June 11, 2009
"The Arabs have a really nice way of saying hello, by just wishing someone ‘peace’."
So, there I was, surfing the Net, looking for something to distract me from work. During the breaks from playing “Flight of the Hamsters”, I chanced upon an article regarding Barack Hussein Obama’s speech in Cairo.
I had heard bits and pieces of the speech on the telly and my feeling was it’s all fine and dandy, but he did skirt around some issues; and unless and until the words are translated into action, it was little more than a feel good PR exercise.
No, the online article I read was not an in-depth analysis of the speech, it was about how a whole bunch of Americans headed for their computers to search what Assalamualaikum meant.
Their president had used the greeting in his speech and they were probably in a tizzy wondering whether their boss man had declared a new-found faith in Islam.
“Gosh, Billy Bob Joe, did he say somethin’ in Ay-rab?”
I can imagine their relief when they found out it only meant “peace be upon you”.
I’m sure there were a lot of Budweiser bottles being clinked together in celebration that Obama was not the closet Muslim that the redneck right wingers were saying he was during the election campaign.
This led me to thinking.
When I was a little boy, the usual greeting that people gave each other in formal events was usually “Selamat pagi/tengahari/petang/malam” or “Good morning/afternoon/evening”.
Over the years, the Arabic Assalamualaikum started to be used more and more often. Then it developed to Assalamualaikum warahmadullah wabarakathu. Then there was a further development of a little doa (prayer) before the whole thing.
I suppose it was yet another facet of the growing Islamisation/Arabisation of the country. Well, you know, whatever.
Eventually, I started to use the greeting, too. That’s not to say I was becoming any holier (although for many Muslims there are religious connotations to the greeting), it’s just that I like it; in the same way that I like to wear blue jeans and T-shirts. We borrow from other cultures all the time, and the Arabs, in my book, came up with a really nice way of saying hello.
I mean, how cool it is to wish someone “peace”?
Not “Good morning” when it could have been a really crappy morning.
Not “How are you?” when the answer will always be “I’m fine” regardless of whether I just discovered that I have piles the size of walnuts.
And “Selamat pagi” sounds like I’m being asked to go on some military mission. “Safe morning, Private, I hope you don’t get your legs blown off.”
In this context “I wish you peace” is really nice. And when said earnestly, is utopian even.
However, over the last few years, I have stopped using it when I speak in public. The reason is we in Malaysia have managed to contort something so sweet into yet another symbol of our continued obsession with dividing ourselves.
I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s never just “Assalamualaikum”, it is almost always “Assalamualaikum dan selamat sejahtera”.
Even when we greet each other, it is as a divided people. “Hey for you Muslims out there; I wish you all peace. And for everyone else; I wish you well being, man”!
Why do we do this?
No, that is the wrong question.
I know why we do this. For the Muslims, it is because they feel the greeting is exclusive to them.
For non-Muslims, they probably feel the greeting is yet another way of forcing Islamisation onto the populace and thus it is better to have something else just for them.
The question therefore should be “how did we come to this?”
When did exclusivity become such a norm that we experience it without even noticing its divisive power?
When did suspicion become so ingrained that the harmless becomes a symbol of oppression?
For me, much of the divisiveness in our society can be traced to many policy and legislative sources. However, we have a bigger battle on our hands and that is the changing of our very own attitudes towards one another.
It will be useful, of course, if we governed ourselves with as little prejudice as possible, but even if the laws and policies were changed it would matter little if our hearts and minds have not.
It is a tiny thing, I know, but for now at least, in my own pathetic attempt at ensuring I am Malaysian first, I shall continue to use “Good morning” and “Selamat pagi”; even though your piles are making it hard for you to sit down and the most dangerous thing you will be doing all day is boiling the water for your coffee.