A critical minor reflection on religious dialogue in Malaysia

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 summarized succinctly in the following:
³Mahathir 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 is simplistically 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 have live happily ever after.

As a result of after 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 µhistorically grown animosities and suspicions¶ as one of the µimpediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue¶. The word µbiggest¶ 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 µweight 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 ³the the overall failure of an interreligious 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 read Sven leading us. In that sense, I appreciate Sven¶s contribution. But, is it not equally simplistic to unload the µweight of responsibility¶ from those in positions of power - I am speaking more generally now ± to overburden religious communities with unnecessary guilt?

However. and even µscape-goat¶ for conflict and at worse violence. An Islamic Perspective on the Commitment to Inter-Religious Dialogue (International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies. religious communities have historically recognized the need for a healthy environment for living together in Malaysia." The Muslim World 99. (d) To advance and promote the religious. I would like to raise a number of concerns from a civil society perspective. cultural. The perspective I am hoping to bring aims to take into account the struggle of people ± especially religious people . in the recent years. Walters. To add value to Sven¶s original contribution. educational and social rights and interests of the religious bodies. and counterproductive for others. while statements are not everything. so often. A side note to mention. Sociologist Syed-Farid Alattas¶ reassertion on the Islamic commitment to dialogue2 and Robert Hunt¶s emphasis on identity and narrative are most illuminating3. hopefully in order to develop the way we are grappling to understand the Malaysian situation. "Can Muslims Engage in Interreligious Dialogue? A Study of Malay Muslim Identity in Contemporary Malaysia. 2008). it is the religious communities together with other civil society groups that have taken the lead in public to confront what potentially could have been disastrous outcomes if unattended to. Voices from the Ground As a point of entry. just to name a few. the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism. mutual respect and co-operation between people of different religions. Knowing Our Neighbour: A Study of Islam for Christians in Malaysia (Council of Churches of Malaysia.To begin. as contributors to the challenge of inter-religious dialogue. Alatas and International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia. . the discussion here in New Mandela on µApostasy¶ from at least two perspectives was a welcome breath of fresh air even though it might be uncomfortable to some. justification.on the ground in the current conditions of Malaysia Post-Mahathir. Malaysian theologian Albert Walters¶ work on Christian-Muslim relations1. (c) To make representations regarding religious matters when necessary. Muslims and other civil society groups: 1 A.S. 4 (2009). Christianity. Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has been dedicated at least on the institutional level amongst religious leaders towards aims that are articulated in the following: (a) To promote understanding. no. And especially in times of controversy and tension. Hinduism. I would like to mention contributions of Christian and Muslim critical reflection on interfaith dialogue that has already been done that addresses some of these animosities and suspicions. in the case of Malaysia. 3 Robert Hunt. Hence. I would like to suggest that in civil society there are indicators that perhaps Malaysians of all faiths and persuasions do not have such strong animosities and suspicions that might be assumed prior to further empirical investigation. since 1983. but the main value is that we are engaged in a form of dialogue that others can build on. 2007). 2 F. from a non-Muslim perspective. let me state that I believe both Sven and I are on the same page when it comes to the significance of interreligious dialogue as part of the solution to prevent as well as overcome µreligion¶ used as a source. Below are some significant excerpts from non-Muslims. For example. For example. (b) To study and resolve problems affecting all inter religious relationships. and subsequently find ways together in true dialogical fashion towards some solutions. we recognize that our work is necessary but not sufficient. Besides the presence and the work of the MCCBCHST.

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. and mosques. 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. is inappropriate. in which the name of Allah is commemorated «´ . But perhaps on the ground level hostility is not the point of departure in the interfaith relations . The carrying of the head of a freshly slaughtered cow. Hinduism. as long as their purpose is good.Police Investigation on Mosque Attacks must pursue the political operators ³In a multi-religious country such as Malaysia. churches. The agent provocateurs are only burning themselves in stark desperation devoid of any modicum of civic consciousness or religiosity. Islam and Hinduism included. Verse 40.³We. uphold peace and human dignity as their common and core values. Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) have condemned any such violence on any house of worship as ³a sin of the highest order´. All major spiritual traditions. respects the sacredness of the place of worship and is modestly dressed. The Holy Quran unequivocally prohibits destroying the houses of worship of all religions. which are established in some school of thoughts. as warned in Surah Al-Hajj. 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. The police must stop dismissing such attacks as purely acts of vandalism or juvenile delinquency.´ . committed presumably in the name of Islam desecrates the very religion it purports to protect. Calls to ban non-Muslims from entering mosques or any kneejerk 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. pig head or fire can set the fraternity and goodwill amongst Malaysians on fire. Christianity. They should also be allowed to deliver speeches.´ . Malaysians of other faiths see the attack on Islam as an attack on their own faiths. and the clarion call of 1Malaysia. synagogues. against a proposed Hindu temple in Section 23 of the city. This does not mean there different sections of religious communities might not still have prejudices and a lack of understanding of not only each other¶s traditions but even their own. From the outset. provided that the speech is in line with the spirit of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil.The Cow-Head Lesson for Merdeka: Delegitimize Violence and Hatred ³This act of arson.MPF Statement On Church Torchings ³As in the past.´ . but also from the shared understanding of living together as part of a mosaic Malaysian society. No cow head. ³« Had not Allah checked the excesses and aggression of one set of people by means of another. 28 August 09. 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. the undersigned civil society organizations are shocked. surely would be destroyed monasteries. In an immediate response. adopting views that disallow non-Muslims to enter mosques. It is in the interest of maslahah or common good of Islam that non-Muslims should feel welcomed and not intimidated from visiting mosques. the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism. Nobody from other faiths should be barred from entering mosques or any places of worship for Muslims. angered and saddened by the ³Cow-Head protest´ in Shah Alam last Friday. Our spirituality and love for humanity mandates us for the perpetual quest for peace and abhorrence of all forms of hatred and civil disorder. 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.

These concerns are pertinent because often we may not be talking about the same thing even if we use same terminology. in the discussion on religious dialogue. present and future. In short. ³We were all in this together´ past. direct or indirect there are different conditions that might facilitate or hinder the progress for either subjects or structures. cannot simply be ignored. religious communities is a welcome one but not at the expense of neglecting of the political conditions that the people ± . we may ask are there the different types of µDialogue¶? The contribution from the Federation of Asian Bishop (FABC) is helpful place to start as there has been substantial reflection on this. One could even ask whether it is a direct dialogue where we are comparing religious understandings of respective teachings. the political returns. Is it a µdialogue of life¶ where the focus is on the ordinary day to day contact? Is it a µdialogue 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 µDialogue of discourse¶ focused on theology and beliefs? So. and specifically Christian-Muslim dialogue in the case of Malaysia. One may assume the µrules of engagement¶ would be different at different levels depending on who are the participants and the shared goals implicitly or explicitly one has. and also corrective and creative possibilities. Perhaps we hear the overtone that. and I see this as the µbiggest¶ critical concern because. First. the politicians return to the picture again. perhaps we need to clarify what are we describing by the word µdialogue¶? Which level of µdialogue¶ are we discussing? Is it the most ground level personal neighborly dialogue between Uncle Ali and Grandfather Surin? Is it the academic µdialogue¶ 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. but the complex relation between the two still needs to be attended to sooner or later. we also consider the types of µdialogue¶ in operation.between ordinary Malaysians. the personal or in this case between two NGOs while can be distinguished analytically from the political. These conditions have an important impact on pre-existing animosities or suspicions. for each level and types of µdialogue¶. The challenge of approaching µDialogue¶ Next. one might even try hard to µbracket¶ the political out for a moment. The implication of Sven¶s argument suggests a challenge to the people ± i. Second. Or more specifically. Third. 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. Therefore. the socio-political context that was generated from incidents such as the recent µJAIS-DUMC¶ controversy.e. while one must not get too personal with regards to Mahathir. and after some critical distance. Put in concrete terms. besides clarifying the levels of µdialogue¶ we are addressing. The µPolitical¶ Strikes back Therefore. rather the capacity for solidarity seems to the greater force at work here. have to at least some extent disciplined their psychological state of minds.. we may entertain a qualified critical agreement that Mahathir probably cannot be held solely responsible for ³the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths´. even if we imagine that the Christians and Muslims in ABIM and CCM youth for example. I would like to raise the three concerns on the way we approach the question of interfaith relations with the aim to clarify how we may understand the challenge of interreligious dialogue. CCM youth? We can add to the list and have different ways to narrow down which µlevel¶ we are focusing on.

including pervasive greed. maybe in Malaysia that is still possible. the people of Malaysia are then included in two ways. in our reflections. We still need to look at the policies or structures during Mahathir¶s premiership.. And at the same time. we still need to keep the conditions that enable or disable religious dialogue on the table for critical discussion. In that way. how have they fared in fulfilling their responsibility to facilitate the conditions where at least the kind of µdialogue¶ described in the definition of the centre can be successful? So. and more importantly. the existing structures and also one must add the public articulation of the vision of Malaysia especially through the various media networks. who is to disagree? However. 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 ³to build consensus for action on the truly great issues facing humanity.´ I must confess it is hard to keep the µpolitical¶ 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 µpoliticize¶ religion. the people ± yes. Hopefully. ³a wise. If that means religion must not be abused for political mileage. addressing possible uncritical inheritance of animosities and suspicions (as recommended in Sven¶s argument).e. nuclear proliferation. the weight should lean more on politicians. and perhaps with the hindsight of history a more complete picture in due time. the result of which is to curb the severity of intercultural. i.religious or non-religious ± live in and need to contend with. It appears at the mean time that religious communities are engaged in µmeaningful inter-religious dialogue¶ in spite of unfavorable conditions. or maybe what we really need is actually to critically reclaim µthe religious¶. to have the potential and capacity to change the personal conditions. what are the policies and structures post-Mahathir during Abdullah Badawi and now Najib Razak. we could consider that at least µDialogue implies a relationship between µself¶ (in-group) and other (out-group) which is characterised by a degree of empathy. 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. it will depend on how the politician concerned carries out their µresponsibilities¶ mentioned briefly above as the elected representatives of the people. from the perspective balancing the µweight of responsibility¶ on the people or the politician. Following the Centre of Dialogue. for today. skillful.´ Now applied to the Malaysian politicians across the political divide. we are reminded that ³Everything is political. with a cautious note. I offer a counter hypothesis: . violence and exploitation of earth¶s finite resources. interreligious and international conflicts. especially current and future politicians who desire to be remembered as µStatesmen¶ defined even in its simplest. that are pertinent for our current situation. through confronting the issues head on respectfully we will then live happily ever after ± yes. and respected political leader´. and at the same time. we might as well reclaim µthe political¶ in the process. racism and hatred committed in the name of God. Moving Forward After all is said and done. I would like to stress the whether one is wise and respected. The final verdict is rightly up to the jury of the Malaysian public to decide. even though politics is not everything!´ Perhaps. In closing. the increasingly unjust and inequitable distribution of wealth and power. we are tempted to simply ignore or separate the religious from the political since it might be too µsensitive¶. first.

the biggest impediments are the social-political conditions generated by the concrete actions of the politicians directly or indirectly through the government institutions." The Muslim World 99. 4 (2009): 581-607.S. he is pursuing his Ph.the people! P. agencies and media networks.com) and one of the initiators of the Micah Mandate (www. Ethics and Society at the University of Agder. An Islamic Perspective on the Commitment to Inter-Religious Dialogue: International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies. A.org). Sivin is addicted to potato chips and thinks the new ³Battlestar Galactica" is educational. Bibliography Alatas. Over to you now ± the ones who have the ability to respond . Kristiansand. . 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. "Can Muslims Engage in Interreligious Dialogue? A Study of Malay Muslim Identity in Contemporary Malaysia.themicahmandate. Robert. Norway. Hunt. no.wordpress. F. On the contrary. perhaps the politicians too? Sivin Kit is a founding member of Friends in Conversation (friendsinconversation. Currently.D in Religion.³The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue´ in the case of Malaysia is not ³historically grown animosities and suspicions´ assumed to be in religious leaders or religious people. Knowing Our Neighbour: A Study of Islam for Christians in Malaysia: Council of Churches of Malaysia. and International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia.. 2007. 2008.S. Walters.