Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia is important, if not a prerequisite step to ameliorating societal tensions in Malaysia. However, I would argue that interfaith dialogue is itself problematic on two counts. The first difficulty is that only people of faith (usually narrowly defined as adherents of an Abrahamic faith plus a few major other traditions/religions) are invited. The other is that those invited are often from the moderate wings of religions and are thus more likely to be able to find common ground and be open to the discussion of interfaith issues. This, however, means that these meetings are largely marginal and, in the Malaysian context, not representative of wider society.

A further, and perhaps more significant, impediment to interfaith dialogue in Malaysia is fear surrounding how such a dialogue may be perceived by the (Malay Muslim) public. Backlashes against interfaith organisations in 2006 and the recent spate of attacks on churches, temples and mosques underline this argument. These gestures of a few have significantly obstructed interfaith dialogue; forcing the agenda of minority groups at the expense of meaningful discussion.

This is nothing new and unfortunately continues a trend of accommodating far right Muslim and Malay voices, sacrificing open dialogue. I take dialogue here to mean discourse that goes beyond the stating of two (perhaps opposing) facts in a civil manner and further than a discussion where everyone’s opinion is tolerated. The kind of dialogue that is needed in Malaysia at present is one that allows all parties an equal seat at the table – a round table perhaps that does away with (implicit) power structures wherein Islam stands above and beyond all other faiths, who may be equal amongst themselves.

Without testing the nation’s opinions on these matters and without allowing open debate, new government concepts such as the 1Malaysia concept, to unite the nation are doomed for lack of popular support. Thus, I would argue that only if people are allowed to hear differing opinions, and practice free speech for and against what they believe, is real dialogue possible.

As recent commentators here have outlined it is not an either/or issue when it comes to interfaith dialogue: Either people are for or against it. There are both severe structural impediments as well as popular misgivings. Thus, in a way, both Sven Schottmann and Sivin Kit are right. Whilst Sven places more emphasis on popular misgivings with the mixing of the religious and political:

“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.”

Sivian finds that social and political structures play an equally important role:

The biggest impediments [to inter-religious dialogue] are the social-political conditions generated by the concrete actions of politicians directly or indirectly, through the government institutions, agencies and media networks.”

Previous posts have examined whether it is the people or the politicians who bear responsibility for the lack of constructive and meaningful dialogue in Malaysia. I am inclined to say that it is both. Underneath the veneer of peace and stability in Malaysia lie elements of structural violence that preclude the nation from moving beyond an uneasy and unwritten social contract that gives Malays and Islam an exalted position, whilst tolerating others. The so-called social contract entered into at Independence is usually understood to have given non-Malays full citizenship (and a constitutional right to freedom of religion) in exchange for giving Malays kedudukan istimewa or a ‘special position’, also enshrined in the constitution. Islam and Malay identity have become synonymous; especially since the constitutional definition for a Malay is that a Malay is a Muslim, adheres to adat (custom) and speaks Malay habitually.

Retaining this status quo has been the government’s rally cry for too long. Dialogue is based on understanding the other, reaching out and reaching within in order to reflect upon oneself and others. I am, therefore, arguing for individuals to seek an inner dialogue with their multiple identities and move beyond the ‘either/or’ ideological construction of identities and embrace the multiple, the fluid and internal other. Incidentally, this is what Malayness once encapsulated in what seems like a long lost past. It is time to resuscitate it.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His first book entitled Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia is published by NIAS Press.

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