Against The Grain: The need for inter-religious dialogue

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 28, 2017 - May 04, 2017.
Against The Grain: The need for inter-religious dialogue
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Today, more than ever, there is a great need for inter-religious dialogue in Malaysia. The reason for this is the development over the years of a more exclusivist orientation among adherents of certain religions that has resulted in negative attitudes and sometimes even hate speech directed at believers of other religions.

Indeed, the great importance that people accord to the religious dimension of their identity is a global phenomenon and not confined to Islam. Sometimes, the stress on religious identity among the adherents of a particular religion results in antagonistic relations with members of other religious communities. We see this taking place in India and Myanmar, for example. What is the meaning of inter-religious dialogue and what should its role be in our society?

Dialogue refers to a conversation between at least two groups with the objective of mutual understanding of any range of issues of concern, conflict and misunderstanding. The goal of a dialogue is not only to achieve at least minimum tolerance between the groups involved but also to go beyond tolerance to achieve a multiculturalist perspective and society.

Why is dialogue crucial? In Malaysia today, there is much demonisation and hate speech directed at the other, and even persecution at times. Examples include the unfair representation of Christianity at a conference, insulting comments made against Hinduism by a university lecturer in a course, the demonisation of liberals and feminists and the ­persecution of Shi’ites. Much of this takes place on social media but is also contributed to by politicians and religious leaders.

In other words, there is sufficient cause for ­Malaysians to be concerned about the threat to our tolerant society. We are facing the uphill task of not only ­protecting the tolerance that we have but also working towards a society that is not merely tolerant but also multiculturalist.

Let us talk about tolerance first. Tolerance is under threat principally from two sources: narrow-minded religious leaders who are characterised by a highly authoritarian mentality combined with extremist ideas, and politicians who fail to rein in such religious leaders or who themselves contribute to ­divisive views and policies.

In the Muslim community, some religious leaders have emerged whose views, if put into practice, would violate Islamic norms and rules of moderation. A case in point is the tendency to police people’s morality to the point of invading their privacy.

This is in contrast to the attitude of moderation exemplified by, for example, the great Sufi saint, Imam Abdullah Ibn Alawi Al-Haddad, who said: “Know that there is no compulsion upon you to investigate concealed wrongdoings. Quite the contrary, it is ­actually forbidden according to the words of the exalted, ‘And spy not on each other’ (Al-Hujurat [19]:12), and the words of the Prophet, upon whom be peace and ­salutations: “Whoever investigates the secrets of his brother, Allah will investigate his secrets.”

Malaysia is still a very tolerant society but that is under threat. That is one problem. The other is to work towards a genuinely multicultural society. ­Tolerance, while important, is insufficient to guarantee peace and harmony, because it is merely a grudging acceptance that is devoid of respect, admiration and understanding.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is founded on knowledge, respect, understanding, compassion and admiration for the other. A Christian may tolerate the burning of joss sticks by his Buddhist neighbour but he should be able to understand and appreciate, not just tolerate, the Buddhist quest for nirvana even if he does not accept the view theologically.

A Muslim may not agree with the Christian ­doctrine of the trinity but he should at least understand the devotion and passion that Christians have for Jesus Christ. Non-Muslims may tolerate the azan or call to prayer but they should have some understanding of the Muslims’ devotion to praying five times a day.

The purpose of dialogue in Malaysia would be to instil this sense of multiculturalism in Malaysians. In order to do this, each religious community must be inspired by the multiculturalist spirit within their own religious tradition.

If we take Islam as an example, there is much for Muslims to be inspired by. Prophet Muhammad entered into various covenants or agreements with Christian communities in Arabia, the most famous being that which granted protection to the monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai peninsula.

The Prophet went as far as to say that the failure of Muslims to protect the life, property and honour of Christians was tantamount to violating the oath made by him (the Prophet). There are numerous ­examples of inter-religious tolerance and ­compassion that can be gleaned from Islamic ­history but here, I cite two more from the 20th century.

During World War II, Turkish embassies in ­Europe enabled Jews to escape Nazi persecution by ­providing them with Turkish travel documents and facilitating their travel to Turkey.

During the same period, Iran saved the lives of thousands of Polish refugees escaping the USSR. As many as 115,000 Poles had crossed into Iran by ship via the Caspian Sea or by road via Turkmenistan by the end of 1942. Many settled in the city of Isfahan. The Polish postal service issued a stamp in 2008 that depicts a boy dressed in a cadet’s uniform. In the background, there is an Isfahan carpet emblazoned with the Polish eagle. The caption in the stamp reads, “Isfahan — Miasro Dzieci Polskich’ (Isfahan — The City of Polish Children].

If our religious leaders and politicians were sufficiently inspired by Islamic traditions, they would play a very positive and constructive role in the forging of a strong and resilient multi-­religious Malaysia.


Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore