George Town’s Diversity Safeguards its Religious Harmony


In his notes from a recent field trip, a renowned scholar identifies some unique qualities behind the inter-faith goodwill found in Penang.

All cities are arenas of contestation. The “harmonious city” is both a distant ideal and a contradiction in terms of a situation where residents jockey for influence, resources and security amid changing demographic, political and economic dynamics.

In general, conflicts in cities are resolved through mediation and political processes which allow an uneasy equilibrium to prevail, but when these mechanisms break down, a city will unravel into discrete parts (ghettos), and ultimately, in the case of violent conflict, result in being partitioned. In some cities, urban conflicts are exacerbated by religious diversity as access to or control over holy sites becomes both the foci of struggles over territory and symbols of the power of the different communities. Jerusalem, Mostar and Sarajevo in the Balkans, Benares, and Lhasa are cities where holy sites are at the forefront of urban contestations.

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