Whenever reports on the state of inter-religious relations in Malaysia find their way into the world media, the tenor is worrying. One reads of “body snatching,” ominous places called “faith rehabilitation centres,” attacks on houses of worship, and the atrophying ties of friendship and trust between the country’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Tellingly, whereas media reports from the 1970s and 1980s depicted Malaysia as a plural country marked by “racial” divides, these now appear eclipsed by religious differences. Editorials on Malaysian politics paint a similarly bleak picture, highlighting the cynical manipulation of religious sentiment by an increasingly authoritarian state, the “radicalisation” or growing conservatism of Malaysia’s Muslim majority, and the ensuing resentment, even intellectual “ghettoisation” among some in the country’s non-Muslim minorities.

Whose responsibility?

Reading media coverage of Malaysia, one might be forgiven for thinking that one man alone is responsible for this situation: Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia between 1981 and 2003. The complex legacy of his twenty-two year long premiership cannot be dealt with at the requisite depth in an essay of this length, but I would argue that the overall failure of an inter-religious dialogue culture to take root in Malaysia has less to do with elite machinations than with widespread, if misplaced, misgivings over such dialogues.

Nonetheless, as such encounters are thankfully becoming increasingly normal around the world, inter-religious dialogue appears to be gradually finding greater acceptance in Malaysia, too. This will also be helped greatly if the spirit necessary for such dialogical encounters, the attitude of “come as you are, not as I want you to be,” is respected. Because while many Malaysian Muslims appear convinced by the need to engage more substantively with their Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, animist or atheist compatriots, many others are put off by what they perceive to be unwarranted meddling in theological matters by forces hostile to their religion.

It is thus intellectual dishonesty to use fictitious, disingenuously arabicised terminology such as “ummat kitab” to seek theological legitimation for out-conversion from Islam. Of course, many learned scholars have argued that the act of leaving Islam must be distinguished from the act of treason, and such a debate is an important one for Muslim communities to have. However, foisting a discussion of so-called “apostasy” on calls to strengthen the much needed inter-religious dialogue in Malaysia is counterproductive. I wish to steer clear of the “apostasy” question that featured in some of the previous contributions, and focus instead on the actual instances of inter-religious dialogue in Malaysia – or rather the impediments such dialogues face.

The ‘resurgence’ of religion

No religious community speaks with a singular voice – including, of course, Malaysian Muslims. But that there are a couple of hundred, perhaps even as many as tens of thousands who have left the religion of their birth, should not detract us from the fact that for many millions of others, Islam matters more than ever before. Their turn to religion was of course cleverly utilised by the Mahathir government, which portrayed itself as a spirited defender of Muslim interests. But it was not public policy that led so many Malaysian Muslims, along with co-religionists elsewhere and, in fact, people of religion around the world, to become more observant of their religious duties.

Although he never had much time for public displays of piety, Prime Minister Mahathir had in his own ways strong sympathies for the abstemious and yet tolerant, open-minded kaum muda-suffused interpretation of the Islamic message which he had imbibed in his childhood and youth. He appreciated earlier than most of his contemporaries the rallying and motivating power inherent in Islam, and he understood that his vision for modernisation was best realised with rather than against the faith.

An Abrahamic dialogue

Although his detractors in PAS (The Islamic Party of Malaysia) employed various unsavoury epithets to highlight Mahathir’s opposition to the establishment of Islamic rule, at no point of his career can he be described as someone opposed to religion or even as a secularist in the received meaning of seeking to separate the religious from the social and relegate the sacred to the private sphere alone.

It is important to remind ourselves that Mahathir’s positive predisposition towards religion extended beyond his own. In many of his speeches, he stated that human relationships in situations marked by a retreat of religion from society – a condition which Mahathir had detected in the predominantly Christian countries of the modern West – become brittle and ultimately unravel under the burden of materialism and selfishness.

Humankind, Mahathir often stated, was unable to order its universe without reference to a higher being. It was thus, Mahathir averred, post-Christian and not Christian Europe that had “lost its spiritual anchor” and was confronting meaninglessness and decline on account of its “spiritual emptiness.”

While one must remain mindful of the many discriminatory effects of the government’s “Islamisation” policy on the country’s non-Muslim communities, it is important to acknowledge the deep respect for religion, in particular the Abrahamic faiths, which Mahathir expressed in this and many similar instances. Some of his views on Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other hand, are deeply problematic, but must be explored elsewhere.

Not a Muslim thinker

In view of his only rudimentary religious education, Mahathir cannot be described as a Muslim thinker. It is legitimate, however, to describe him as a Muslim statesman. Like many of the Muslim world’s great 20th century statesmen, Mahathir’s legacy on the international stage is far less contentious than some of the effects his twenty-two year rule have had on Malaysian society.

The politics and policies of the long Mahathir era are often said to have prepared the ground for the difficult environment in which inter-religious relations presently find themselves. There is some truth to that, but Mahathir also made some extraordinary efforts at building bridges between faiths – in particular between the Abrahamic faiths. In a notable division of labour, Mahathir appears to have left the outreach to Confucianism to his then deputy Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir was thus keynote speaker at the World Evangelical Fellowship convention in Kuala Lumpur in 2001 and the 50th anniversary celebration of the Council of Malaysian Churches in 1997.

Mahathir does not appear to have been opposed to the idea of dialogical encounters between practitioners of different faith traditions, in particular between adherents of the Abrahamic faiths. Quite notably, despite the odd lapse, Mahathir also regularly sought to educate Malay-Muslim audiences on the difference between being Jewish, Israeli and Zionist – differences that were becoming less and less clear in coffee-shop chatter.

Mahathir often argued that while religions were frequently part of the problem, in view of the magnitude of the challenges facing humanity as a whole, they would simply have to be part of the solution, too.

Addressing the big issues

While one encounters some trenchant opposition to inter-religious dialogue from the right-wing ethno-nationalist groups that have mushroomed in Malaysia over the past decade, many Muslim groups of a variety of hues and colours have warmly welcomed the idea.

Mahathir himself, while in power, personally fostered such encounters and frequently spoke to Christian and also to Buddhist and Hindu audiences, both locally and overseas. It thus seems inaccurate to hold Mahathir personally responsible for the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths.

The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue, in particular a more meaningful Muslim-Christian dialogue have been historically grown animosities and suspicions that will take time to overcome.

Many of us already involved in inter-religious dialogue in Malaysia or elsewhere tend to forget the salience of these animosities and enduring suspicions. Christian-Muslim dialogues in Malaysia are part of the much larger dialogical encounter between practitioners of different faith traditions that our world so desperately needs.

Such dialogues will be successful when they are attended by believers of all persuasions seeking to build consensus for action on the truly great issues facing humanity, including pervasive greed, the increasingly unjust and inequitable distribution of wealth and power, racism and hatred committed in the name of God, nuclear proliferation, violence and exploitation of earth’s finite resources – not by politicising the choice of an individual to leave or change their faith.

Sven Alexander Schottmann is a Research Associate at the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University in Australia. His PhD thesis examined Tun Dr Mahathir’s articulation of Islam as a “theology of progress.” Sven is interested in contemporary Southeast Asian politics and social movements across the Muslim world. He likes jazz, chocolate and sambal goreng.

This article is part of a series of articles under the theme, “Faith in Malaysia.”