PROFESSOR Dr Juli Edo, the Orang Asli Development Department’s director-general, makes his point clear: Don’t take advantage of vulnerable orang asli communities and trick them into religious conversions. Juli has raised his concern over the plan by one northern state to convert all the Orang Asli within its borders over the next 30 years.
Numbering about 180,000 throughout the peninsula, 20% of the Orang Asli are Muslims and 10% are Christians. The majority are classified as animists. What is conversion, and should there be any concern over it? Conversion is not like ditching Huawei for Apple – that’s just a change of gadget. Conversion requires you to change your identity and worldview.
To grasp the dynamics of this issue, we need to realise that the practice of mass conversion is historically rooted in the geopolitical turbulence of West Asia-Europe. These two closely linked regions have sprouted the most number of warring states battling for regional dominance, with each nation adhering to a state religion as its anchor for political stability and socio-cultural uniformity.
Mass conversion of outsiders to the state religion would help secure and strengthen a civilisation by sheer power of numbers, while it faced rivalry from neighbouring polities with their state religions. Belonging to the wrong faith could mean your death, as religion did not exist then as a separate category from “peoplehood” (ie belonging to a people). Religion defined a people.
Historical geopolitics aside, missionaries assume they are doing the convert a favour in bringing salvation to him. It’s a one-way street, with the proselytisers monopolising the conversation. But stop for a moment and give the other side a chance to talk.
The orang asli faith goes back 300,000 years in a globally spread-out archaic tradition shared by all the world’s surviving hunter-gatherer tribes. In contrast, our civilisational religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and nine others) date back less than 7,000 years to the era of civilisation. We are toddlers preaching to our senior cousins about faith.
With dense urban living and the need for mass social cohesion as the backdrop, all civilisational religions focus on Oneness as the starting point of their faith. Aborigines, living within a borderless inter-locking natural landscape, emphasise Wholeness. Believing that spirits inhabit the forms of nature, they appear to worship many gods and a plethora of trees. That is a superficial analysis of their faith.
The aborigines sense divinity within nature: for them, God is in Nature and the relationship between the two is like air and mist. We find God through books of scripture; aborigines find God through a universal book of nature. By focusing on Wholeness, the orang asli have developed a sustainable lifestyle of immersion in nature. Their economy mimics the water cycle that we learn about in science class. No drop is wasted.
Now let’s talk about us: the civilised economy is a gargantuan factory with lots of products and also lots of waste that are dumped into the rivers and spewed into the air, sending children to hospital. Although very high-tech, our lifestyles have induced climate change that is wiping out increasing numbers of species. All modern world religions are to some extent implicated because they are the anchors of civilisation.
Once robust and healthy, aboriginal communities are now close to extinction because governments have issued licences for their habitats to be destroyed in favour of plantations, mining and logging. With no resources to live on, the orang asli depend on welfare aid. Governments should make climate-wise decisions by launching a world exchange programme wherein education, healthcare, jobs and technology are brought to them. In exchange, they teach us the way of nature.
Religion must focus on sharing, not converting. Stopping climate change requires us to get familiar with the aboriginal worldview and incorporating it into public policy. But if we induce all the orang asli to renounce their aboriginal ie humanity’s original faith, we are breaking civilisation’s final link with nature. A holistic approach is for the missionary to extend his religion to the orang asli and let them fuse relevant elements into their worldview.
The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: email@example.com