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The politics of dialogue

Some people just don’t understand dialogue…

SO now the government wants a formalised interfaith dialogue mechanism? Going by the history of the state’s response to attempts by civil society to initiate interfaith dialogue, I am not holding my breath.

In 2005, various members of civil society had a conference proposing a statutory Interfaith Commission (IFC) for Malaysia. A small number of Islamist non-governmental organisations (NGOs), claiming to speak for “mainstream” Islam, succeeded in derailing the initiative when the government pandered to their scare tactics and “shelved” the proposal. Noteworthy was the fact that these NGOs refused to participate in the conference, and set various ground rules that essentially sought to bar the participation of certain individuals and censor the discussion.

Furthermore, the mention of international human rights conventions in the IFC’s draft statute became an excuse to insinuate that the entire initiative was an attempt to interfere with Islam and allow Muslims to apostatise.

The objections and methodology then were a prescient sign of other obstructionist tactics these NGOs have since taken.

Deja vu


(Family silhouette by jayofboy |

Shortly after the aborted IFC initiative, a separate initiative by a coalition of NGOs called “Article 11” was again derailed. That coalition came about because of the injustice caused to S Shamala, the Hindu mother fighting a custody battle over her children with her estranged husband who had converted to Islam.

The injustice was in court decisions, which purported to legitimise the conversion to Islam of the infant children without Shamala’s consent. She was given custody of her children, but prevented from “exposing” them to her religion, a decision the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) called Pyrrhic.

The Islamist NGOs took to the streets and disrupted closed door forums that the Article 11 coalition organised throughout the country. Forums in Penang and Johor Baru (JB) were disrupted. In Penang, the mob outside rushed into the meeting room and disrupted the forum. In JB, the police allowed the mob to come right to the doorstep of the hotel and no farther. Then, instead of dispersing the crowd, the police “advised” the Article 11 organisers to stop the forum. Obviously, the freedom of association and expression of the mob outside trumped the freedom of those inside to discuss issues of public interest.

I filmed the protestors at the JB venue during the forum in early 2006. They were not violent, but protested vigorously. True, the police need not have allowed them to block access to the hotel. But, I suppose the hotel needed to be shown what would happen if they failed to find a reason to cancel forums such as Article 11.

The point is this — there was no change in the mob protesting from the time they arrived at 9am until the forum was halted at 10am. What then precipitated the police’s move to halt the forum?

Surrealism, Malaysian style

What about custody battles where one
spouse converts to Islam?

Then, in 2008 I was sitting inside the Bar Council auditorium where I was a speaker in a forum on the problems faced by non-Muslim families when one spouse converts to Islam. I was there as solicitor for R Subashini. Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla, counsel for Subashini’s estranged husband, was also a panellist.

Yet, again, the same Islamist NGOs were there. Earlier that morning, they had left two bottles looking like Molotov cocktails at the Bar’s premises. Another cocktail, intended for then Bar president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan was instead put into her parents’ old house, which, ironically, had since become the residence of then Umno Wanita deputy head Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

After protesting for an hour and blocking traffic outside the Bar Council, the mob again entered the premises, walked up to the front and stood in a line blocking participants’ view. The following 10 minutes were surreal — those of us on the panel were speaking to an audience we could not see because we were blocked by the glares of several visibly upset Malay Malaysian men.

The most iconic moment of that fiasco, however, was when former Human Rights Commissioner Professor Dr Mehrun Siraj tried to reason with the protestors to let the forum continue. She tried to argue that it was her responsibility as a Muslim to engage and teach non-Muslims about Islam. Her pleas fell on deaf ears, and she was then berated for falling for the trickery of the non-Muslims.

Again, the Bar Council’s observers outside the auditorium confirmed that the participants outside were not being any more difficult than they already were when the police “advised” the Bar Council to halt the forum. Again, no doubt, their right to protest on the streets trumped our right to talk indoors.

Talk is cheap

And so now, when I see some parties calling for the Catholic Church to withdraw their claim to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, I am reminded of these previous incidents. Violence, mob rule and irrational fears are allowed to overrule and undermine the legitimate exercise of fundamental liberties and freedoms by some.

The reality is that many Muslims have no problems with the Catholic Church using “Allah” within their own congregation in the exercise of their right of worship. But seeing this, the Islamists probably thought they had to cause the sort of disturbance to public order that the court had ruled was not proven to have existed.

The plea for inter-faith dialogue rings hollow to me. I have seen firsthand what “dialogue” means to some — you do not talk, you only talk on our terms; you listen to us and don’t talk; and if you are allowed to talk, you can only say what we want to hear.

If there is no respect; if there is no willingness to understand the other side’s concern; if “living in harmony” means “live according to my dictates”, then there is really no point in “dialogue”. favicon

K Shanmuga is a lawyer, and was on the steering committee of the Initiative Towards the Interfaith Commission of Malaysia. He helps run the blawg The above are his personal views. 

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9 Responses to “The politics of dialogue”

  1. Farouq Omaro says:

    Do you want to know who is most steadfast against inter-religious dialogue? When the Interfaith Commission was mooted few years ago, this guy said, “Jangan cabar Islam”. When Hindu groups requested for a ministry or department that could handle non-Muslim religious affairs, this guy said, “Tidak ada peruntukan dalam perlembagaan bagi agama-agama lain.” Guess who is this? Well, don’t ask me, I can’t remember, I just remember those words coming from the same guy, but can’t remember who the guy is.

  2. Tan says:

    In Malaysia, it is very difficult to conduct dialogue on sensitive issues when one of the parties presets its terms. Some of these so-called NGOs are actually hiding behind political warlords to intimidate others, in order to create a tense environment with the sole intention of derailing any dialogue from taking place.That’s why our country has been locked at the middle-income bracket for far too long, while others have leapfrogged into high-income economies. If we still cohort with these irrational groups, in time to come, our economy will move backwards to be on par with underdeveloped countries.

  3. Farish A Noor says:

    Shan, while addressing the question of dialogue and why it is not moving anywhere at all in the country, we need to look at the expansion of the NGO community and in particular the rise of these new communitarian NGOs. Nobody has done a proper political economy study of these groups- who is funding them for instance. If you know anyone who has/is doing such research, please let me know. Farish

  4. faith04 says:

    More Malaysians must be brave enough to stand up for justice the right to talk.

  5. navin says:

    Hardliners of any religion will forever be opposed to interfaith discussions because they fear change. The mobsters involved in the church bombings are no different than the Ku Klux Klan, in my opinion. They will resort to violence and malice to uphold their strong views on religion and exclusivity. Once you see through the smokescreen, you will realise that they live in constant fear of change, positive or otherwise. Bahkan katak di bawah tempurung.

  6. Reading this article makes me feel like crap. This part —

    “The most iconic moment of that fiasco, however, was when former Human Rights Commissioner Professor Dr Mehrun Siraj tried… to argue that it was her responsibility as a Muslim to engage and teach non-Muslims about Islam. Her pleas fell on deaf ears, and she was then berated for falling for the trickery of the non-Muslims.”

    — just makes me feel so disheartened. No matter how we try to reason, no matter how we try to argue and explain, no matter how we dialogue, in the end it all boils down to something like “the Quran told us that you kafir are out to deceive and destroy us and we shouldn’t be friends with you”.

    For heaven’s sake, if I am going to (your) Hell anyway, at least give me some time on Earth to live in peace and in dignity.

  7. roshidah ibrahim says:

    Dear Nut Graph,
    I am not refering to your article but the green-coloured ilustration under the title “de ja vu”. It is very sexist and unbecoming to depict Malaysian women in such shapely figures with the crescent and star in the backgrounds (Islamic). I would appreciate if you replace the graphic with a more modest one. Thank you.

    Editor’s note: Thank you for sharing your concerns. Our editorial team did not read sexism into the image – it does not demean women in any way. As for the offence you have taken regarding the silhoutte of “shapely women” juxtaposed against symbols you construe as Islamic, that truly is subjective. The image will stay since it conforms to our editorial policies.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  8. Hello says:

    “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” “Me ketuanan Melayu, you second class citizen.” This will be the rules and context of the dialogue! To have a meaningful dialogue, the government and related NGOs must be kept out! Leave it to the people of religion to settle this peacefully!

  9. Justitia says:

    Did you ever notice that whenever photos are taken of the people involved in discussing the Government’s proposed ‘religious dialogues’, ‘inter-faith dialogues’ – call it what you may – women are not present?

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