Friday, May 11, 2007

No dialogue

Malaysiakini reported the last minute ban of an international Muslim-Christian Interfaith dialogue to be held in Kuala Lumpur. This is a sad indication of how our authorities view the increasing religious tension in the country. The Building Bridges confab would have been the 6th annual dialogue involving Christian and Muslim scholars since it was convened in the wake of Sept 11.

It’s a pity. "Malaysia would have been a litmus test to see how the mix of different religions and different ethnicities worked," said participant Mona Siddiqui, Profesor of Islamic Studies. Looks like Malaysia failed the test.

Allowing the confab to go on as scheduled sends a signal that the present government believes and adheres to pluralism even if Islam remains the national religion. It would go a long way to assuage fears that Malaysia is losing whatever’s left of its multi-religious and multicultural heritage. It would show the world that in Malaysia it is still possible to sit down and talk, pursue commonality, build bridges, promote unity in diversity despite occasional outbreaks of intolerance.

If calling it off was out of concern for possible flare-ups of extremist behaviour, then the UMNO-dominated ruling coalition is already showing its hand: the government will not upset the extreme segments of the majority who are rejecting religious diversity while tightening their stranglehold on democratic space. Not that it cannot handle the repercussions (see how well the reformasi demonstrations and the toll protests were contained), but that it won’t.

It also suggests that it will not even try to defend and enforce the hyped-up 'moderate' veneer of so-called Islam Hadhari, nor will it take action against those who threaten violence in the name of religion. More telling, it is no longer shy about its long-term agenda of Islamisation in the country. Instead it sees advantage in leveraging on communalism and threats of religious backlash to deny civil society from emerging.

On the other hand, Muslim-Christian dialogues are sticky business, by virtue of the exclusivist doctrines of both faiths. Conservatives in both camps tend to frown on such initiatives, particularly when the ecumenism that is promoted veers away from traditionally-held theology. When fundamentals are downplayed or reinterpreted in the interest of peace and respect for different belief systems, you’re stepping on sacred ground. One may move some furniture around, but to question or offer alternative viewpoints to what is perceived as foundational doctrines is an assault on the faith itself.

Take Dr Michael Ipgrave, Archdeacon of Southwark and an interfaith adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a UK participant in the Building Bridges conference, he has written that Muslims and Christians worship the same God:

"I as a Christian verify that Muslims and Christians worship the same Abrahamic God. I will recognize that God speaks to those he calls heirs to Abraham, with different tunes. I will recognize that for us the God, whom Abraham worships, is the God whose energy expands internal limited faithfulness to a more general sense of belonging. If we belong to that real God, as His creations and those who seek to answer His call, we should consequently belong to each other. Through respect and affection which bring understanding, we can be sure of a reliable dialogue between each other".

Now, that sort of thing is old hat to Christians, and even if some may dismiss it as so much fuzzy thinking, it is unlikely that hordes of otherwise decent churchgoers will demonstrate publicly to deny Dr Ipgrave’s right to breathe and spout such contrarian ideas. There can be no mutual 'respect and affection' otherwise. There will always be countless shades of differences in opinions and beliefs as there are people. Individuality and freedom of choice are fundamental to human dignity. Yet as we well know, Dr Ipgrave's position won't probably sit well with a large number of Muslims.

So it was with delight that I learnt of the late Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad Amin Kuftaro (1915 –2004). As a founder of the League of Muslim Scholars, he was hugely celebrated as an ardent advocate of constructive inter-religious dialogue, and courted controversy for his views. (See here and here) Unusual and admirable, but perhaps he lived in a different time. As unofficial spokesman for Islam, the Grand Mufti traveled the world, and even met with the Pope in 1983.

In a UN conference held in Brazil 1992, he delivered a call for peace, and ended with a quote from Jesus’ Beatitudes:

"O People of Faith, Allah has made us brothers under the banner of Abraham. He has shown us our various rites and rituals and guided us on the right path. He has laid upon our shoulders the responsibility for human brotherhood and social reform. He has urged us to exert our best efforts for the establishment of peace, compassion and universal humanness:

Congratulations be to the peacemakers, for they are called the children of God."

The Mufti certainly understands that above all, people of faith must exercise compassion and ‘universal humanness.’ If we will not appreciate this nor make peace (as opposed to keeping the peace) there is little future for society. Not only that, we will lose the right to be called God’s children.


sweetspirits said...

Interesting reading :) I am a baptised catholic and grew up as and aussie catholic .
Before Islam became a known religion in this country of mine , catholics were the ones least accepted and it still exists in some areas today .

I believe the biggest problem is because people are ignorant of others beliefs and don't take time out to gain knowledge , before they riddicule .

I myself own a Holy Koran and read it often , as it should be .

There are mant similarities between the both faiths . I will link wikipedia , to make this comment shorter .'an

Ignorance is a big issue . When i submitted my home education program to the education department for home schooling of my youngest child, i informed to inspector that i intened to teach my son about Islam , he was shocked and said that this would never be allowed in the schools .
Indeed he is ignorant , it might not be allowed in the public education system but in the catholic education system it exists.
Why because we are taught that we are all gods children and all brothers and sisters because we have faith in the same God .

David BC Tan said...

Thanks for visiting, and for your comment. We're homeschoolers too, so one of the joys for us as it is for you, I'm sure, is that we get to design our curriculum to accord with our own values :)