Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Beyond those religious debates


Seeing beyond those religious debates

Azly Rahman



Must religious dialogue be painful? Must it be greeted with hostility? Or is it a moot question - that the answer lies in the failure of our education system -- decades ago? Controversies such as the once aborted Bar Council proposal for an interfaith dialogue sometime ago, and the PAS-SIS quarrel recently offer us opportunities for dialogue, instead of a threat for silence.

Here are my thoughts on what is possible:

I have faith that we will one day be ready to appreciate not only intra-faith but also interfaith dialogue. This goes the same too for philosophical discussions and scientific debates. My experience conducting interfaith dialogues every semester in American classrooms gives me the assurance that we will be ready.

It would be good to know that eventually our corridors of academia are filled with passionate discussions on the self, the universe, God, and fate of humanity. It would be even better if we can speak of any religion from its unique perspective, seen from ecumenical, sociological, philological, historical, and phenomenological lens. The great cultural-philosophical traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikkhism, Confucianism, Daosim have their powerful educative value alongside with the monistic philosophies of the revealed religions of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. Each must be appreciated and studied in depth.

Hence, the core of each religious foundation is there for us to explore and to learn from. We need to escape from being trapped in the particular and liberate ourselves into explorers of the universal.

Of course this will take time given the nature of class and caste system we are in; developments that have impacted our consciousness. But evolve we must, if we are to see a progressive country emerging out of these ruins of communal politics, immorality of modern casino capitalism, and persistent religious misunderstandings. Ignorance is the greatest enemy of knowledge, as the Greek sage Socrates once said.

What is interfaith dialogue?

The aborted Bar Council forum sometime ago was a good example of how we will continue to approach inter-faith dialogue. There is vision in chaos, creation in destruction, and opportunities in threats. Educators of peace and social justice must not give up.

In a country such as Malaysia with a Centre for Civilisational Dialogue in Universiti Malaya, and excellent faculties in the International Islamic University, and in a country wanting to be known as a "moderate country with a Muslim majority", we are seeing contradictions. It’ll get uglier if we fail to reflect upon the means and methods of religious dialogue.

We do not know much what each one of us believes in and what are the rituals and practices of our neighbours. We do not know what scripture they read, let alone the meaning of the prayers, the doa, zikir, the pujas, and the mantras. We lack the knowledge of the fundamentals. This is understandable - fear governs our consciousness and directs our actions and ultimately reproduces itself inter-generationally. Religion is a "sensitive" issue, they say - which needs desensitisation, I would contend.

Back to the Bar Council forum protests and the PAS-SIS row. These are a misrepresentation of what Muslims are and a reflection of how we have approached not only dialogue on religion but also on other "sensitive issues" as well. In this environment and in this regime where exploitation of issues are orchestrated by opportunists at the expense of peaceful dialogue, we will always be at the losing end of education for critical consciousness and for peace.

Humanism and rationalism

We must go back to the drawing board of our approach to teaching religion in terms of curricular design and how to juxtapose or even infuse it with core ideas of humanism and rationalism. This will take another few decades given the complexity of our society and its present evolution of “half-bakedness” of hypermodernity.

As mentioned, I have had the opportunity to conduct classes on world religions in which my students not only are American and foreign-born Muslims but also Jews, Christians, Catholic, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics, and even pagans. At the end of each semester, they have a different perception of each other - more in-depth understanding of what could have remained antagonistic. We read selections of world scriptures from a hermeneutic perspective - situate them in the present and projecting them into the future.

Discussions on the Islamic concept of jihad evolved into a reflection on the struggles for the human self to explore suffering, violence, and liberation in all religious traditions. It should include discussions on media representation of the concept.

I often wonder if what I am doing is possible in Malaysia but I certainly have the confidence and hope that given the most peaceful way to approach it, a lot can be gained. Essentially religious dialogue need not be painful.

It ought to help foster deep understanding and dispel misconception of ANY religion. It ought to make us become deeply religious and to learn to explore what others believe, to respect them, to learn from the universal themes of spirituality, and ultimately to contemplate our existence within the context of the struggle between Good and Evil and to evolve as more ethical and rational beings - so that we may participate better as political and social beings..

Major scriptures

I believe we need to revamp undergraduate foundation courses in our public and private to include one that teaches the classics of the thoughts of the Eastern and Western tradition and the scriptures of the major religions. We must then bring theory to practice through experiential learning. It would be an extremely valuable experience if a Muslim can visit a church, a Hindu a Daoist temple, a Sikh a sanga, a Christian a masjid, and an atheist a gurdwara and to speak to the respective religious teachers/leaders to gain insight into the scriptures and the spiritual lives of human beings in a multicultural, many-religious society. The findings of their field study can then be used as a basis of classroom discussions for them to speak about respect and tolerance beyond cliché and mere rhetoric.

But then again, our university students are not even allowed to be involved in politics and to engage freely in public forum on political matters – how might this be possible with interfaith dialogue then?

We have a long walk to mental freedom and to a philosophical understanding of Islam and other religions. Unfortunately Malaysians are now known as people who are good at disrupting dialogues. I hope this perception will change. I hope we will evolve into such cultured beings. There is definitely tremendous value in looking at human beings through what they believe.

Education is about hope, peace, empathy, intelligence, and liberation - these we must use as a basis for a new design once we see major restructuring efforts under way undertaken by perhaps a new political, social, and educational arrangement.

Let us continue to look at possibilities in interfaith dialogue. Let education for peace and justice do that. In a country such as Malaysia wherein even Muslims are in conflicts with each other and with themselves, drowned in the sea of globalization of complexity and chaos, grasping for Light, we need to begin to be aware of the power of our evolution too as homo religiosis rather than merely homo economicus. With massive corruption, abuse of power, dehumanization via the conscious design of postmodern class and caste system, breakdown of local, state and federal governance, breakdown of family, fragmentation of the self through the onslaught of digital media, and the rude and rampant trampling of human rights – with all these we need to come together and listen to the voice of our Inner Conscience, the Inner Self, and the Self Within that cries to be known and acknowledged of its existence. We must do this as a nation and as an individual.

Ultimately, as an individual and as a nation we will ask this question: where do we come from?, where are we and what ought we be doing? and where do we go next?

From the boundaries of our own notion of truth, we will find the answers, comfortable enough to discover what ethics and spirituality means as they translate into pragmatics.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Dr. Rahman. Unfortuantely, our students and young, are not given the liberty to develop their consciousness along their academic education; even when they are in the free west (since they are usually enforced to be overly dependent towards their own narrow-based Malaysian community). Since they have been taught never to venture out & explore the wonderful possibility of diversity. Which is waht modernity is basically and fundamentally about. I remember, when I first went into a church in Montreal at 19 years old, and took off the veil taht was manufactured on my will; how liberating that feels. I didin't convert to Christianity until more than 20 years later; along the way, I was discovering other religion. But that's where began my long, both joyful and painful journey of self-discovery towards developing my deeepest consciousness. This is how it should be, our relationship with God is very personal and should be from complete free will i.e rational consent. Consent that should not be manufactured, which unfortunately, the opposite to that, is what Islamist ideology is forcing on ordinary Muslims. As in the case within our education system, taht also politicized unjustly Islam over young children, such as in dominating rituals such as performing Islamic doa, imposing Islamic dress code and so on, even in secular-based schools and within dynamic multicultural context.

Katharina Sri

Germany.

Tamerlane said...

Islam is big business. To get married you have to attend kursus, to go to hajj,halal certficate, have to do the same. All ritualistic. Reminds me of pre-Islamic abu suffian and gangs contol over Mecca. Hypocrites line their offices with Qurancic texts but still take bribes, still burden people with their nonsense, not to mention the lies that come out from their mouths.. All money money money. Theres no room for dialogue. Go to online forums for better chance to engage the other party. I learned more about christianity,judaism and islam online than i do with the morons here.

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