Religious dialogue: whose responsibility? – Part 1


Mahathir not personally responsible?

Sven Schottmann’s argument is simple and important: First, he offers a defense on Mahathir’s contribution to interreligious relations, and second, our attention is turned to the people – the religious people – with due attention to historical factors that impacts their disposition to people of other religions.  Both ideas are summarised succinctly in the following:

“Mahathir himself, while in power, personally fostered such encounters and frequently spoke to Christian and also to Buddhist and Hindu audiences, both locally and overseas. It thus seems inaccurate to hold Mahathir personally responsible for the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths.

The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue, in particular a more meaningful Muslim-Christian dialogue has been historically grown animosities and suspicions that will take time to overcome.”

In non-academic terms, one might read it as (1) Don’t put all the blame on Mahathir, because he has personally fostered and encouraged interfaith encounters, and (2) It’s really about the social psychological state of mind of religious people due to historic upbringing that is the main problem. Therefore, (3) it follows that we should turn away from the blame game on Mahathir (or perhaps by implication politicians in power?) and focus on addressing ingrained animosities and suspicions in religious communities, and in due time we will live happily ever after.

Who is responsible then?

As a result of reading Sven’s essay, a more general question emerged in my mind, whose responsibility is it – the politicians or the people?  My main concern is not so much on the notion of ‘historically grown animosities and suspicions’ as one of the ‘impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue’.  The word ‘biggest’ is what in my view warrants a minor intervention.  Even if we answer both the politicians and the people, in the case of Malaysia, where does the greater ‘weight of responsibility’ lean towards?

Admittedly, most of us are aware that assigning singular causes to the complex realities in which religious people seek to negotiate their relation to ultimate mystery and the daily grind of earthly matters is a dead end street. Making Mahathir the sole cause for “the the overall failure of an inter-religious dialogue culture to take root in Malaysia” though might be therapeutic is not only contestable as suggested by Sven but might actually distract us from some needed self-critical reflection, is where I think Sven is leading us. In that sense, I appreciate Sven’s contribution.  But, is it not equally simplistic to unload the ‘weight of responsibility’ from those in positions of power – I am speaking more generally now – to overburden religious communities with unnecessary guilt?

To begin, let me state that I believe both Sven and I are on the same page when it comes to the significance of inter-religious dialogue as part of the solution to prevent, as well as overcome ‘religion’ being used as a source, justification, and even ‘scape-goat’ for conflict and violence.

To add value to Sven’s original contribution, I would like to mention contributions of Christians and Muslims critical reflection on interfaith dialogue that has already been done that addresses some of these animosities and suspicions.  For example, Malaysian theologian Albert Walters’ (2007) work on Christian-Muslim relations, Sociologist Syed-Farid Alattas’ (2008) reassertion on the Islamic commitment to dialogue  and Robert Hunt’s (2009) emphasis on identity and narrative are most illuminating, just to name a few.

A side note to mention, the discussions here in New Mandela on ‘Apostasy’ from at least two perspectives are a breath of fresh air even though it might be uncomfortable to some, and counter-productive for others. The main value is that we are engaged in a form of dialogue that others can build on.

However, as contributors to the challenge of inter-religious dialogue, so often, we recognise that our work is necessary but not sufficient.  Hence, I would like to raise a number of concerns from a civil society perspective, hopefully in order to develop a way to understand the Malaysian situation, and subsequently find ways together in true dialogical fashion towards some solution/s. The perspective I am hoping to bring aims to take into account the struggle of people – especially religious people – on the ground in the current conditions of Malaysia post-Mahathir.

Voices from the ground

As a point of entry, in the case of Malaysia, religious communities have historically recognised the need for a healthy environment for living together. For example, from a non-Muslim perspective, since 1983,  the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has dedicated, at the institutional level, towards the following:

(a)  To promote understanding, mutual respect and co-operation between people of different religions.

(b)  To study and resolve problems affecting all inter religious relationships.

(c)  To make representations regarding religious matters when necessary.

(d) To advance and promote the religious, cultural, educational and social rights and interests of the religious bodies.

Besides the presence and the work of the MCCBCHST, in recent years, I would like to suggest that in civil society there are indicators that perhaps Malaysians of different faiths and persuasions do not have such strong animosities and suspicions that might be assumed prior to further empirical investigation. And especially in times of controversy and tension, it is the religious communities together with other civil society groups that have taken the lead in public to confront what potentially can be disastrous outcomes if left unattended. Below are some significant excerpts from non-Muslims, Muslims and other civil society groups during times of tension:

“We, the undersigned civil society organizations are shocked, angered and saddened by the “Cow-Head protest” in Shah Alam last Friday, 28 August 09, against a proposed Hindu temple in Section 23 of the city. The carrying of the head of a freshly slaughtered cow, a sacred animal to the Hindus and the unveiled threat of bloodshed on the eve of Merdeka celebration suggests that all Malaysians need to reflect deeply about our 52 years of nationhood, and the clarion call of 1Malaysia.

From the outset, these heinous acts of crime perpetrated by the irresponsible few must NEVER be seen as a conflict between the two faiths or the two faith communities. All major spiritual traditions, Islam and Hinduism included, uphold peace and human dignity as their common and core values. Our spirituality and love for humanity mandates us for the perpetual quest for peace and abhorrence of all forms of hatred and civil disorder.” – The Cow-Head Lesson for Merdeka: Delegitimize Violence and Hatred

“This act of arson, committed presumably in the name of Islam desecrates the very religion it purports to protect. The Holy Quran unequivocally prohibits destroying the houses of worship of all religions, as warned in Surah Al-Hajj, Verse 40.

“… Had not Allah checked the excesses and aggression of one set of people by means of another, surely would be destroyed monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated …” – MPF Statement On Church Torchings

“As in the past, Malaysians of other faiths see the attack on Islam as an attack on their own faiths. In an immediate response, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) have condemned any such violence on any house of worship as “a sin of the highest order”.

The inter-faith solidarity of Malaysians is a clear and loud testimony that Malaysian society has passed another test on communal relations and emerged only ever stronger than before. No cow head, pig head or fire can set the fraternity and goodwill amongst Malaysians on fire. The agent provocateurs are only burning themselves in stark desperation devoid of any modicum of civic consciousness or religiosity.

The indomitable spirit of mutual respect and muhibbah of the Malaysian society in the face of challenging inter-faith issues is however tarnished by the continuous failures of the Malaysian state of law and order. The police must stop dismissing such attacks as purely acts of vandalism or juvenile delinquency.” – Police investigation on mosque attacks must pursue the political operators

“In a multi-religious country such as Malaysia, adopting views that disallow non-Muslims to enter mosques, which are established in some school of thoughts, is inappropriate. Nobody from other faiths should be barred from entering mosques or any places of worship for Muslims, as long as their purpose is good, respects the sacredness of the place of worship and is modestly dressed. They should also be allowed to deliver speeches, provided that the speech is in line with the spirit of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil.

It is in the interest of maslahah or common good of Islam that non-Muslims should feel welcomed and not intimidated from visiting mosques. Calls to ban non-Muslims from entering mosques or any knee-jerk reaction by the Islamic authorities to bow to certain political pressure in preventing the commendable attitude of cooperation and mutual respect are regrettable and uncalled for.” – IRF Stand on the Issue of Non-Muslims Entering Mosques

The above suggests strongly that religious communities can draw not only from within their own spiritual tradition, but also from the shared understanding of living together as part of a mosaic Malaysian society.  This does not however mean that there is harmony, no prejudices and good understanding among the different religious communities. But perhaps at the ground level, hostility is not the point of departure in the interfaith relations between ordinary Malaysians, rather the capacity for solidarity seems to the greater force at work here.

Sivin Kit is a founding member of Friends in Conversation and one of the initiators of the Micah Mandate. He served as the pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church from 2000 to 2010 and has been actively engaged in civil society in Malaysia since 2007. Currently, he is pursuing his Ph.D in Religion, Ethics and Society at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. Sivin is addicted to potato chips and thinks the new “Battlestar Galactica” is educational.

Part 2 of this article on the challenges of approaching dialogue and a possible way forward will appear tomorrow.

This article is part of a series of articles under the theme, “Faith in Malaysia.”

About Sivin Kit, Guest Contributor