Would there be a George Town “model” for managing and resolving religious conflicts in urban settings and, if so, how transferable to other cities would this model be?

George Town, June 2017

I chose to carry out research in George Town in order to obtain a better understanding of the dynamics that lie behind religious conflicts in cities. What could George Town add to my evolving analysis based on my work to date on Cordoba, Jerusalem and Benares? Would there be sufficient similarities to make a comparison worthwhile, but also, would the differences point to the possibility of an alternative approach? Would there be a George Town “model” for managing and resolving religious conflicts in urban settings and, if so, how transferable to other cities would this model be?

The potential for religious conflict in George Town is significant arising from several factors:

  • The sheer diversity of religious communities provides many points of possible friction between the religious communities – from religious sites lying adjacent to each other with possible conflicts over access, to religious festivities coinciding both spatially and temporally.
  • A Constitution and federal government which privileges Malay Muslim interests over those of other communities.
  • A demography in which no single ethnic community is clearly dominant with the result that there is an unstable equilibrium between the Chinese and Malay communities.
  • The tendency for ethnic conflicts to spill over into religious conflicts which are more intractable and more long-term.
  • The impetus that the defeat and dispersal of Islamic State in the Middle East may have on the existing radicalism already present in some sections of the Malay Muslim community

Nevertheless, despite these factors, the fact remains that religious tension is, and has been for some time, minimal in George Town. Even during the 1969 Malay-Chinese riots in Kuala Lumpur, Penang remained relatively peaceful. What, therefore, are the components of this harmonious situation and how robust or fragile is it?

Below are a few ideas drawn from interviews and observations carried out in June 2017 and which also flow from fieldwork in Cordoba, Jerusalem and Benares.

1) George Town is not a “holy city”.
Despite the large number of religious sites belonging to a wide range of faiths in George Town, they are not central to any of the major faiths and threats to these sites do not constitute an existential threat to that faith. George Town being a traditional departure point for haj pilgrims, or the location of the oldest church in south-east Asia, or of the largest reclining Buddha outside India is important to members of religious communities in Penang, but it is not on a par with Jerusalem as the most important site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or with Benares as the city of Shiva. This relatively peripheral characteristic of the religious sites in George Town ensures that any disputes regarding religious sites do not resonate much beyond the island itself and therefore can be addressed by local religious leaders and politicians.

2) A culture of accommodation and mutual respect.
There is long-standing culture of accommodation and mutual respect in George Town shaped by historical precedents and which is embedded in both the elite level interactions and in daily life. Similarly, there is widespread recognition that peaceful coexistence is to the mutual advantage of all communities. Personal links between religious leaders have been established for dispute resolution and ad hoc processes seem to be more effective than formal mechanisms. The failure to establish an Interfaith Commission, as a result of national-level political considerations, points to the importance and acceptance of local initiatives that are rooted in the traditions of Penang. This culture of accommodation flows from an unwritten social compact: that the religious communities will recognise the primacy of Islam and the privileging of Malay Muslim civil and religious rights in exchange for the non-intervention of the state in the affairs of the non-Muslim religious communities.

3) Diversity dilutes religious and ethnic solidarities.
While religious and ethnic diversity provides ample scope for multiple points of friction, it also dilutes the flammability of those frictions. Not only are there numerous ethnic communities, there are also numerous religious communities that both straddle the ethnic communities and divide them. Thus, the Chinese community may be partially united by a common language, it is also fragmented into different religions, clan groups, socio-economic classes and political parties. The Malay community may be the most cohesive but its ability to act collectively is fragmented by a rural-urban divide as well as being constrained by its close connections with non-Malay Muslims and its relations to the national ruling elite. In effect, there are no major binaries along ethnic or religious lines in George Town (in contrast to, say, Jerusalem) that would assist political mobilisation around religious sites. Instead there is a weak “Us” and a weak “Them”.

4) The absence of a significant religious hierarchy and powerful religious institutions
Partly due to the absence of religious sites of international significance, George Town is spared the presence of a powerful cadre of religious priests acting as a political force. In other cities, the presence of such sites attracts revenues in the form of endowments, donations and funds expended by large numbers of pilgrims which, in turn, provide the clergy with means to purchase and maintain properties, recruit and provide employment for new clergy and carve out a degree of financial autonomy from the state. While it is clear that certain temples, churches and mosques in George Town are well-endowed and have wealthy supporters, they are not a dominating presence. In addition, external funding seems to be proportionate to the numbers of devotees and the sites. The only clerical hierarchy that could possibly act in an assertive way is the Muslim hierarchy, but it is both fragmented by ethnicity and also has been absorbed into the federal and state government structures to the extent that it does not act independently of the state.

5) Land Ownership is not a determining issue
Land and property ownership by religious communities in George Town does not drive residential or employment segregation along sectarian or ethnic lines. In Jerusalem, for example, much of the land and property of the city is owned by religious foundations/trusts of the three faiths and by the Israeli state which, by its own statutes, can only lease land to Israeli Jews. This form of communal based landownership has assisted in the creation of geographical areas in the city defined by the exclusive presence of one community at the expense of others. In George Town, property ownership appears to be highly fragmented: State owned land is on the periphery and not associated with any religious sites; the majority of the property in George Town may be owned by large Chinese families and businesses and by Kongsis, but there is little appearance of segregation resulting from this; there appear to be no major religious foundations holding land in order to promote sectarian interests. The only exception to this maybe Muslim waqf property but the holdings do not appear to be extensive. In George Town, therefore, the correlation between landownership and residential segregation is weak.

6) Weak economic interdependence
One feature of divided cities is the lack of economic interdependence between the different sectors of the population. The accepted view is that the overall pattern of economic activity in George Town is that the Chinese community dominates the private sector, the Malay community the public sector and government service, while the Indian community provides a recognisable proportion of the professional class (legal and medical). This pattern is currently undergoing a transformation with the emergence of both a Malay middle class and a voluntary/civil society sector which is highly mixed in Penang. While economic prosperity continues and whilst the state is able to support government expenditure and recruitment, this economic stratification works for the present. The crunch will come when those conditions do not prevail and the absence of mutually supporting economic activities may lead to greater competition over resources and state allocations.

7) The Malaysian state is not contested
Despite the existence of secessionist movements in Penang during the 1960s, and despite the demographic and political differences between Penang island and the Federation (such as Penang having Chinese-Malay demographic parity, the absence of a Malay Sultan, the control of the Penang state administration by opposition parties) the legitimacy of the Malaysian state itself is not contested in George Town. The perception by many of a corrupt national elite, a growing political “gangsterism” and the debate over inequalities enshrined in the Constitution have not crystallised into opposition to the state itself. In cities where the legitimacy of the state is contested, religious and other community leaders take on the role of political representation and function as power brokers in the allocation of resources. In these circumstances, religious sites become both symbols of community strength and community assets that need to be protected. This is not happening in George Town where, for all its faults, the political process remains based on the negotiations between political parties.

8) Weak intervention by external actors
In some cities with religious conflicts, the interventions of external actors are usually negative in that they exacerbate tensions which can be resolved locally. The presence of the UN and of large cohorts of media and diplomatic personnel place an unwelcome spotlight on what are often minor disputes over access and behaviour around religious sites. While George Town is striving to position itself as a regional city of some importance, the kinds of interventions from external actors it is receiving are unlikely to contribute to any religious conflicts in the city – for the time being at least. Areas to keep an eye on are:

  • The George Town World Heritage Site. While the UNESCO inscription has been a source of great pride, revitalising the downtown area, upgrading workmanship and construction skills, attracting additional investment, and in turn incentivising key stakeholders to ensure that social, economic and religious problems are addressed and resolved, there is a realisation that the subsequent gentrification of the heritage zone is not benefitting the poorer and more marginal residents.
  • The influence by the Gulf States on the Malay Muslim community. This is not as great in Penang as on the mainland and while there are some Islamic institutions receiving Gulf funds, their independence is curtailed.
  • The growing influence of China. At present, this is focussed on fostering good relations with the ruling elite at the federal level. Nevertheless, some recent actions by the Chinese government have the potential of emboldening the Chinese community in Penang. If this continues, it may lead to a more assertive Chinese pushback against the Islamization policies of the federal government.
  • Finally, in terms of external economic interventions, there is a fear that the rate of investment in high-end housing and hotels in George Town and elsewhere on the island has reached saturation point and that there will be an unwelcome crash in property values, possibly leading to social unrest. It is at this point where religious differences may prove to be a weak link.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, my impression is that the religious sites and the relations between the religious communities in George Town are not a cause of tension in the city. Instead the coexistence and equilibrium achieved acts as leverage for greater tourism, immigration and investment. Such a situation offers George Town a powerful symbol of multicultural identity.

How robust or fragile is this situation?
This equilibrium appears to be contingent on the culture and tradition of accommodation that has emerged. It is an important adhesive that allows the different communities to live alongside each other. It is also contingent on continued prosperity as a lubricant and a supplier of resources that can be shared out. What is of concern is that the weak checks in the Constitution may erode the social compact between Malays and Chinese in Penang and this will be eroded further if the economy declines. In addition, the weak mechanisms for formal dispute resolution have resulted in a reliance on strong local religious leadership to confront challenges to the equilibrium. Currently that leadership is being exercised George Town, but it may not always be forthcoming. In this context, changes and the pursuit of broader agendas on the national and regional level may lead national and regional actors to exploit local religious issues to their advantage. This may trigger off unwelcome disputes over religious sites that the local leadership cannot control.

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