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:
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:
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.