Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A little perspective

I don't read Canadian news much these days, but I did hear about the hooplah around Stephen Harper accepting and possibly pocketing a communion wafer at a Catholic service.

Here are some words I've seen used to describe the scenario: scandal, outrage, desecration, controversy, sacrilege.

Strangely, a communion scandal erupted in Malaysia a few days later. Except this took things a step or two further.

A writer for the magazine Al Islam decided to go undercover at a Catholic mass to see if he could find any evidence of Muslims being converted to Catholicism, or the church using the term Allah. Conversion out of or into Islam is, to make the understatement of the year, a rather touchy subject in Malaysia.

Muslims are covered by a parallel, state-level syariah legal system. Some states require Muslims converting out of Islam to undergo counselling and have an official body rule on whether they can convert or not; some charge apostasy as a crime. Also, if it's not totally clear what religion someone is, it can be tricky to figure out things like inheritance. And if that wasn't complicated enough, Malay Muslims and indigenous people get special treatment under the constitution, which translates into affirmative action type quotas in education and business.

Remember when I said Malaysia was the most complicated country on earth? Anything I write about Malaysia for non-Malaysians seems to require an encyclopedia of background information. Also, please don't draw conclusions based on this about Islam or Malaysians. As far as I know, Malaysia's unique in the way it ties up Islam and Malay ethnic identity in its constitution. Also, scholars disagree on what to do about Muslim apostates, but the Qu'ran says there is no compulsion in religion.

Anyway. The communion thing. So this guy from this magazine goes undercover at a Catholic mass. He writes that he sees some people who look Malay, but doesn't see any evidence of attempts at conversion or the use of the word Allah (The use of the word "Allah" by other religions is also a touchy subject). When the time came to take communion, he accepted it, but spat it out and photographed it. The photograph was published along with the article in the magazine.

I'm not a religious person. Also, I'm a journalist, and I'm not supposed to have opinions. But it seems pretty clear to me that this is ACTUAL blasphemy and disrespect of communion. Poor Harper was just confused. Either that, or he ate it off camera, and the whole controversy is over nothing, like he claims.

Other things Canadians don't have to deal with that we shouldn't take for granted include detention without trial and sedition laws.

All of this also reminds me of a guilty moment in my own childhood. I used to sing in a Catholic church choir, even though I'm not Catholic. The first time I sang at a service, most of the other kids in the choir got up to take communion. I went with them, but I had a vague feeling I was doing something wrong, so I put the wafer in my pocket.

That's right - I actually did what Harper was accused of doing. Although in my defence, I think I was about 11.

I told my mom about it and she was kind of half shocked and half thought it was funny. She explained the whole "body of Christ" thing to me. I asked if I could eat it. She said yes. So I did.

In conclusion: Communion and religion are confusing. And count your blessings. Both the secular and the religious ones.

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