (you will become crazy).

So I lost interest in religious school. I would chit chat with my friends, skip classes and play behind the canteen or even just enter other classes and be disruptive. I would get caught by the ustaz and usually be made to stand outside the class under the hot sun for most of the school hours.

My parents didn’t know about these punishments. I’m not part of the snowflake generation. I was born in the 1970s so I didn’t run home and cry to my parents about having to stand outside the classroom. But I did tell them about how the ustaz would never entertain my questions.

After two years, my parents took me out of the school and I never went to another systematic religious school again. But I was lucky. My father was very open when it came to religion and we could ask and discuss anything. Nothing was considered taboo or even blasphemous. He would always say that questioning needs to happen for us to understand better.

I was turned off by religion because of the actions of the religious school I went to. But I regained my interest once my parents took me out. They explained to me that passion for religion (whatever religion and not just Islam) comes from making people love it. Make them hate it and you’re basically just chasing them away.

That’s right! I’m talking about the case where 19-year-old Daniel Iskandar was caught attempting to steal money from a mosque. We all know about what happened next. Members of the mosque treated him terribly. They emulated the corpse bathing ritual on him to apparently teach him a lesson.

He was eventually brought to court, found guilty and sentenced to 10 days in prison and a RM4,000 fine. An anonymous good samaritan paid off his fine for him. The biggest problem I have with this issue is the treatment that the young man received from the mosque. I would say that it is outright abuse.

Why did the people at the mosque have to go to that extreme? What gave them the right to be the judge and executioner? Is vigilantism now legally acceptable in Malaysia? I find it deeply ironic and hypocritical of people who are supposedly religious to behave in such a way.

Poor treatment pushes people away

What they did was not going to teach Daniel a lesson. If anything, this would likely push him even further away from the mosque and the religion. If it was me, it would make me hate everything about the mosque, its members and the religion.

I would say it is quite similar to the situation I faced when I was in religious school. The ustaz did not bother to make any effort in seeing what my questions were. He was just too lazy to explain and educate me so he thought the best way was to just scare me into submission. Or maybe he just didn’t know enough about the religion to answer me!

Didn’t the members of the mosque who caught Daniel sit him down and try to understand his situation? I mean, the mosque is suppose to be a place of refuge, peace and love. Couldn’t they have practised that a little bit before doing whatever they did to him? Or were they just too lazy to make an effort?

In court, Daniel’s lawyer said that he needed the money to buy medicine for his sick grandfather. There was also big chatter on social media saying that the real truth is that Daniel was a drug addict and wanted money to buy his fix. There were also accusations saying that he often gets angry and violent when his grandfather didn’t give him money.

Who knows if all this is true or not. But to me, that is beside the point. The point here is that Daniel is a young man who has his life ahead of him. He wasn’t committing murder or any type of violent crime. This is the opportunity to show empathy, understanding, patience and love.

No matter what the reason for Daniel’s actions, at that age, there is still an opportunity for him to learn, change and repent. At 19 years old, it wouldn’t be hard to pinpoint the root cause of the problem and to solve it. It would just require people to actually care a little bit.

Compassion and understanding 

I was talking about this with my father-in-law, veteran RTM broadcaster Tengku Mohd Ali Bustaman, and he told me of a case quite similar to Daniel’s. A boy was caught stealing donation money from a mosque. The committee found out that his family is quite needy and couldn’t really afford to raise him properly, so he became a little bit of a problem child.

So, they told the boy that he is now the adoptive son of the mosque. The mosque would support him financially for his basic needs like clothes, uniform, school books and materials, etc. In return, he was required to attend mass prayers and check in with the committee from time to time. The arrangement worked out well.

But then again, why are we surprised to see such things like the case with Daniel happening in Malaysia? When it comes to religion, we have always been ingrained with fear rather than love. In school, we are scared into submission.

In society, a lot of the rules, regulations and laws are also there to scare people (the perception of hudud law is a good example). There is never any open engagement or discourse when it comes to the Islamic religion in this country.

Is this how we want to portray our society? I don’t want to sound so smug or holier than thou, I think I’m just disappointed.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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