Friday, March 30, 2012

Jürgen Moltmann was at Trinity Theological College, Singapore

"Four weeks later, the semester ended, I set out on a long journey through East Asia (10. 2. - 10. 3. 1973). I took my first dip into the Asian world, for which Bangkok had given me a foretaste, and I was fascinated. The journey began with a short visit to Singapore, with two lectures and a sermon in Trinity Theological College on Mount Sofia."
(Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography [UK: SCM Press, 2007], p.176.)

At that time Trinity Theological College was at Sophia Road, or commonly known as Mount Sophia.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Persecution against Christians; Perseverance for co-existence

It is very scary for me to read the recent declaration made by the Sunni Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, on the necessity to destroy all churches in the Arabian peninsula.

The Grand Mufti, who is also the highest official of religious law and the head of the Supreme Council of Islamic Scholars in Saudi Arabia, invoked Prophet Muhammad’s last words, “There are not to be two religions in the Arabian Peninsula,” as an injunction.

I did not know where to turn or who to speak to. I do not know how would the Muslim communities in South East Asia, especially Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, see the Grand Mufti's command.

This hostility against Christians is the most recent one among all that have been happening. Raymond Ibrahim has collected a list of cases. Here are but three:
Indonesia: A sticker on the back of the car of a member of the beleaguered Yasmin church saying "We need a friendly Islam, not an angry Islam," distributed by the family of the late Muslim president, prompted another Islamic attack on the church: scores of Muslims "terrorized the congregation and attacked several church members." Since 2008, the congregation has been forced to hold Sunday services on the sidewalk outside the church and then later in the home of parishioners. Not satisfied, hundreds of Muslims later searched and found the private home where members were congregating and holding service and prevented them from worshiping there as well: "It crosses the line now. The protesters now come to the residential area, which is not a public place." A new report notes that anti-Christian attacks have nearly doubled in the last year.

Nigeria: Boko Haram Muslims set ablaze a Christian missionary home. Occupants of the home, mostly orphans and the less-privileged, were rendered homeless as a result. Meanwhile, a top officer allowed the mastermind behind the Christmas Day church bombings to escape, evincing how well entrenched Islamists are in government.

Syria: The Christian community in Syria has been hit by a series of kidnappings and brutal murders; 100 Christians were killed since the anti-government unrest began; "children were being especially targeted by the kidnappers, who, if they do not receive the ransom demanded, kill the victim, including some who are "cut into pieces and thrown in a river." These latest reports are reminiscent of the anti-Christian attacks that have become commonplace in Iraq for a decade.
A friend shared with me this event that happened in Indonesia, where a church service is being disrupted by the blast from loud speakers set up by those who claimed themselves as 'Muslims':

What happened to the sort of mutual respect exemplified by prominent Muslim leaders such as Caliph Umar?
Whenever a church was taken over for use as a mosque, furthermore, the building was not allowed to revert to its former religious use. One of the traditions concerning Umar tells of his first visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. As the hour for Muslim prayer approached, the Christian bishop invited the caliph to offer prayer inside the church. The caliph is said to have declined, and instead to have stepped outside to do so. Were he to offer prayer inside the church, he said, the zealous among his followers would have claimed the building as a mosque. By praying outside the church, Umar preserved it as a Christian house of worship.
(Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement [USA: Orbis, 2001], p.274)
To the Christians, the body of Christ consists of the churches formed by individual Christians. When one part suffers, the rest are affected:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. [...]
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
(1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Emphasis added.)
I want to believe that Muslims and Christians can co-exist at every parts of the world. I want to believe that we can respect each others' religious observance and practices. I want to believe that we can acknowledge one another as missional community, where we take it for granted that both Muslims and Christians are called in their own respective way to proclaim their religion in non-violent manner.

I think these three desires are essential in giving reason and hope to work through differences and establish interreligious trust among ourselves. Therefore these rampant religious persecutions are very stiffling. One's belief in co-existence is constantly tested; one's prejudice is instantly formed. May the Trinity sustains me to persevere on in refusing to abandon these beliefs, in resisting the formation of prejudice.

I want to believe.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Ibrahim Ali and his 'Apostasy Act' remark

(First published on The Malaysia Insider, on 16 March 2012.)

The Pasir Mas Member of Parliament Ibrahim Ali recently said:

I think that a Akta Murtad (Apostasy Act) must be passed to handle the apostasy issue. [...] Presently, there are already Muslims who are turning to the church to find peace. [...] Less fortunate Muslims are not being helped, thus the Christians are using charity as a means to get close to (poor) Muslims.

There are two problems in Ibrahim’s proposal.

First, if the law is passed, it will surely be difficult for non-confessing people to leave Islam. However, such legislation will risk turning the word “Muslim” into nothing but a meaningless and irrelevant label to the non-submitting person.

Every Muslim understands that the word “Muslim” itself means the person who submits to Allah (swt), the God revealed in the Quran. Hence, by definition the meaning of the word “Muslim” is dependent on whether the person submits or not. It is meaningless to call someone a “Muslim” if he or she does not submit. Hence, the word is only meaningful when applied on those who submit. Without submission, “Muslim” is simply meaningless when applied to the non-submitting person. 

For instance, “Muslim” is meaningful when applied to Ibrahim Ali because he submits according to the religion. And the title “Christian” does not have a meaning when applied to Ibrahim Ali because he does not submit to it. So even if the whole world calls Ibrahim a “Christian”, that label simply does not mean anything on him. And to force the label “Christian” on him despite his non-submission to the religion is to risk turning the word “Christian” into obscurity. 

(If you still do not get what I am saying here, you can start calling Ibrahim Ali a “Christian”, and his reaction will make it clearer.)

That is probably the reason why the idea of proposing an Apostasy Act to prevent people from leaving Christianity has not come across the mind of any thinking Christian in Malaysia. They do not want to risk turning the word “Christian” into an obscure label. Ibrahim Ali, on the other hand, seems to be very enthusiastic in doing so for his own religion. 

Second, Ibrahim remarked that Christians are “using” charitable deeds “as a means” to approach Muslims, presumably, to convert them. It is obvious that this misrepresentative statement is the result of Ibrahim’s ignorance of Christians’ belief and practices.  

Christianity has been teaching the imperative to carry out compassion deeds to people regardless of religion, ethnicity or proselytising opportunity. This is seen in the commitment statement produced from the 2010 Cape Town conference, which comprised “4,000 Christian leaders from over 190 nations” (emphasis added):
The Bible tells us that the Lord is loving toward all he has made, upholds the cause of the oppressed, loves the foreigner, feeds the hungry, sustains the fatherless and widow. […] Such love for the poor demands that we not only love mercy and deeds of compassion, but also that we do justice through exposing and opposing all that oppresses and exploits the poor.
I am not saying that proselytisation is not part of Christian teaching. Proselytisation is as much part of Christianity as it is part of Islam. All I am saying that it is a mistake to confuse compassion deeds done from the sense of divine calling (like the one stated in the Cape Town statement) and deeds done in order to proselytise. 

Ibrahim did not seem to show any knowledge of Christianity’s nuance teaching on compassion deeds. In spite of that, he took the liberty to comment on it and, in so doing, misrepresented it. Or, perhaps he was too blinded by his own sense of righteousness that he simply unable to see that other religions are actually capable of genuine care for the less fortunate without attempting to proselytise them?

(By the way, this is not the first time his ignorance of non-Muslims’ belief and practices came to light. Just less than two months ago, he gave out white packets, which signified funeral gift, to the Chinese during Chinese New Year.) 

Besides, does Islam teach that it is wrong for non-Muslims to carry out compassion deeds to Muslims? And, does Islam teach that it is wrong for Muslims to receive compassion from non-Muslims? I may be wrong but I do not think Islam teaches either.

It is therefore very unfortunate for this multi-cultural country to have a member of Parliament who pushes for legislation that turns the word “Muslim” into obscurity on one hand, and disrespectfully misrepresents and continuously displays ignorance of non-Muslim beliefs and practices on another.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Religion and civil engagement in Malaysian society after regime change

(This article was published at New Mandala, on 10 March 2012. It belongs to a series under the theme 'Malaysia After Regime Change', as a contribution to the public opinion as we are heading towads the 13th General Election. I'm humbled by the editor's, Greg Lopez, invitation to contribute to the series. All the other contributors have either a Doctorate or a Master's degree, or both---I don't even have an undergraduate degree. Some of them work at top institutions in the world such as Cornell, Yale, McGill, ISEAS, etc, while I am just a student. Hence I was actually very anxious when writing it. God's grace!!)

The most controversial issue pertained to religion in the first six months after Malaysia’s 12th General Election was Bar Council’s forum on Islam. The event was seen as anti-Islam by then-PKR’s MP Zulkifli Noordin, who led an aggressive group of protestors to sabotage the event.

When asked later why he saw the forum as anti-Islam, Noordin remarked that,

When you talk of sensitivities of others, do so behind closed doors and only invite those in authority. Don't invite any Tom, Dick or Harry. You can talk about Islam but you cannot talk for Islam. […] I don't call any mamak chendol or kacang putih seller to talk about Hinduism, do I? That would only look stupid. I would call the priest, the authority and then I can get a better picture on Hinduism. […] Just because some mosquito group of Muslims start talking about Islam, they represent Islam. I don't think that is fair.   

Apparently, Noordin did not bother to check the fact that if not for the hostility showed by aggressors like him, the forum would have attended by Mohd Naim Mokhtar (Syariah Prosecutor for Federal Territory's Islamic Affairs Department and former Syariah High Court judge) and Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad (Director of the Syariah Law and Political Science Centre and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Islamic Understanding of Malaysia) as panelists. Neither of these jurists can be considered as “Tom, Dick and Harry” nor “mosquito group of Muslims” in the field of Islamic jurisprudence in the country.

It was due to the inability of Noordin and the like to comprehend the contributory importance of civil discourse for the development of the society, an opportunity for learning about Islam has slipped away. Just like that.

Of course to Noordin, he has always wanted to see himself as the protector of Islam,

For me Islam comes first. I am a Muslim first, a party member second. A Muslim first, a lawyer second. A Muslim first, an MP second. [...] You attack Islam, I'll be there, even if I have to do it on my own. [...] Whatever it is, Islam comes first.

Noordin is not alone. There are others who see themselves along him as bouncers of Islam: Ibrahim Ali, who threatened holy war against Christians and chided other Muslims who disagree with him as liberals; and Hasan Ali, who saw himself as savior of Islam.

While they continue to promote themselves as championing Islam, there are sections among the Muslim community that do not share their understanding of the Islamic cause.

For instance, Mohd Hanipa Maidin and Dr Mehrun Siraj differed from Noordin in their judgment of the Bar Council’s forum. To them, intellectual and dialogical engagement is the way forward in the building of civil society and contributing to the cause of Islam. To have operated like Noordin was to do disservice to the faith.

It is observable that issues of such intra-religious nature are frequently raised since the 12th General Election. Just to highlight some recent ones, PAS spiritual advisor Nik Aziz Nik Mat has recently condemned UMNO as un-Islamic, criticizing the latter along the line that it worships lust as its god; The former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sarcastically congratulated PAS for its willingness to consider accepting non-Muslim as deputy president for the party; PAS’ Rani Othman stated that UMNO is ignorant of the Quran; The differing views between Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria and former Perlis Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin on ethnic-based jihad; And the disagreement between the Islamic Renaissance Front with the UMNO government in the extradition of Hamza Kashgari.

As long as race-based politicians such as Noordin and the two Ali seek to seal their public image as the champions for Islam, we can expect plenty of unfounded accusations to be hurled around. This is what happened to Pakatan Rakyat since 2008. It could be as typical as racial discrimination charges (here and here) to something as novel as ex-communists trying to Christianize the country.

The rise of intra-religious debates is as evident as they are important. When each fraction of the Muslim community claims to represent Islam, it creates theological contestation that is good for the Malaysian society in general and for the Muslim community in particular in that it protects Islam from being domesticated and manipulated by any quarter.

However, this contestation cannot be left at that for it will degenerate into unhealthy pluralism where every claim made on Islam becomes as valid as every other. Or worse, the quarter with the most guns, bullets, and keris will stamp out fellow Muslims who disagree with them.

For that, one main challenge that has to be taken up by the national leaders after the regime change is the facilitation of civil engagement in two areas: Between Muslims and non-Muslims; and among Muslims themselves.

These engagements will play significant role in promoting the country’s socio-economic development through inter and intra-religious discourses. Among many things, this means that the State would have to guarantee civility in the society by providing avenues for these engagements to take place.

However, such providence does not mean absolute absence of restriction. The current restriction is designed to impress upon citizens that it is only under the UMNO regime that unity, harmony and stability in the society can be guaranteed.

This impression is notable as recent as in the speech of Prime Minister Najib Razak, “If we are to achieve national unity, the main key to it is unity among the Malays.” And echoed by Ibrahim Ali a few days later, “What Perkasa wants is Malay unity, which is a unity of the faith, a way of life, culture and Scripture.”

The impression underlying these speeches restricts society’s civil engagements in that unity, harmony and stability can only be conceived under political parties.

The new restriction has to change this impression. Instead of having the ruling regime (whichever political party that rule the day) perceived as the guarantor, the impression to uphold unity, harmony and stability has to be distilled onto the various communities regardless of ethnicity, religion, or theological standing. Each community has to own its role as the guarantor of civility in the society despite racial and theological differences.

Within such context, political parties have to work their way through the differences and similarities of these communities. On one hand, this reduces the chances for any party to manipulate racial and religious divide in order to rule. On the other hand, it enhances the ruling party’s nation-building effort that is supported by inter-community cooperation afforded by their similarities.

Much of this impression of civil engagement is already evident in the various peaceful initiatives such as the BERSIH assemblies, how the Coptic Christians joined hands to protect the Muslims while the latter group prayed, and how the Egyptian Muslims came together to protect the Christians when they observe their religious service.

The desire for civility seems to be shaping Malaysians’ political consciousness. Nowadays, the majority of the Malay-Muslims youth are concerned over Islamic radicalism in politics, corruption and lack of freedom of expression.

Besides, since 2008, Pakatan Rakyat has cultivated good working relationship in a civil manner. Initially there was suspicion over each other within the coalition, yet they have improved tremendously. In terms of religion and civil engagement, each community has learned to work on the similarities while seeking avenues for discourses with other parties.

Therefore after the regime change, there is high tendency for each community to continue engaging with other community for common cause of which sustaining civility in inter and intra-religious discourses is one. These glimpses of civil engagement need further elaboration, structure, and administration in order to have sustained effect towards the development of the country in relation to Islam. Muslim scholars and non-Muslim organizations, such as the Bar Council, can then work together without being threatened by hostile incivility coming from those who masquerad themselves as champions of the Islamic faith.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Soliloquy at thirty

When the great philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel was fifty years old, he wrote:
"I am just fifty years old and have spent thirty of them in these endlessly unsettled times of fear and hope, always hoping that sometime fear and hoping will be ended. Now I'm forced to see that it will always continue, indeed, in gloomy moments one is inclined to think that things will be getting worse."
(Quoted in Robert Heiss, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Marx, trans. E. B. Garside [USA: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1975], p.11.)
I find no immediate consolation reading this on my thirtieth birthday. Both fear and hope constantly dominate my days. And according Hegel, this will only get worse.

Two months to graduation and I still haven't secure employment. Without savings and a home, I have no idea where will I and the five hundred books are going to stay. The only resistance against desperation is a directionless hope. 

In times like this, I can only trust in the invisible. Directing faith towards the unseen; leap into the dark.

" is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)

That is comforting... at least until one comes to a subsequent verse: "...all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised." (Hebrews 11:39)

"None received what had been promised..."

Which criticism can I use to un-read this? 

Textual, as in seeing this verse as late edition by the Church? Historical, as in it is only meant for that specific context? Rhetorical, as in it is to support a point rather than being the point itself?

Anyway, do I know that John Calvin published the Institutes of the Christian Religion when he was twenty-seven?

.......I'm not Calvin.

Do I know that Rowan Williams obtained his doctorate by submiting an acclaimed thesis on Vladimir Lossky when he was twenty-five?

.............I'm not Williams.

Who then am I? Someone who is still completing undergraduate study when he is thirty?


So... what then? 

No one. 


No one..

I can't hear...

Absolutely no one! I'm zero... No achievement, no contentment, no legacy...

Am I depress?

I'm comfortable enough not to. At least for now.

So, what is there that keeps me believing it is still worthwhile?

People. Those who have decorated my past with beauty, love, and grace. And those who are still doing it now.

Is that all?

No, there is still the directionless hope.

Seriously, directionless hope? Why don't I consider growing up, start living like someone who is thirty?

That's harsh...


Hey, as Sean Maguire said, "I know who I am... I was a conscientious choice, I didn't fuck up!"

Am I living in fictional character now?

Am "I" not a fiction already? Look at my shoes and hairstyle as a starter. Aren't they are how they are because fiction says so? Look at the prices of everything that I pay for. Aren't they cost what they cost because fiction says so? I can go on.

Okay. But what about people?

Oh, that...