The Spanish Inquisition

The latest PETRONAS festive advertisement predictably continues their expected mushiness. This time elderly men in an old folks’ home are adopted by an employee for a Deepavali day out, complete with climbing up Batu Caves, beautiful vistas of Malaysian mountains, a durian pit stop and a festive family meal. As always, viewers have reacted positively, touched to tears by the sweet relationships on show.

But there is something different about this advertisement. The elephant in the room has not gone unnoticed. The group celebrating Deepavali consists of a young Indian woman, 2 elderly Indian men and their Chinese friend. Malays are conspicuously absent from the celebrations.

The only Malay we see is a young lady behind the counter at a gas station. She is friendly and tolerantly amused by the old men’s antics, but she is not included. She is not their friend and she is working on a religious holiday not her own. In fact, there are no Malay residents at the old folks’ home either (because, of course, no Malay would abandon their parents, right?).

The reason for this is all too obvious for those of us who have lived through the changes in Malaysian society since the 1980s. Despite all the talk and pride in being a multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation, Malays have increasingly been segregated and even self-segregated themselves from taking part in the lives of other races, especially anything remotely religious.

Perhaps the producers of this Deepavali advertisement were being intentionally subversive. More likely, they have, instead, internalised the inter-religious rules hardening in our society today, rules that would never countenance a Malay in a Hindu temple, much less being blessed with pottu on the forehead by a Hindu priest.


The media is very sensitive to these written and unwritten rules that they judiciously self-censor. A Malaysian director told of a Censorship Board staff, unofficially informing him that had he made his movie about non-Malays, he would have had no trouble getting certified. But with Malay characters, the officials were uncomfortable even when nothing in the broadcast guidelines would rule out the fairly innocuous plot.

And so Malay movies are now reduced to gangsters, hantu (ghosts) and virginal ustazahs who fall in love with their rapists. We still deify those wonderful P. Ramlee movies with their social commentaries running through the slapstick comedies and the overwrought dramas, but we are no longer allowed to make them.

Like many Malaysians, I grew up with unthinking acceptance of open houses with all races eating together, celebrating each other’s festivals. In fact I grew up in Penang, dancing behind the Thaipusam parade, going to churches for weddings, crying loudly at Chinese funerals (admittedly for money) and lepaking (loafing) at the Thai temple grounds because their gardens are lovely and the Buddhist priests were friendly.

But now all these things have become problematic – a minefield of nervous non-Muslims worried that invitations to meals would be rebuffed as their cutlery would be deemed ‘unclean’ and nervous Muslims afraid of raids, arrests, social opprobrium and legal harangues simply for entering a church or temple, working for non-Muslims, allowing another faith to worship in a surau or caring for dogs.

Analogues to the Inquisition?

It reminds me of a ‘funny’ period in European history. To my mind, Malaysia is now showing all the signs of becoming medieval Spain. Perhaps there’s a thing or two we can learn from a brief comparison.

Under Muslim rule and early post-Muslim Christian rule, Andalusian kingdoms were often models of tolerance where cultures were shared and different religions could live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony.

And they were not completely separated communities; despite maintaining their own identities and rituals, they interacted richly, creating a flowering of culture, arts and science. Most famously, Greek science and philosophy flowed into Europe through this channel, an effort that involved Muslims, Christians and Jews.

There were hybrid foods, art forms, institutions and culture. Christians under Muslim rule read scripture and chanted liturgy in Arabic, not Latin. Muslims still read the Bible and Torah side-by-side with the Quran. Jewish synagogues had Quranic verses on its walls.

Consider this example: A legendary Christian king died a saint and his tomb was inscribed with 4 languages representing his multi-religious subjects. 5 generations later, his great-great-grandson, another Christian king would employ the best Muslim artisans in the land to upgrade the palace in Seville, replete with inscriptions referring to the “Sultan” and invoking Allah, including over the front entrance. And everyone from every religious group, in every language, competed to write the best poetry!

So much of Western culture (including pop music which owes much to the invention of the Spanish guitar), science and philosophy has roots in this lively, vibrant, multicultural Spain.

But the tide turned. By the time Ferdinand and Isabel conquered Granada, the Spanish Inquisition was already underway. The Reconquista, as the slow takeover of Spain by Christian kings was branded, involved sporadic forced conversions of Jews and Muslims as well as threats of exile should these communities not convert. Unsurprisingly, these forced conversions created great anxiety as to the nature of the faith held by the new Christians.

This, in turn, powered the Spanish Inquisition. With jurisdiction only over Christians, the activities of the Inquisition disproportionately concentrated on the Conversos and Moriscos as Christian Jews and ex-Muslims were respectively called.

Of course, this reaction is understandable in the framework of what was happening: If you are forced to convert (by threat of death or expulsion), it would only be reasonable for anyone to suspect that your newfound faith was less than sincere.

And there is a related anxiety – if Christians are not allowed to convert to any other religion (i.e. your faith is forced upon you), then in some ways, even the religion of the majority is suspect.

So a society is created of Christians who cannot change faith surrounded by possibly ‘fake Christians’ who have been forced to convert. And all these Christians are under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, an authority that tortures and even kills Christians for not being true Christians.

So any association with non-Christians or even new Christians becomes problematic, carrying with it the always present possibility of straying. Since the religious sincerity of everyone is in doubt, then any activity, no matter how innocent, can be deemed a real threat.

Neighbours started accusing neighbours over the smallest things. Any slight deviation from the norm or even previously accepted practices became suspect. One man was dragged before the Inquisitors for greeting a long time Jewish friend who was walking in an annual Jewish religious procession, something he had done unmolested all his life. But now, this simple act of friendship, became the basis for him to be denounced to the Inquisition. His Jewish friend, the so-called source of “corruption”, however, cannot be prosecuted because the Inquisition can only go after Christians.

The psychology of inquisition

There are lessons to be learned from my brief example. Malaysia too has a religious majority that is not allowed to convert. They are governed by special religious institutions with non-democratic authority over all aspects of the private lives with the authority to fine, imprison and even beat them. Sound familiar yet?

We can see how a similar psychological implications from the Inquisition would follow. If Muslims are not allowed to convert (i.e. your faith is forced upon you), then their faith must be fragile, suspect even, ready to fall at the slightest whisper.

And thus you see the anxiety in Muslim communities. Any contact with non-Muslims would, of course, be dangerous to this delicate faith. Reading the papers, you would think the danger of murtad (apostasy) is ever present. You cannot allow Muslims to do anything for fear of murtad!

So you have a lady who cares for dogs being interrogated for fear that she is insulting Islam. You have a Muslim woman working for a bookstore owned by non-Muslims arrested for selling a not-yet banned book because the authorities have no jurisdiction over non-Muslims. And you have the Government-sanctioned witch hunt on Shias as a deviant and devious cult.

The Kalimah Allah case is particularly telling. You have another religion, Christianity, wanting to use the term “Allah” to refer to God in its Bible in a country where “Allah” is synonymous with the Islamic religion. Logically, it would be the Christians who might be confused, and thus “accidentally” be attracted to Islam or some such.

But instead you have the successful legal argument that it will confuse the Muslims instead, and thus menggegar iman (shake/challenge the faith) or, in other words, could lead to murtad.

Why is the Muslim faith deemed the more fragile, more in need of protection? Aren’t we told all the time how superior this faith is, this faith of the majority and political elites? If it is so superior, why is it that our confusion is considered so inevitable compared to people of other faiths? Are you saying there is actually something wrong with our faith, something so close to the surface that the mere use of an Arabic word that means God by Christians will reveal all and thus turn us away from Islam in droves?

And just like in medieval Spain, it is the superior religion of the majority that is deemed ever so close to corruption at all times, especially from other religions.

So inevitable is this deviation, that a special body was set up for centuries whose sole jurisdiction was prosecuting religious unorthodoxy, and whose very existence actually ended up creating unorthodoxy out of thin air. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested.

It was extremely difficult to escape some form of torture, humiliation and stripping of wealth, regardless of whether you were found guilty or not, especially as torture was a form of interrogation, not legal sanction.

The price of purity

So many familiar tropes from the Spanish Inquisition are being played out in Malaysia now. Increasing hurdles for those who want to convert, to “prove” their sincerity. The demonisation of the other in terms of being untrustworthy, betrayers and using money to grease their way to domination.

A relentless burial of any historical references, cultural rituals or identities that speak of traditional hybridity or syncretism. The banning of books, films, dances etc. The battles over language and liturgy.

The obsession with purity and so-called Bumiputera rights to define the nation. The increasing rigidity of identity and its shallow accoutrements (what you eat, what you wear, where you hang out, who you talk to, where you go to school etc.). And the silencing of anyone who dares to step out of line.

Just like the Spanish Inquisition, what we have in Malaysia is actually a process of forced nationalisation. A rigid monolithic monoculture nationalism. And religion is one of its most powerful weapons.

Spain became a battlefield to redefine who was allowed to be a Spaniard. Who counts? And the answer was racist, intolerant, harsh, violent and extremely rigid. Those who did not fit, those who clung to previous traditions – even in the tiniest of ways – were hounded, tortured, expelled and killed.

The many hybrid cultures, the fluid identities and multifaceted rituals had to make way for only one way of seeing the world. Yet this worldview is non-traditional and (en)forced. Thus it is always insecure, in danger of dissimulation at every turn. So eventually in Spain, when someone is described as an expert curer of pork, it is actually a euphemism for secret Jew.

Lessons for Malaysia

Don Quixote, the world’s first modern novel, beautifully illustrates this act of collective forgetting, the erasing of history and culture, of meaning itself.

The forced creation of a rigid Spanish identity was shown at every turn to be a stubborn illusion. The book is a satire on the myths that sustain a national identity. Dangerous myths that are no more than tilting at windmills and serve to destroy culture and history. And all based on a lie, a dream of a pure past.

Everywhere in the book are reminders of how this forgetting, this rewriting, happens – the burning of books, over-demonstrations of identity (Dulcinea, our mythologised Spanish heroine is “an expert salter of pork”), the loss of languages, and how easily myths can be constructed to become the basis for history.

In fact, the very idea of chivalry was probably derived from Arab influence. So even that most traditional Spanish trait – that Don Quixote devotes his life to – is not “pure”.

As Maria Rosa Menocal writes of the book,

[f]orged in the bonfires of ideas, of books and of people, was the illusory conceit that there could be a pure national and religious identity, and yet this became the ultimate religion everyone had to live with. …Don Quixote is thus in part a postscript to the history of a first-rate place, the most poignant lament over the loss of that universe, its last chapter, allusive, ironic, bittersweet, quixotic.

The “first-rate place” she refers to is Spain before the Inquisition. A time when cultures, languages and faiths mixed among the people as easily as they mixed with each other.

Of course, it was not a utopia. There were conflicts, constantly negotiated differences. But it allowed for those differences to not only exist but shape society. A tolerance that was taken for granted. It was unimaginable in those days that Spain would ever be a place of only one people, one language and one rigidly defined version of only one religion.

I truly hope I do not live to see the day when Malaysia’s Don Quixote is written. It would probably be banned anyway.

Melati Timur is the pseudonym of the author of this post.