The challenge of approaching ‘Dialogue’

Next, I would like to raise three concerns on the way we approach the question of interfaith relations with the aim to clarify how we may understand the challenge of inter-religious dialogue, and specifically Christian-Muslim dialogue in the case of Malaysia. These concerns are pertinent because often we may not be talking about the same thing even if we use same terminology.

First, in the discussion on religious dialogue, perhaps we need to clarify what are we describing by the word ‘dialogue’?

Which level of ‘dialogue’ are we discussing?

Is it at the ground level – a personal neighbourly dialogue between Uncle Ali and Grandfather Surin?

Is it the academic ‘dialogue’ between Professor Bakar and Professor Ng?

Is it the dialogue between the church institution and the Home Ministry of the Malaysian government?

Is it a dialogue between an NGO like Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) with the young wing of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM Youth)?

We can add to the list and have different ways to narrow down which ‘level’ we are focusing on. One may assume the ‘rules of engagement’ would be different at different levels depending on who are the participants and the shared goals -implicit or explicit – one has.

Secondly, we may ask what are the different types of ‘Dialogue’?

The contribution from the Federation of Asian Bishop (FABC) is helpful place to start as there has been substantial reflection on this.

Is it a ‘dialogue of life’ where the focus is on the ordinary day to day contact?

Is it a ‘dialogue of action’ where the point of contact is first when different religious communities work together and also reflect together on a shared project?

Is it a ‘Dialogue of discourse’ focused on theology and beliefs? So, besides clarifying the levels of ‘dialogue’ we are addressing, we also consider the types of ‘dialogue’ in operation.

One could even ask whether it is a direct dialogue where we are comparing religious understandings of respective teachings, or more indirect dialogue where we focus on shared concerns and common issues but drawing from the reservoir of the best our faith traditions and the lessons where we have not met up even to our own standards.

Third, and I see this as the ‘biggest’ critical concern because, for each level and types of ‘dialogue’, direct or indirect, there are different conditions that might facilitate or hinder the progress for either subjects or structures.

These conditions have an important impact on pre-existing animosities or suspicions, and also corrective and creative possibilities.

Put in concrete terms, even if we imagine that the Christians and Muslims in ABIM and CCM youth for example, have to at least some extent disciplined their psychological state of minds, the socio-political context that was generated from incidents such as the recent ‘JAIS-DUMC’ controversy, cannot simply be ignored.

In short, the personal or in this case, between two NGOs, while can be distinguished analytically from the political, one might even try hard to ‘bracket’ the political out for a moment, but the complex relation between the two still needs to be attended to, sooner or later. Therefore, the political returns. Or more specifically, the politicians return to the picture again.

The ‘political’ strikes back

Therefore, while one must not get too personal with regards to Mahathir, and after some critical distance, we may entertain a qualified critical agreement that Mahathir probably cannot be held solely responsible for “the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths”.

Perhaps we hear the overtone that, “We were all in this together” past, present and future. The implication of Sven’s argument suggests a challenge to the people i.e. religious communities is a welcome one but not at the expense of neglecting the political conditions that the people – religious or non-religious – live in and need to contend with.

We still need to look at the policies or structures during Mahathir’s premiership, and more importantly, for today, what are the policies and structures post-Mahathir during the administration of Abdullah Badawi and now Najib Razak, that are pertinent for our current situation. This is clearly political in both the broad and narrow sense of the term.

What I mean by the political thus far at least is the policies, the existing structures and also one must add the public articulation of the vision of Malaysia especially through the various media networks. Following the Centre of Dialogue, we could consider that at least ‘Dialogue implies a relationship between ‘self’ (in-group) and other (out-group) which is characterised by a degree of empathy, the result of which is to curb the severity of intercultural, inter-religious and international conflicts.” Now applied to the Malaysian politicians across the political divide, how have they fared in fulfilling their responsibility to facilitate the conditions where at least the kind of ‘dialogue’ described in the definition of the centre can be successful?

So, from the perspective balancing the ‘weight of responsibility’ on the people or the politician, the weight should lean more on politicians, especially current and future politicians who desire to be remembered as ‘Statesmen’ defined even in its simplest, “a wise, skillful, and respected political leader”. I would like to stress the whether one is wise and respected, it will depend on how the politician concerned carries out their ‘responsibilities’ mentioned briefly above as the elected representatives of the people. The final verdict is rightly up to the jury of the Malaysian public to decide, and perhaps with the hindsight of history a more complete picture in due time. It appears at the mean time that religious communities are engaged in ‘meaningful inter-religious dialogue’ in spite of unfavorable conditions.

Moving forward

After all is said and done, we still need to keep the conditions that enable or disable religious dialogue on the table for critical discussion. In that way, the people of Malaysia are then included in two ways, first, to have the potential and capacity to change the personal conditions, i.e., addressing possible uncritical inheritance of animosities and suspicions (as recommended in Sven’s argument). And at the same time, the people – yes, even religious people can then be empowered to address the political conditions in ways that will hold our elected representatives responsible on how they are helping or hindering the shared project of religious people with the wider civil society that is “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.”

I must confess it is hard to keep the ‘political’ out considering the grand vision for a better humanity implied in an earlier paragraph! It is almost a common mantra to hear that we should not ‘politicize’ religion. If that means religion must not be abused for political mileage, who is to disagree? However, with a cautious note, we are reminded that “Everything is political, even though politics is not everything!” Perhaps, in our reflections, we are tempted to simply ignore or separate the religious from the political since it might be too ‘sensitive’, or maybe what we really need is actually to critically reclaim ‘the religious’, and at the same time, we might as well reclaim ‘the political’ in the process. Hopefully, through confronting the issues head on respectfully we will then live happily ever after – yes, maybe inMalaysiathat is still possible.

In closing, I offer a counter hypothesis:

“The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue” in the case of Malaysia is not “historically grown animosities and suspicions” assumed to be in religious leaders or religious people.

On the contrary, the biggest impediments are the social-political conditions generated by the concrete actions of politicians directly or indirectly, through the government institutions, agencies and media networks.

Over to you now – the ones who have the ability to respond – the people!

P.S. perhaps the politicians too?

Sivin Kit is a founding member of Friends in Conversation and one of the initiators of the Micah Mandate. He served as the pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church from 2000 to 2010 and has been actively engaged in civil society in Malaysia since 2007. Currently, he is pursuing his Ph.D in Religion, Ethics and Society at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. Sivin is addicted to potato chips and thinks the new “Battlestar Galactica” is educational.

Part 1 of this article is HERE

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