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The role of intra-faith dialogue

Two figures negotiating
We need more intra-faith dialogue (© arte_ram / sxc.hu)

DISCUSSIONS on religious issues, or a lack thereof, are increasingly defining public policy and society in Malaysia. A few key words are enough to jog memories — the cow-head protest, the whipping sentence on Muslims for drinking alcohol, Christians and the word “Allah”, concert banning, and conversions of minors to Islam by one parent, among others.

Perhaps all these could be solved with healthy, solution-seeking interfaith dialogue. And yet, when the attempt was made to initiate an Interfaith Commission in 2005, many Muslim-based organisations, political parties and individuals attacked it as being “anti-Islam“. Given the volume of protests, then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi eventually called off the setting up of the commission.

The protests from these Muslim groups, parties and individuals could be hastily interpreted as Muslims in Malaysia feeling insulted and challenged by certain claims or actions by Malaysians of other faiths. But upon further scrutiny, it is also clear that these do not reflect the views of all Muslims and all non-Muslims. Some Muslim groups often protest and threaten other Muslims for having dissenting views related to Islam. For example, the police reports made against Sisters in Islam for opposing the whipping sentence on Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno for drinking alcohol.

And what about the precedent-setting arrest of former Perlis mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin by the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department on 1 Nov 2009, allegedly for “speaking without authorisation”?

Where then does this leave the issue of interfaith dialogue? Is it as crucial right now to have intra-faith dialogue, especially among Muslims in Muslim-majority Malaysia? Does the larger political and social environment even enable or encourage such dialogue to take place?

Respect, outside and within

“The nastiest fights are often fought within religious groupings,” says Professor Emeritus Gary D Bouma of Monash University, Australia. “Therefore, intra-religious dialogue is as important as inter-religious dialogue, since if we are to learn to respect people who are outside of our respective religions, you’d think we’d want to learn to respect those who are different from us within our religions.”

Bouma, who is also an Anglican clergy, points towards moments in Anglican history when the church tried to force agreement among all believers, to the extent of executing dissenters. “Those who think they have a mission to purify their religion — these are the ones with the biggest problems and cause the biggest problems,” he says in an interview with The Nut Graph on the sidelines of the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue, which was held in Perth, Australia from 28 to 30 Oct 2009.

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Abdullah Saeed, a professor of Islamic Studies at Melbourne University, agrees. “Interfaith tensions usually only arise when large chunks of people are affected by a particular problem, which is usually political, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is painted as a Muslim-Jewish conflict,” he tells The Nut Graph.

But in many Muslim-majority countries, for example, he says there is often ongoing conflict between established religious groupings of Muslims and newer Muslim groups which challenge the status quo.

The state’s role

This in itself would not be a problem if the state could play the role of a neutral facilitator and manager of conflict. It is when the state decides to empower claims made by certain groups at the expense of others that problems begin.

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Professor Samina Yasmeen, director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, gives the example of the grassroots of both PAS and Umno targeting Sisters in Islam (SIS) and the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, which SIS is part of. “The Malaysian government then needs to be very careful not to empower these voices that seek to ban organisations like Sisters in Islam, because it would end up empowering rigid interpretations of Islam,” she tells The Nut Graph.

Such a situation where the state takes sides in this manner would also kill any opportunity for real dialogue to happen among Muslims. As it is, Samina says that there is already a perception that “orthodox Muslims” are seen as the upholders of “real Islam” by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

In order for real intra-Muslim dialogue to emerge, she says the state should refrain from showing or approving of only certain ways of being Muslim. “An example is if the only image of a Muslim is a woman who covers her hair, or a man wearing a beard,” she says.

Different secularisms

Does this imply that true religious dialogue — both inter- and intra-religious — can only occur once the state dissociates completely from religion?

Bouma says this is not necessarily so. “There are places where the state and religion are closely connected, but where there is a lot of religious dialogue happening. Just look at Lutheran Denmark and Anglican England,” he says.

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However, Bouma thinks religious groupings that seek support from the state are actually behaving from a point of weakness. “What kind of religion is it that needs support from the state in order to make people belong to it?” he asks.

Saeed concurs. “I don’t want the state to get involved in what I believe, in my freedom of expression and my intellectual freedom,” he says. “I have a right to my own conscience which is clearly justified in Islamic terms. The Quran itself defines that the prophet Muhammad’s job was to tell people what was right from wrong, not to force them to believe as he did.”

This, Saeed says, is the basis of a secularism that allows religious communities to grow and thrive. He says Australia practises this sort of secularism. “If a particular version of secularism is anti-religion, in which the state restricts how an individual dresses, worships and believes, I would be against it,” he says.

Saeed adds, however, that these nuances in secularism are often lost when they are debated in Muslim-majority societies. Muslim ideologues, for example those in Malaysia, tend to equate secularism with being totally anti-religion.

Perhaps it is important for multi-religious Malaysia to pay just as much attention to intra-religious developments as to inter-religious tensions. This is especially important when religion — in Malaysia’s case, Islam — becomes the source of public policies. Because then which sub-group’s “Islam” is being used to create policies that affect not only other religious adherents, but the other sub-groups found under the broad umbrella of “Islam”?

“In my ideal world,” says Bouma, “the state would not be used to impose the moral views of sub-groups of the population on everybody else.” favicon


Shanon Shah  was selected and sponsored by the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as part of its International Media Visits Program, to cover the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue in Perth, Australia, 28 – 30 Oct 2009. Four other journalists were also selected, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. The interviews in this feature were made possible by this visit. Shanon is an associate member of Sisters in Islam.

See also: “Islamic focus on punishment misguided”

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One Response to “The role of intra-faith dialogue”

  1. Karcy says:

    I think the perspective of Anglican history is slightly wrong. Theologically, Anglicanism has always been the most tolerant of all major denominations of Christianity, because of the ‘Via Media’ principle. However, because the monarch is the head of the Church, going against it can be considered treason in the past, and of course the monarchs always had their own ideas of how things ought to run.

    Anglicanism today is in trouble because there are some liberal groups that want to ordain gay or women bishops and priests. Conservative groups think it’s not right, and some of them are threatening to pull out from the Anglican commune. I wonder if the person you spoke to had not some kind of ulterior motive by saying that those who want to purify a religion cause the greatest trouble.

    I like the rest of what you wrote, though, but since I’m not Muslim, my opinion probably doesn’t count much. To be honest, most of the problems in Malaysia related to Islam have nothing to do with theology and everything to do with the complete abandonment of some basic common sense. For example, arresting Dr. Asri for no real reason at all, and then setting him free after bail the next day. Why? What does it achieve?


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