Of License Plates and the Slaughter of Cows

This week in Malaysia two things happened. The Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taosim (MCCBCHST) issued a call that the authorities stop the slaughtering of cows in schools and public places. This ritual slaughter is carried out, normally in mosques, for the Muslim Eid Alhada. This year, however, several Muslim groups announced that they would carry out the ritual sacrifice, using cows, in public school yards where Hindu students of Indian origin and Buddhist students of Chinese origin were present. The MCCBCHST apparently took this as an intentional effort to wound the religious feelings of Hindus and Buddhists, who object to the killing of animals and for Hindus particularly cows.

Various Malay Muslim groups and leaders immediately took offense at being chastened over their public actions. One Muslim senator, Mashita Ibrahim, “said the council does not respect the rights of Muslims in practicing their rituals and the position of Islam as Malaysia’s official religion.” (Malaysiakini, 11/8/11) The key here is the assertion that Islam is Malaysia’s “official religion” and thus has a claim on certain state controlled public spaces (schools) that other religions do not have.

This small dispute is only the tip of an iceberg of inter-religious conflict, often violent, over the social status of religions in pluralistic societies. In Malaysia, as in much of the world, the dominant religious group (Muslims) claims the right to politically and culturally dominate the public sphere. In Malaysia non-Muslim minorities claim the right to at least have their religions respected in public sphere.

But what happens when one religion’s ritual actions and public claims flatly assert that another religion’s ritual actions and public claims are worthless or false? The Malaysian case is one of intentional provocation for political ends. But the Christmas tree, examples of which will be springing up soon in public spaces all over the U.S. (including public schools), had its origins in a symbolic public Christian assertion about Jesus that attacked and displaced pre-Christian European religions from the public sphere and implicitly made a claim that Judaism and islam (in their rejection of the claim that Jesus is Messiah) are false – at least on this point.

Even more to the point, there is a plan for the Texas Department of Public Safety to issue a license plate with a three crosses on a hillside motif. The so-called “Calvary” plate will raise money for a Christian charity, but will also be an assertion of religious claims in the public display mandated by law.

It may seem that the slaughter of cows in public is a bit more “in your face” than cultural artifacts turned decorative motifs in a post-Christian society. But the difference is one of degree, not kind – as opponents to the Calvary license plate understand.

Religions, by definition, make claims about the nature of reality as a whole. Because these claims are different, often completely different, they will always be in conflict. When a government chooses to sponsor any set of religious claims and give them pride of place in the public sphere then, as in Malaysia, the natural assertion of different claims in the public sphere becomes implicitly treasonous even if it is not immediately illegal. And that leads at some level to civil war, the kind of civil wars that wracked Europe in the early modern period, are presently tearing Muslim countries apart with sectarian violence, and are manifest in nations like China and Iran with perpetual oppression of religious minorities.

American Christians, if they value the rights and lives of their fellow Christians around the world, will make the U.S. a shining light by keeping the government out of the business of promoting religious claims, even as decorative motifs in license plates.

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