Religious dialogue: whose responsibility?


(photo BERNAMA)

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 ingrainedanimosities 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 andsuspicions 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.

The challenge of approaching ‘Dialogue’

Next, I would like to raise three concerns on the way we approach the question of interfaith relations with the aim to clarify how we may understand the challenge of inter-religious dialogue, and specifically Christian-Muslim dialogue in the case of Malaysia.  These concerns are pertinent because often we may not be talking about the same thing even if we use same terminology.

First, in the discussion on religious dialogue, perhaps we need to clarify what are we describing by the word ‘dialogue’?

Which level of ‘dialogue’ are we discussing?

Is it at the  ground level – a personal neighbourly dialogue between Uncle Ali and Grandfather Surin?

Is it the academic ‘dialogue’ between Professor Bakar and Professor Ng?

Is it the dialogue between the church institution and the Home Ministry of the Malaysian government?

Is it a dialogue between an NGO like Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) with the young wing of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM Youth)?

We can add to the list and have different ways to narrow down which ‘level’ we are focusing on. One may assume the ‘rules of engagement’ would be different at different levels depending on who are the participants and the shared goals -implicit or explicit – one has.

Secondly, we may ask what are the different types of ‘Dialogue’?

The contribution from the Federation of Asian Bishop (FABC) is helpful place to start as there has been substantial reflection on this.

Is it a ‘dialogue of life’ where the focus is on the ordinary day to day contact?

Is it a ‘dialogue of action’ where the point of contact is first when different religious communities work together and also reflect together on a shared project?

Is it a ‘Dialogue of discourse’ focused on theology and beliefs? So, besides clarifying the levels of ‘dialogue’ we are addressing, we also consider the types of ‘dialogue’ in operation.

One could even ask whether it is a direct dialogue where we are comparing religious understandings of respective teachings, or more indirect dialogue where we focus on shared concerns and common issues but drawing from the reservoir of the best our faith traditions and the lessons where we have not met up even to our own standards.

Third, and I see this as the ‘biggest’ critical concern because, for each level andtypes of ‘dialogue’, direct or indirect, there are different conditions that might facilitate or hinder the progress for either subjects or structures.

These conditions have an important impact on pre-existing animosities orsuspicions, and also corrective and creative possibilities.

Put in concrete terms, even if we imagine that the Christians and Muslims in ABIM and CCM youth for example, have to at least some extent disciplined their psychological state of minds, the socio-political context that was generated from incidents such as the recent ‘JAIS-DUMC’ controversy, cannot simply be ignored.

In short, the personal or in this case, between two NGOs, while can be distinguished analytically from the political, one might even try hard to ‘bracket’ the political out for a moment, but the complex relation between the two still needs to be attended to, sooner or later. Therefore, the political returns. Or more specifically, the politicians return to the picture again.

The ‘political’ strikes back

Therefore, while one must not get too personal with regards to Mahathir, and after some critical distance, we may entertain a qualified critical agreement that Mahathir probably cannot be held solely responsible for “the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths”.

Perhaps we hear the overtone that, “We were all in this together” past, present and future.  The implication of Sven’s argument suggests a challenge to the people  i.e. religious communities is a welcome one but not at the expense of neglecting the political conditions that the people – religious or non-religious – live in and need to contend with.

We still need to look at the policies or structures during Mahathir’s premiership, and more importantly, for today, what are the policies and structures post-Mahathir during the administration of Abdullah Badawi and now Najib Razak, that are pertinent for our current situation.   This is clearly political in both the broad and narrow sense of the term.

What I mean by the political thus far at least is the policies, the existing structures and also one must add the public articulation of the vision of Malaysia especially through the various media networks. Following the Centre of Dialogue, we could consider that at least ‘Dialogue implies a relationship between ‘self’ (in-group) and other (out-group) which is characterised by a degree of empathy, the result of which is to curb the severity of intercultural, inter-religious and international conflicts.” Now applied to the Malaysian politicians across the political divide, how have they fared in fulfilling their responsibility to facilitate the conditions where at least the kind of ‘dialogue’ described in the definition of the centre can be successful?

So, from the perspective balancing the ‘weight of responsibility’ on the people or the politician, the weight should lean more on politicians, especially current and future politicians who desire to be remembered as ‘Statesmen’ defined even in its simplest, “a wise, skillful, and respected political leader”.  I would like to stress the whether one is wise and respected, it will depend on how the politician concerned carries out their ‘responsibilities’ mentioned briefly above as the elected representatives of the people.  The final verdict is rightly up to the jury of the Malaysian public to decide, and perhaps with the hindsight of history a more complete picture in due time. It appears at the mean time that religious communities are engaged in ‘meaningful inter-religious dialogue’ in spite of unfavorable conditions.

Moving forward

After all is said and done, we still need to keep the conditions that enable or disable religious dialogue on the table for critical discussion.  In that way, the people of Malaysia are then included in two ways, first, to have the potential and capacity to change the personal conditions, i.e., addressing possible uncritical inheritance of animosities and suspicions (as recommended in Sven’s argument).  And at the same time, the people – yes, even religious people can then be empowered to address the political conditions in ways that will hold our elected representatives responsible on how they are helping or hindering the shared project of religious people with the wider civil society that is “to build consensus for action on the truly great issues facing humanity, including pervasive greed, the increasingly unjust and inequitable distribution of wealth and power, racism and hatred committed in the name of God, nuclear proliferation, violence and exploitation of earth’s finite resources.”

I must confess it is hard to keep the ‘political’ out considering the grand vision for a better humanity implied in an earlier paragraph! It is almost a common mantra to hear that we should not ‘politicize’ religion.  If that means religion must not be abused for political mileage, who is to disagree?  However, with a cautious note, we are reminded that “Everything is political, even though politics is not everything!”  Perhaps,  in our reflections, we are tempted to simply ignore or separate the religious from the political since it might be too ‘sensitive’, or maybe what we really need is actually to critically reclaim ‘the religious’, and at the same time, we might as well reclaim ‘the political’ in the process. Hopefully, through confronting the issues head on respectfully we will then live happily ever after – yes, maybe inMalaysiathat is still possible.

In closing, I offer a counter hypothesis:

“The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue” in the case of Malaysia is not “historically grown animosities and suspicions” assumed to be in religious leaders or religious people.

On the contrary, the biggest impediments are the social-political conditions generated by the concrete actions of  politicians directly or indirectly, through the government institutions, agencies and media networks.

Over to you now – the ones who have the ability to respond – the people!

P.S. perhaps the politicians too?


Sivin Kit is a founding member of Friends in Conversation and one of the initiators of the Micah Mandate. He served as the pastor ofBangsar 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.




Originally published in two parts here and here

Posted with Permission from New Mandala: New perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia

Posted on February 10, 2012, in Christianity, Islam, Malaysia, Politics, Religion, Society. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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