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Scholar: Don’t define ethnicity by religion

KUALA LUMPUR, 5 Mar 2010: Defining an ethnic group in religious terms can lead to oppression and arrogance, an Islamic studies expert said at a public lecture about Islam and Christianity in the Middle East.

Speaking at an International Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) lecture on 3 March, Dr Chawkat Moucarry said such definitions could suppress religious freedom or discriminate against those who wanted to embrace another religion.

“If you invest your ethnic identity with religion, you are giving a religious value to your identity,” Moucarry told The Nut Graph after the lecture.

He said there was a tendency for arrogance when an ethnic identity was defined by a particular faith. This was because if one was born into a faith which one considers the truth, then one is likely to assume superiority for being born into the truth.

“How can you challenge something that occurred by birth?” he said.

During the lecture, Moucarry, who is a Syrian Christian, related his own negative experience when he travelled to Algeria in 1982: “[The name in my passport] is Chawkat George Moucarry as I was born into a Catholic Syrian family and was given the second name of George.

“The [Algerian] immigration officer asked me, ‘Are you Arab?’ I said, ‘Yes’. Then he asked, ‘Are you Christian?’ I said ‘Yes’. He told me, ‘That cannot be. You are either Arab or Christian, you cannot be both.'”

Moucarry was detained for several hours and initially not allowed to enter Algeria due to the officer’s disbelief about his ethnicity and religion.

“It was a humiliating experience,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I was denied my Arab-ness, as being Arab was defined as being Muslim [only].”

Moucarry said a person should not have to give up their ethnic identity just because they have another religion.

Muslim-Christian polarisation

Linking ethnicity with religion was one of several reasons cited by Moucarry for polarisation in centuries-old Muslim-Christian relations.

Moucarry said the experience of Muslim minorities in Western countries was another reason for polarisation. “Many [in the West] have reacted badly to the large number of Muslim immigrants and see that as a threat to Western civilisation. They feel it undermines the country’s national identity.”

Moucarry added that in times of economic crisis, foreigners are convenient scapegoats, and Muslims have often been the object of Islamophobic reactions.

Similarly, Moucarry said the experience of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority countries has also been a factor.

“There is legal and social discrimination often found in all majority groups. [In the Middle East], Christians are sometimes seen as not loyal or a threat to the cohesion of the Arab nations, or even covert agents of Western agencies.

“This is despite the key roles Arab Christians played in the Arab renaissance and in building Arab nationalism,” he said.

“Christian Zionism, [which sees Islam as an obstacle to the fulfilment of the Zionist dream], has also fuelled Muslims’ hostility to a degree that Western Christians are unaware of,” said Moucarry, who has a masters degree in Christian theology and a PhD in Islamic studies from the Sorbonne University in Paris.

“[Christian Zionists] do not realise that the fulfilment of their dream means a nightmare for the Palestinians who have been homeless since the creation of [contemporary] Israel. Muslims feel strongly for the suffering of their Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Common commitments

Some of the points raised during the lecture

Although there are differences, Moucarry said Muslims and Christians have many common challenges that should be faced together, such as corruption, bad governance, unemployment and brain drain.

He added that they also have many common commitments and values such as devotion to God, family, and fellow human beings, noting that Muslims and Christians can work together to resolve many issues affecting humanity.

Moucarry commended the effort of 138 international Muslims leaders who issued a 2007 statement titled A Common Word Between Us and You declaring the common ground between Islam and Christianity.

A Common Word sets out what is important to both Muslims and Christians: love God and love your neighbour,” Moucarry, who is also World Vision International interfaith relations director, said.

IAIS chairperson Professor Dr Mohammad Hashim Kamali, a signatory of A Common Word, told The Nut Graph the initiative has been well received internationally. “We hope to develop a second chapter with Buddhists who also share many similar values [with Islam],” Hashim Kamali said.

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9 Responses to “Scholar: Don’t define ethnicity by religion”

  1. siew eng says:

    Excellent effort by the institute to raise multi-faith understanding. Heartening to know that some of our institutions appear to be headed and run on merit, displaying and promoting reason and rationality.

  2. Cherubim says:

    Malaysia’s the perfect case study where ethnicity is directly linked with religion. We condemn Israel where we are slowly but surely [headed] in the direction of their state policies governing behaviour against those who do not share their belief system. We idolise states where the few governs the minority and those who question are criminalised and demonised.

    Any takers?

  3. Frank Tang says:

    An excellent article [quoting] Dr Moucarry. I hope and pray that with such great thinkers around, they will provide a bridge between the various religions.

  4. bet says:

    Wonder if this Dr Chawkat Moucarry uses the “A” word in his prayers? But then again…the writer does not think it’s kinda proper to ask a Christian Arab…wonder why…


    It looks like it is incumbent upon you to explain why you find that matter relevant at all to the point this news piece is trying to address. Surely you have your own thoughts 🙂

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  5. Shen Yean says:

    In Malaysia, even a Muslim of a different ethnicity can suddenly change his/her ethnicity to another ethnicity. You know very well who I’m talking about.

  6. kahseng says:

    Don’t forget another thorny issue of apostasy as reported by TNG earlier, accompanied with active comments:

    If people can convert into and out of any religion freely in a multiethnic society, then the ethnicity line will quickly be blurred and lose political meaning. It is only under a situation of very few conversions can the government afford to grant the few converters the bumiputra ethnicity.

    If the ethnic line is blurred or loses political meaning, then BN, ie, Umno, has no rationale for existence.

  7. Tazz says:

    A parent at the school where I teach asked to change the race of her daughter from Chinese to Malay [Malaysian], and I told her that that was not possible due to her father being Chinese. Then she told me, “But he’s Muslim!” Sigh. I think some people don’t understand the difference between race and religion. It’s like if you’re Muslim, you’re Malay.

  8. Farouq Omaro says:

    Blame the British colonialists for the current scenario in Malaysia. They used religion to keep the Malays away from the non-Malays. The British colonialists employed this method throughout its empire. In India they were behind its partition in 1947. Those who fell for such colonialist tactics are fools. And even greater fools are those who continue to be trapped in these tactics. Thankfully God opened my eyes.

  9. wahidah says:

    Our Five Common Commitments (reprised)

    1. We are committed *against* God — in a world emptied of idolatry we will ignore and blaspheme against God.

    2. We are committed *against* our families — in a world tight with unbreakable blood bonds we will break down The Family and disseminate immorality.

    3. We are committed *against* the freedom of religion and genuine dialogue — in a world of necroidal intercourse with […] sham verses we will persecute, polemicise, and foment interreligious conflict.

    4. We are committed *against* our fellow human beings — in a world of self-reliance, invulnerability, and transliberty we will oppress, break, destroy, and enslave.

    5. We are committed *against* the values of God’s kingdom — in a world of great goodness and justice we will corrupt with evil and tyranny.

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