Monday, March 27, 2017

Not Debate, But Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Responding to Nurul Haqq Shahrir

I read the article by Nurul Haqq Shahrir (a member on the panel for Islamic law transformation under Majlis Dakwah Negara) with much interest and optimism. He has rightly pointed out the resistance among people from different religion to engage each other in respectful exchange. I sympathise with his lament. 

Adding to Nurul’s observation, I would like to highlight two other conditions that severely discourage, if not undermine, Muslim-Christian interaction in this country. 

Absence of Levelled Platform 
The local demography and religious landscape are not fertile for interfaith engagement. This is partly due to the positioning of Islam by the authorities over the past five decades that has made it an extremely sensitive matter for non-Muslims to interact with the religion. 

The recent controversy over Hadi’s Private Bill, the “RUU355” motion, has shown how unacceptable it is for many Muslims to see non-Muslims expressing their thoughts and concern over the issue. Non-Muslims were told not to discuss it. Those who talked about it were criticised and chastised. 

Nurul himself has written an important article on the RUU355, and has received much derision from fellow Muslims. Now, if a Muslim like Nurul is not spared from criticism, one can imagine how much more worse it is for non-Muslims who talked about it. 

Siege mentality and the sense of religious superiority have led many local Muslims to perceive non-Muslims’ engagement on that issue, or any other Islamic topics, as threat to their akidah, their religious rights, and the position of Islam in the country. 

This situation has been so for a long time. One can recall the mob demonstration eleven years ago that abruptly ended the peaceful forum over Article 11, organised by 13 NGOs, including the Malaysian BAR Council and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism. 

Such dismal condition is due to the absence of a levelled platform for all religious communities to engage one another. As long as the authorities continue to ignore their active role to provide such platform, genuine and constructive interfaith interaction will always be intimidated and thus deterred. 

Top-Down Prohibition 
The other condition that discourages interfaith interaction is the authorities’ active dissuasion for such activity. The authorities not only failed to provide levelled platform, but are extremely resistant toward high-quality public interfaith initiative. 

There are occasional closed-door academic discussions, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that such interaction is prohibited in the public. 

A case in point is the cancellation of the international “Building Bridges” seminar in May 2007. The year-long preparation involving 30 renowned Muslim and Christians scholars and leaders around the world was suddenly called off by the authorities just one week before the event. Our national leaders’ talk about the importance of interfaith interaction has always been mere lips-services. 

The reality is that the authorities take an active role in prohibiting different religious communities learning from one another, especially the Muslims from the Christians. Malay Muslims who want to read the Bible cannot even access the book in their own mother-tongue. The authorities deem that having access to the Malay Bible would confuse the Muslims. Again, being perceived as a threat to their akidah

The only type of interfaith interaction that is allowed in the public is the type that Nurul described as having “skilled debaters” employing deceit rather than rational argument to “win.” Thus, our country is plagued by confrontational and aggressive form of interfaith relation that leads to nowhere but continues to inject antagonism, suspicion, and fear among the religious communities. 

Way Forward 
Despite all the obstacles against Muslim-Christian interaction in Malaysia, Nurul’s article brings about a sense of hope, that there are still Muslims in this country who want to see constructive relation between the two religious communities to happen. 

While we continue to hope that the authorities would finally come to their senses, stop paying lips-service to interfaith interaction, and encourage constructive Muslim-Christian relation, we can begin small through our own sphere of influence. 

One of the most fruitful interfaith exercises that we can do is “scriptural reasoning,” promoted by higher-learning institutions like the University of Cambridge. It is about reading and studying each other’s scripture together. I had once been in a scriptural reasoning group consisted of Ibadi and Sunni Muslims, Anglican and Presbyterian Christians, and Orthodox and Reform Jews. 

We gathered for the sole purpose of learning from one another; how we understand our own religious text, how others understand theirs, what others can teach us about our own, what we can contribute to others’ understanding of their own text. Without pretension, deceit, and sense of superiority. We were there for constructive interfaith interaction. Perhaps, Nurul can suggest to the Majlis Dakwah Negara to initiate similar exercise. 

It is not a dismal situation that each religious group has much to learn from others. The important thing is the necessary attitude for religious people to seek knowledge and understanding. We can appreciate the encounter between apostle Paul and the members of Areopagus in Athens, recorded in the New Testament. The apostle tirelessly engaged with people of other religions, to even cite the works of their scholars, Epimenides and Aratus to bridge understanding. (Acts 17:28) 

Instead of futile debates, energy and resources should be channelled for fruitful Muslim-Christian dialogue that seeks after genuine interfaith learning and build relations across communities.

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